Solomon Northup, on whose autobiographical memoir 12 Years a Slave is based, was lucky by the standards of most of the thousands of “free negroes” kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Southern United States.
His release in 1853 and the story he went back North to tell boosted the abolitionist movement which a decade later helped destroy slavery in the US. Yet, after regaining his freedom, his colour meant he was unable to testify against his kidnappers in a Washington D.C. court.
Like Steve McQueen’s first film, Hunger, 12 Years is often difficult to watch, unflinchingly brutal in its depiction of violence, despair and overwhelming powerlessness. We see Solomon taken from the relative comfort of his life as a musician, carpenter and family man in Saratoga, New York, to the dark cell where he wakes up after his kidnapping to find himself shackled and in chains. His identity is bullied and beaten out of him. Given a different name to pretend he is an escaped Georgia slave, he is no longer a well educated man with family and prospects, but just a “nigger” — valuable only as property.
Because Solomon’s first owner, the Baptist preacher Ford, values his property and is relatively humane, Solomon believes he can gain his trust. Another of Ford’s slaves, devastated by her separation from her children, chastises his mistake: to Ford, Solomon is just “livestock”. When a white carpenter is about to lynch Solomon after an argument, he is only “saved” on the grounds that he is another man’s valuable property — and left hanging from the noose, his feet barely touching the ground, for the rest of the day as the other slaves work around him.
This is bleak stuff; rightly so, of course. Such things continue through the film.
Criticism of religion is a theme of 12 Years. When the preacher Ford, in fear of having to acknowledge that Solomon is a free man, sells him, his new owner is a “slave breaker” whose belief in the righteousness of what he does to slaves is fuelled by his Christian beliefs. And in fact, organised Christianity in the South did help legitimise and prop up slavery. In the 1850's, many Protestant churches literally split North vs South as slavery increasingly became the central question of American politics.
This personally-focused story is not, of course, a picture of the whole slave system.
But while Northup was very different from the vast majority of slaves, who never experienced freedom, this depiction of his ordeal — with powerful performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o — provides a convincing and disturbing picture of a barbaric American institution that it took war and revolution to destroy.