Review: 12 Years a Slave (Bait and Switch)

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Based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave begins in upstate New York, 1841. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a fiddler by trade, follows two men to the nation’s capitol for work and is drugged and sold into slavery. Within eyeshot of the White House his captors whip his whitest shirt to bloody shreds before giving him the dull flax of an owned man. Others enter, also intended for sale, and their conspiring reveals experience: one says obedience is survival, another is muzzled, but Northrup isn’t fighting the same battle they are. He’s a free man who knows the world to be a protected and righteous place; where he comes from men aren’t muzzled. While the kidnapped men and women fear death, Northup fears abandoning his family and begs his jailors to show better judgment.

A Christian gentleman (Benedict Cumberbatch) buys Northup despite a guilty conscience. Cumberbatch’s downcast eyes act like a cue for the slave broker (Paul Giamatti), whose brand of dehumanization is uniquely upscale. He plays it callous, like his inhumanity is there to puts ease in the soft bellies of his customers. Outright cruelty is often outsourced here; Paul Dano as Cumberbatch’s bent slave manager is another example—the obvious exploitation happens in the middle management. The Christian plantation owner may be upstanding but he’s as complicit as the society that produced him, and in his performance, Cumberbatch hides clues about how good people perpetuated a bad system. This isn’t to say the system didn’t have plenty of villains. Cue Michael Fassbender who plays a “nigger breaking” plantation owner like a tormented supremacist, racked with insecurity and armed with property.

Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) likes stories about men facing impassible obstacles, and with 12 Years a Slave he’s dealing with race and servitude, but he’s selling it with something more accessible than any of the recent titles offering the same. While Django Unchained lured with a revenge fantasy and The Butler led with relevance, 12 Years a Slave is a parable about the fragility of the middle class. Northup’s education, community standing and establishment in his career field were no match for an economic system (slavery) that swallowed all who faced it. Every character, from plantation owners, to middle managers, to pirates and resellers is pressured from multiple sides. Sure there are bad people but skin trades only takes prisoners.

McQueen depicts the emotional vacancy of the slave trade primarily through economies: Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson as Michael Fassbender’s wife) is brutal to the slave her husband regularly rapes. She un-mans her husband in front of the slaves. He loads his favorite slave’s cotton bundle to emasculate the cotton-picking menfolk. All actions happen as if an answer to a regularly lobbed question, and widening the lens only reveals that the system extends to every house. Alfre Woodard, as the favorite slave of a neighboring house, knows she’s blessed to have servants. As she sips her tea she predicts the hell that awaits the Plantation Class. The fact she can afford to speak quietly of humanity is its own paradoxical relief.

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