One of the most important movies to appear in the current season, "12 Years a Slave" provides a relevant lesson in some of the darkest passages in the nation's history as well as a reminder of just how long a shadow that history casts. Beyond its relatively simple and straightforward story, it suggests the moral implications and the endurance of what Southerners euphemistically called their "peculiar institution."
Based on a true account, the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga, New York, in 1844, the picture chronicles a not-uncommon practice that continued until the end of the Civil War. A respectable citizen, perfectly integrated into the community, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plays the violin, earning enough to support his wife and two children. A couple of white men apparently affiliated with a circus lavish praise on his talent and convince him to join their troupe at a good salary for a short stay in Washington, D. C., which precipitates his horrifying experience.
After a dinner celebrating his success in Washington, Solomon awakens in an empty room, shackled to a wall, with dim memories of being drugged by his supposed friends and employers. A couple of white men deny that he is a free man from Saratoga, telling him that he is a runaway slave from Georgia named Platt. Initiating the long series of beatings and mistreatment he suffers, they ship him with a group of slaves down the river to Louisiana, where he discovers the terrible reality of his situation in a variety of environments.
Aside from the constant brutality, he witnesses the breaking up of families, children taken from their mothers to be sold as valuable investments, the absolute power that white slave owners enjoy over their property, what happens when a man believes he has the right to own another human being. Sold to a relatively enlightened master (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon works with his fellow slaves at the hard labor of lumbering, harvesting sugar cane, and picking cotton. His skill with the fiddle occasionally allows him to enjoy a few moments of respite from his work, but also increases his despair; witnessing the freedom and luxury of the plantation owners reminds him of the life he lost.
He suffers a great deal more pain when his owner must sell him to a psychotic plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who sleeps with some of the women he owns and orders vicious whippings for what he perceives as disobedience or laziness. Constantly attempting to escape or communicate with people in Saratoga, Solomon finds himself betrayed at every turn by those he believed would help him. After the long and terrible saga of his suffering, his salvation, when it comes, seems almost anticlimactic.
Aside from the obvious horrors of the peculiar institution, the picture shows some of the deeper complexities that slavery created in Southern society. The various financial transactions involving the slaves reveal something of the precarious and complicated economic structure of a culture based on a single crop needing enormous amounts of cheap labor. More important, it illustrates all over again the truth of William Faulkner's perception that slavery not only brutalizes and demeans its victims but also debases and corrupts the owners, that owning a human being robs the owner of his humanity.
"12 Years a Slave" runs a bit too long, mostly because the director, Steve McQueen, repeats himself needlessly and often holds his shots after they achieve their meaning, thus occasionally weakening some of his strongest moments. In several painful scenes he shows unflinchingly the bloody violence, the sheer sadistic brutality of some of the punishment the slaves must suffer, and the special cruelty of a master forcing one slave to whip another.
The picture serves an instructive function in our time, not only for its portrayal of the horrors of slavery in the 19th century, but also as the source for some contemporary phenomena. It explains the hatred of Barack Obama in all sectors of the right wing, the "birther" theories of preposterous fools like Donald Trump, the pictures of the President of the United States with a bone through his nose, and the sickening image of conservatives waving the Confederate flag outside the White House.