One day in the in the mid-1800’s, a musician by the name of Solomon Northrup, a free-born African American living in New York was abducted while traveling, and transported into the Antebellum South where he was drugged and sold into slavery. For the next twelve years, this profoundly decent man was asked to endure more than God should ask of anyone. Beyond belief, he emerged from the nightmarish experience a profoundly decent man still. Having walked through the fires of hell on earth – but at last a free man again – he comes face to face with the family he hasn’t seen in twelve years, and with exquisite dignity and humility, apologises for his less than elegant appearance.
Some eighty years earlier the English poet William Cowper proclaimed to the world, “We have no slaves at home (in England) – Then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free. They touch our country, and their shackles fall. That’s noble, and bespeaks a nation proud; And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then, and let it circulate through every vein.”
In 1771, Jefferson said of slavery: I tremble for the future of my country when I reflect that God is just and that his justice cannot sleep forever. Yet almost one hundred years passed before America entered into a bloody civil war to end the injustice of slavery.
The story of Solomon Northrup takes place against a background of unspeakable evil and inexpressible nobility and goodness.
An educated man, Solomon Northrup’s knowledge and intelligence are both a blessing and a curse in this new perverse world in which he is captive. As he earns the respect of a plantation owner, played by the always impressive Benedict Cumberbatch, by developing more efficient logistics in the moving of product along available waterways, he thus incurs the rabid hatred of a malicious and envious overseer. The conflict becomes so dangerous for Northrup that the plantation owner, sensing that there is a deeper story about this man – one that is not safe for him to reveal for an educated slave is a dangerous man – realises that the only way to save his life is to sell him to another plantation.
The new master is a cruel and malicious overlord. Northrup attempts to escape and is deterred only by the spectacle of a lynching that he happens upon in a clearing on his path to freedom. He is forced to whip a woman whom the plantation owner has raped – his refusal would mean her execution.
The noose and the whip are not spared in this telling. Families are torn apart. Yet miraculously this is an uplifting story. Certainly, no one would leave the theatre with the belief that humanity is inherently good, but it is a soul stirring tale of hope. There are those working courageously for justice. There are Southern whites who speak out against slavery, at great danger to themselves. How Northrup is freed will not be revealed here. It is a deeply moving scene and should not be spoiled.
Tremendous credit has to be given to the director, Steve McQueen. He portrays the scourge of slavery with an integrity and intellectual honesty that few could achieve. Every performance, of course including that of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, is worthy of high praise.
Whatever reluctance one may feel for seeing this movie: the subject is too unpleasant; the telling of it is a reprimand; that it will leave you disheartened about our race, our human race, overcome it. It is an inspiring tale of justice sought and attained, of what we are capable of at our best if we can but rise above ourselves at our worst. It will give a viewer a better understanding of good and evil. It will be a memorable experience.
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
Runtime: 133 min
Country: USA, UK