There’s no denying that time is an odd thing. I’ve had time on my mind this week, and the increment I’ve been thinking about is twelve years. Twelve years, even for the elderly among us, is no short stretch: it’s three presidential administrations, almost an entire K-12 education. Twelve years is the difference between adolescence and adulthood, or between middle-age and dotage. It’s the better part of a generation.
But for Solomon Northup, twelve years is the length of time he spent in captivity, playing the role of another person, afraid of being discovered for who he was. Born free in New York state, Northup was drugged and kidnapped by two men who lured him to Washington, DC under the pretense of offering him a job. He awoke in chains, on a steamship headed south, eventually winding up in Louisiana, where he was sold into slavery. When asked by another man if he could read and write, Northup was strongly advised to keep his literacy and status as a freeman to himself, lest he wind up dead. The key to survival, he was told, was to say and do as little as possible.
The year was 1841, exactly twenty years before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. This fateful period serves as the setting for Steve McQueen’s most recent film, 12 Years A Slave. Based on an autobiography of the same name, the film tells the true story of a man sold into slavery and later freed, but only after suffering a dozen years of unspeakable brutality.
For that interminable period, Solomon Northup was not only a slave, but a first-rate actor, posing as uneducated and docile even as he tried to fashion paper and pen so that he could get word to his unsuspecting family in New York. He took the name Platt, given him by his plantation owner, and created a backstory for the man he now was. He lived as Platt for twelve years, rarely breaking character. As the years passed, his role was one in which acting became life itself. But even as he acted, Northup never abandoned hope for a return to his previous life.
It’s said that a human being will do almost anything to survive, and during those twelve years, we see Northup endure and inflict inhumane treatment. He is beaten when he doesn’t pick his quota of cotton, but is also made to wield the whip against fellow slaves at the insistence of his capricious master, played with gleeful abandon by Michael Fassbender, whose character divests himself of all humanity right before our eyes, using scientific racism, property rights, and a wilful misreading of Scripture as rationales for his sadism and cruelty.
There are a host of strong supporting performances, mostly by solid character actors like Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano. Brad Pitt makes a brief appearance as Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter come to live in the South. Pitt, as a native Missourian, should be able to manage a more convincing drawl than he gives us as Bass, but I guess you can’t have everything.
I’ll leave out any spoilers except the big one suggested by the movie’s title. But ultimately, 12 Years A Slave is more than a fine piece of cinema: it’s a civics lesson that makes us claim a part of our collective history that most would sooner forget. Just as slavery did not end with the Civil War, neither did racism end with the Civil Rights movement or the subsequent election of a black president. The 12-year role played by Samuel Northup is emblematic of roles played each day by oppressed peoples the world over. But perhaps most importantly, McQueen and his cast do not permit a happy ending to whitewash the fact that the way of life we enjoy today was built on just such “peculiar institutions.”
(MOVIE) 12 Years A Slave. Directed by Steve McQueen, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, et al. Rated R.
(BOOK) 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, general editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin, 2013 (reprint of 1853 edition).