John Ridley’s screenplay spares us nothing: we are eyewitnesses to one brutal injustice after another, from the time Northup is duped into traveling to Washington with a pair of sharpsters to the moment he discovers the horrible truth: he has been sold down the river and there is no one who can help him. His first master, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a civilized Southerner who appreciates his new slave’s talents, until a zealous and hateful overseer (Paul Dano) stirs up trouble. Northup is then sold to a mercurial plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) who makes his life a living hell and mistreats virtually everyone around him, from his spiteful wife (Sarah Paulson) to a young and vulnerable female slave (Lupita Nyong’o). The performances are as vivid as the Southern setting.
There is nothing we can do to change this terrible chapter in American history. We not only flinch at the suffering inflicted on these slaves but feel a vicarious sense of shame. How could anyone be so inhumane…and how could such behavior be tolerated? The film also poses some provocative questions. Could Northup have struggled harder to assert his status as a free man? Sadly, the answer is no. Was it wise for him to allow his masters to know that he was educated and even refined? This is a trickier matter that the movie deals with head-on.
Watching a young woman being whipped within an inch of her life or a man forced to hang by a noose overnight with his toes barely touching the ground is (needless to say) hard to take. This is usually the stuff of blood-and-thunder melodrama; it’s validated in this case because the story is true, but that doesn’t make those scenes any less robust or difficult to watch. I suppose the takeaway is to never lose hope, as Solomon Northup ultimately survives his ordeal. Had he given up and yielded to despair he wouldn't have had a chance of being rescued…yet he is the only character we meet who attains anything approaching a “happy” ending.
Hatred is still alive and well in these United States, and it is vital that we never forget how otherwise intelligent people allowed slavery and its attendant cruelty to thrive. This is why it’s important for a film like 12 Years a Slave to be seen and discussed.