12 Years A Slave begins by introducing Solomon Northup’s life in New York. This moment of the film is perhaps a little idealized with the whites around him being too colorblind compared to their historical counterparts, but the film nevertheless conveys the foundation of a smart, talented and competent man -- a man who would in other contexts be considered the type of solid American who made America great – who has established a happy, respectable family life in New York. Helping this presentation is the truly compelling screen presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. Ejiofor is an actor who easily conveys emotion and inner thoughtfulness.
Helpless to free himself, Northup is smuggled to Louisiana where he is sold to his first slave master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup is forced to go by the name Platt, and has been warned never to share the truth of what happened to him or he would never escape.
On the surface, Epps seems respectable, but things are not as they seem. He repeatedly rapes one of his slaves and eventually has a child with her, despite the fury of his wife. He also abuses the other slaves out of frustration at his inability to stand up to his wife’s abuses of the slave with whom he is sleeping.
Why This Film Works
This film works on many levels. It is an excellent period piece, done in such a way that it truly feels like you are getting a glimpse into a world long gone. It has beautiful cinematography. Indeed, some scenes are shot as beautifully as if you were watching a National Geographic Channel travelogue. It has an excellent ensemble cast who actually fit their roles for once, rather than being wedged into roles just to get their names in the credits.
The other thing the film does, and perhaps the most important point, is that it seems to make no comment on what is going on. The film tells the story as it happens, lets each character speak his or her mind, and then leaves it up to the audience to decide whether what is going on is evil or justified, and whether these people are good or bad. Even with the slaves, the film doesn’t do the Politically Correct thing and make them all angelic as it demonizes the whites. To the contrary, the film makes it very clear that there are good and bad people all around and that, many times, those people get swept up in events.
All that makes this film worth seeing: great actors, great direction, gripping emotional script, and a film that rises far above the generic crap being put out today. But again, as with Lone Survivor, this is a difficult film to watch because it is so disturbing to think this really happened and that people can treat each other this way, and I would not like to see the film a second time.