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There are some movies you know you're only going to see just once. The viewing experience is too overpowering, overwhelming, disturbing, and transformative for you to go through it again. That's the feeling you may have after seeing 12 Years a Slave, a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford, Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, directed by Steve McQueen.
To say that this movie was onerous to watch from beginning to end is an understatement. It's an unblinking, unforgiving look at America's darkest time period. Based on a true story, Northup is a free man living in Saratoga, New York, in 1841, with his wife and two adorable children. While dining with two men with whom he thought he'd do business, he awakens the next morning in chains. He's quickly shipped off to New Orleans and sold, where he is forced to work as a slave for, you guessed it, the next 12 years.
If you don't want to know anything about the movie or some of the more graphic scenes, please read no farther.
Though the film was so unbearably hard to watch, it's something that all Americans should see. It makes viewers feel profoundly uncomfortable to sit there and realize that slavery was just a regular, normal, profitable institution in Americans' daily lives. It forces us to confront and acknowledge this atrocity that was sadly a reality less than 200 years ago. McQueen and Ejiofor immediately grab you with emotional gut punch after emotional gut punch and never let you go until the final scene.
The world Solomon is thrusted into seems almost chthonic, an unreal, horrific dream, yet what he went through happened to thousands of faceless others each and every day, with no escape or end in sight. Edwin Epps, whom Fassbender brilliantly portrays, personifies this evil, this depravity and villainy, relentlessly beating his slaves when they didn't increase their numbers from cotton picking from the previous day and torturing and raping the unfortunate, helpless object of his affection, Patsey. Not only does Patsey have to deal with Epps' malice and unhappiness, Epps' violent, vengeful wife knows exactly what is going on as well.
Patsey is the true tragic heroine of this tale. If her plea to Solomon to end her life doesn't win her an Oscar, nothing will.
Some scenes were intolerably brutal. Solomon is savagely beaten when he is first enslaved while on his hands and knees. While he is enslaved with Ford, he manages to anger a white employee, who has a group come after Solomon and tie a rope around his neck. Horrendous minutes seem like hours as Solomon stands there, with his hands tied behind his back and rope still around his neck, tiptoeing in the mud, knowing that one slip could end his life, while the slaves in the background continue about their day like nothing is happening.
There also is one scene so graphic when a slave is whipped, all in one continuous, excruciating shot, that was nearly impossible to get through as a viewer. You can actually see the blood and flesh slashed off the victim's back as her raw screams and cries pierce the thick, humid Southern air.
But even after all of this, there is still hope in Chiwetel Ejiofor's eyes, a defiance with a subtle trembling of the lip, as he has his humanity violently stripped from him yet still retains his refined speech, manners, and morals. Just wait until you hear his first words when he is finally reunited with his family.
Plenty of movies have been made about slavery, but I don't think any have been this real, this terrifying, this eye-opening. But it's a movie that simply had to be made. Such a courageous creative effort on the part of everyone involved with this film. As a white mistress says to a bawling slave who was separated from her kids, "Your children will soon be forgotten." We can only hope films like this drive home that this chapter in our history cannot be forgotten, that the thousands of people who had to endure this misery, heartache, desolation, and gloom will forever be a part of our collective identities and psyches, no matter how ashamed we are to bear it. The majestic, what should be award-winning performances of Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong'o keep the spirit and sacrifice of these people alive, even though it's damn hard to watch.
Here is the trailer in case you missed it. Yes, Brad Pitt is in it, and of course he plays the good guy:
Would you watch 12 Years a Slave?
Images via Fox Searchlight