“12 Years a Slave”: A Nickell-odeon Review

November 19, 2013

This is not a movie to enjoy, but it is one that will amply repay one’s time spent watching it.

12 Years a Slave is not just another movie about the pre-Civil War South, but an eye-opening recreation of an obscenely horrific era of American history. It is based on the real life of Solomon Northup, a free-black musician and family man in Saratoga Springs, New York, who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841.

Other such cases are known, including one of a free black named George Washington Williams, who was abducted and sold into my home county of Morgan in Kentucky in 1849. (Sold again, he escaped to Ohio but was returned to Kentucky and lodged in the Mason County jail. There, hearteningly, eleven citizens guaranteed his bond, and a lawyer obtained depositions from his native Delaware, whereupon a jury returned him to freedom. [Joe Nickell, “Slave Story,” Licking Valley Courier, Morgan Co., Ky., April 28, 1994].)

Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, written with the aid of a local writer, was published in 1853. Although a best-seller of its day, it was overshadowed by some other slave narratives, notably The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Having read Northup’s own account (reprinted, Barnes & Noble 2007, 2013), I can attest that, despite some liberties, the movie’s basic outlines are substantially correct.

Directed by Britain’s Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave captures the unrelenting realism of Solomon’s life as a slave—first on one Louisiana plantation, then another headed by an especially brutal “slave breaker” and Bible-spouting Christian (Michael Fassbender). Chiwetel Ejiofor should receive an Academy Award for his stunning portrayal of Solomon—even if only for the moments of his reuniting with his recovered family. Lupita Nyong’o is also Oscar material for her portrayal of the remarkable slave Patsey, who is savagely treated by her lustful “master” and by his jealous wife.

Solomon Northup’s powerful original narrative—filled with accurate, corroborated detail, and justly praised for its scope and depth—has been ably translated into a movie worthy of being its namesake.

Rating: Four wooden nickels (out of four)

Four Nickels