Back to Show And Tell

"12 Years a Slave": The story it tells, a true one, is horrifying

A recount of one man's abduction into slavery

This tragic film is perhaps the most unflinching look at slavery yet. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk

Recommend Article
Total Recommendations (0)
Clip Article Email Article Print Article Share Article

A young New Yorker, a loving husband and father of two children, accepts a job offer from two promoters for a lucrative short-term engagement with their traveling circus. It seems legitimate: the man is both a talented violinist and a professional carpenter; both useful skills in any traveling show. After packing his bags and kissing his wife and children goodbye, the man heads off with his new employers, eager to make his fortune. Then one morning, he wakes up in a cage, drugged and bound. The man declares that there must be some kind of a mistake, only to be beaten and warned that something worse will happen to him if he doesn't keep his mouth shut.

Let's stop right there. Doesn't this sound like the beginning of a horror movie; something in the vein of Turistas, Hostel or Saw, perhaps? Honestly, if that last paragraph had concluded with "and then he discovered he was missing a kidney" or "and then a creepy little puppet pedaled out on a tricycle and gave him a horrible ultimatum: either listen to a 24-hour loop of Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball or pop his own eardrums with an icepick," would any of the events I just described leading up to it sound the least bit out of place to you?

Unfortunately, this isn't a movie. ... Well, it is a movie, but before it was a movie, it was a real series of calamities in one man's life.

12 Years a Slave is the latest from British director Steve McQueen. The film, adapted from the 1853 autobiographical novel of the same name, chronicles the misfortunes of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in the northern United States in a time when living in the southern United States would have meant he was someone's property. Yes, Northup lived during that time in American history when literally owning another human being was considered a status symbol rather than a crime against humanity, at least in the south.

Greedy opportunists looking to make an easy profit would frequently abduct black people from the northern states and sell them into bondage down south, which is what happened to Northup. It didn't matter if he explained he'd been kidnapped. After all, who would believe the word of a slave? The irony is that, even by the standards of that day, what happened to Northup was illegal. Slave traders could kidnap people from Africa and sell them into slavery; but doing it to their own countrymen? That was crossing the line. Not that Northup had much recourse even after he regained his freedom; blacks were prohibited from testifying against whites in southern courts.

Through the lens of history, this bleak chapter in Northup's life is ridiculous, revolting and hard to believe, but rest assured that it did happen. Ejiofor's magnificent performance coupled with equally brilliant supporting roles from stars like Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and others make 12 Years a Slave relentlessly riveting masterpiece.

12 YEARS A SLAVE, opens Friday, Nov. 8, The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, $4.50-$9, 253.593.4474

Read next close


Q&A: Kathi Wilcox of The Julie Ruin

comments powered by Disqus

Site Search