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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Mar 7, 2014

12 Years A Slave Review- A Hard Look At A Dark Chapter In American History

WE’RE NOT surprised that Oscar voters chose “12 Years a Slave” as best picture over the other nominees. It has a nobler theme about oppression and a dark chapter in American history, portraying the pain, agony and suffering of enslaved blacks who are bought and sold like cattle to greedy and uncaring masters. This eventually caused their Civil War and no doubt it reverberates up to now even if they already have a black president.

British Director Steve McQueen based the film on Solomon Northup's autobiographical account of the dozen years he spent as a slave on Louisiana plantations from 1841 until 1853. It was the favored book of abolitionists until “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” came along. The film version doesn’t flinch in depicting the brutality that slaves experienced in the hands of their white masters. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “American Gangster”, “Inside Man”) is a violinist-carpenter and a free man from Saratoga, New York with a wife and kids.

A friend introduces him to two white men who are looking for a musician for their circus that will perform in Washington DC. The two men praise him highly for his work, but before he gets to return home, they drug him and he wakes up in chains. He is then sold into slavery despite his protestations that he is a free man. He’s forced to do hard labor in different plantations for 12 years, serving under various owners, until he finds an ally in a white Canadian carpenter (Brad Pitt) who was willing to help him regain his freedom.

Northup's autobiography was published after he got back home and sold some 30,000 copies. It was rediscovered during the 1960s and in 1984, it was made into a TV movie, “Solomon Northup's Odyssey” starring Avery Brooks as Northup. Now comes the big screen version that is more graphic in its depiction of how barbaric and merciless some people can be to their fellow human beings. But not all white men in the film is portrayed as evil. The exceptions are Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt who were both kind to Northup. The two men who embody the ugly side of human nature are Tibeats (Paul Dano), a worker on Ford's land who tries to lynch Northup for a mistake that he himself made, and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cotton plantation owner who even uses Biblical verses to justify his atrocities to blacks. The Bible can be used to justify almost any atrocity and this is the best example. Epps' view is said to be widely shared throughout the South before, during, and even after the Civil War.

Chiwetel gives his best in the most challenging role of his career. He runs through a variety of emotions with utter conviction from his early days of slavery to the days of his suffering under the yoke of oppression. The film’s final scene after his redemption will surely melt your heart.

Michael Fassbender (the star of Steve McQueen’s “Shame”, a study of a sex addict) is frightening as the sadistic and alcoholic Epps. The scene where he orders Northup to give the slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) some lashes will make you wince and is difficult to watch. Brad Pitt, who produced the movie, also does well in a supporting role as the Canadian who helps Northup regain his freedom.

Lupita has one of the best roles as Patsey who Epps calls his Queen of the Field since she can pick almost twice as much cotton as his best male picker. Patsey is a free spirit who dances in the fields and makes dolls from corn husk, but she’s abhorred by Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) because she is Epps concubine and inflicts harm on her whenever she has the chance to do so. Also featured in this movie is the 9 year old girl nominated in the Oscars for “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, Quvenzhane Wallis, but she doesn’t have much to do as Solomon’s young daughter, Margaret.