San Diego Film Festival presents 12 Years A Slave

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Reviewed by Alicia Glass

Studio: Plan B Entertainment

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Steve McQueen

Review Rating: 7.5

Based on a book written by a black freedman kidnapped and sold into slavery, and his experiences in the late 1800’s.

Solomon Northup is a fine upstanding black gentleman in upstate New York, with a pretty about-town wife and two fine free children. Solomon appears to be blessed with natural talent to play the fiddle, so when his wife goes off with the children to take in seasonal work, Solomon takes on an offered job as a musician to a traveling circus. This is a better job, better paying at least, for a black freedman in upstate New York than anything a great many of the other negro folk can find south of the line, and it shows when Solomon is duly kidnapped and sold into slavery. First it’s the cramped hiding in the wagons, then the atrocious conditions on the ship, and of course the humiliations endured at the dock and the slavers stables. Then it’s on to life on the New Orleans plantations, and the Hell that awaits there.

Actually, it’s not so terrible on the first plantation. Master Ford is a relatively gentle administrative soul, as such things are measured. He does employ a slave master, but the hardened man is about as fair as one can get in such situations. The trouble is the slave masters assistant, a jumped up Irishman who seems to be gunning for the slave masters job and has a hardon to pick on Solomon, or Platt as he’s now been forcibly dubbed. After several fairly small confrontations, the Irishman takes it upon himself to torture Solomon with the hangin rope, leaving our man to dangle and bleed, only barely able to keep himself alive by continuously digging his tippy toed boots into mud. This scene in particular seems to be trying to torture the audience too, or at least visually mug a great deal of them. The camera pans back as the day winds on, Solomon gagging and bleeding and digging his boots in the mud, while children play near him, women work at their chores, men mutter but lift not a single finger to help, and only one single person has the nerve to spare him a furtive drink of water. Bowed bent and broken, noone will help Solomon, for fear what will happen to their own skins if nothing else. It’s as though the scene makes one not ashamed of their skin color, but ashamed of this whole situations lack of humanity. Master Ford actually comes riding to the rescue, of the hangin rope at least. But Ford informs Solomon that in order to save him from the Irishman, he’s sold the man to a nearby plantation owner, admittedly a right hard bastard of a slave owner, but frankly noone else would have our man Platt, who’s managed to garner a reputation over this whole incident. Off we head, from sugarcane to the cotton fields.

Here at the cotton plantation is where things get really bad. A pretty little slave known as Patsy, always collecting more cotton than any of the other men, who dimples sweetly when Master Epps compliments her for it, has caught the Master’s eye, and his wife knows all about it and despises the girl for it. The slaves are woken in the middle of the night and forced to perform for the Masters entertainment, by dancing to played music from Solomon’s fiddle and sampling the Mistresses “largesse”. The Master is drunk more often than not, subjecting his slaves to ownership tirades, while his wife despises Patsy all the more for his desire and continually tortures the girl. Solomon is sent to a neighboring plantation, where the white Master lives openly with his free black wife, and any who speak civilly are welcome, to fetch Patsy back for the Masters drunken lust. Confrontations inevitably ensue, over a ball of soap of all things, and when the drunken Master can’t keep it up long enough to whip Patsy himself, he orders Solomon to do it. This particular scene as well, reminiscent of the climactic scene in Roots, flays pain of the human soul directly into the audience. One’s reaction to watching such a scene, whether it’s “Just kill her already, end her suffering” or “This is horrible and every last one of you should stop”, can tell you a lot about yourself.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but it is a fairly safe bet that the audience won’t necessarily see it coming. Brad Pitt’s film company Plan B produced the film, so of course he has a small but pivotal role in the film, as enlightened Canadian Bass. Benedict Cumberbatch is Master William Ford, he does a very fine job for the role. Michael Fassbender is Master Epps, bringing his signature manic style out for a horse-galloping romp. And Chiwetel Ejiofor is the pivotal role of Solomon Northup, displaying the entire gamut of emotions in a way that will make your heart bleed. I question the wisdom of having such a heavy movie as the opening night film, as I overheard that several more sensitive members of the audience had to walk out. Nevertheless, 12 Years a Slave evokes strong reactions and should not be missed.

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