It’s hard to resist comparing “12 Years a Slave” with “The Butler.”
Both are based on real men and their stories — “The Butler” is an insider’s look at the black American experience from the mid 20th century to about the time Barack Obama became president. ”12 Years a Slave” — which won three Oscars this week, including best picture — is an outright, unapologetic indictment of the heinous crimes committed against blacks in the Deep South prior to the American Civil War. “The Butler” has pockets of pop-entertainment respite but “12 Years” is relentlessly committed to depicting a world divided into slave-owners and slaves, privileged and deprived. Both cover subject matter of enormous historical significance. But “12 Years” is often too painful to sit through, and some scenes will haunt you for days.
Director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) pulls out all the stops as the story piles atrocity after atrocity onto Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man from Upstate New York. In 1841, Northup was in Washington, D.C., when he was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery, winding up on a New Orleans plantation with a hundred other slaves. An accomplished violinist and a carpenter by trade, Northup must toil in the fields from dawn to dusk, feigning illiteracy and hiding his New York origins, all for the sake of survival. Over a decade goes by before he meets a Canadian abolitionist who hears his story, and notifies his family.
In real life, Northup filed a lawsuit against his abductors but the case was dismissed, ostensibly due to lack of evidence but actually because Washington, D.C., law prevented blacks from pressing charges against whites.
Is the film out for revenge? It would seem so, as McQueen never spares the viewer in underscoring again and again the horrible injustice that built the foundations for America’s wealth. Northup’s suffering is doubled by the fact that until he was kidnapped he had been free, never knowing the weight of rusty chains or the nerve-shattering impact of a whip on his back. And now here he is, neck-deep in a hellhole of unending servitude and punishment.
There’s real rage in this film, the type that can never be assuaged by time or blunted by forgiveness. It’s hard to tell which McQueen loathes more, a system that gave license to keep and deploy slaves or the grotesque hypocrisy among the supposedly God-fearing, democracy-advocating slave-owners. When plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) quotes the scripture to his slaves every Sunday and claims to be benevolent because of it, the irony is so thick it nearly chokes you.
One question kept hammering in my head: How could Northup have endured it? It seemingly wasn’t through turning the other cheek or bowing low to authority, as other slaves advise him to do in the film. At one point, he says with conviction, “I don’t want to survive; I want to live!” This thought may have been what kept him going, as the days of forced labor melted into months and then years, without letting up. In the end, though, the most damaging realization turned out to be not Northup’s 12-year ordeal but that for legions of people, slavery lasted their entire lives, and for generations. If nothing else, “12 Years” makes sure we know that.