In her book Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, Carol Wilson writes, "The kidnapping of free blacks into slavery in pre-Civil War America has been a topic frequently noted by scholars but not examined in any detail. … [But] the kidnapping of free blacks for sale as slaves was an all-too-common occurrence in the United States during the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War."
12 Years a Slave, based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, tells the violently tragic, but ultimately redemptive, tale of one such kidnapping victim.
It's 1841, and Solomon Northup kisses his wife, Anne, and two children, Margaret and Alonzo, goodbye for what they think will be a three-week separation. The well-educated violin player, living in Saratoga, N.Y., is then introduced to two men bearing a lucrative offer. Hamilton and Brown work with a circus in Washington, D.C., whose performers are in need of a violin player. The pair offers to pay Solomon handsomely for two weeks of work, and Solomon agrees.
But after they pay him, they drug and abduct him. One minute he's enjoying dinner with Hamilton and Brown. The next, he comes to in shackles, where he receives the first of many beatings. Soon he's dumped into a paddleboat … headed south.
Away from freedom.
Away from dignity.
Away from his family.
Toward 12 years of slavery.
En route to the cotton and sugar cane plantations in Louisiana, Solomon quickly realizes that pleading his status as a free man will only result in beatings. He also realizes that resisting is likely to end in death. So Solomon steels himself against his fate, determined to resist despair, to maintain hope, to return to his family again.
Solomon befriends a mother of two named Eliza. And the pair is purchased by a plantation owner named William Ford, a man who, though kind in some ways, refuses to purchase Eliza's two children. Solomon tries to comfort Eliza in her grief and give her reason to not give up. (It's a repeated theme, as you can already see.)
But there are very, very, very few consolations in what they now face. Never mind that Ford is more generous than many of his peers, even giving Solomon a violin at one point. The reality of their oppressive reality is one of grim violence, dreadful pain, rape and death. The positives in that morass of immorality and inhumanity? Again, that Solomon always looks for a way through, a way to keep living, a way to find his family. And that moviegoers are assailed with the superlative wrongness of treating human beings like animals. Worse than animals.
At another plantation, Solomon meets another young woman, named Patsey. He becomes a father figure to her, and works hard to keep her alive (and help her want to stay alive). When she begs him to put an end to her severe suffering (more on that in "Spiritual Content"), he just can't bring himself to help her kill herself.
Eventually Solomon meets a Canadian carpenter, a white man named Bass who's outspoken in his criticism of slavery. For example, when Epps offers Bass a drink and comments that he must be thirsty, Bass counters that he should be more concerned with the condition of his slaves. Bass tells Epps he believes that all men are the same in the eyes of God. He rejects the commonly held notion that blacks are brute beasts, saying, "It is a fact—a plain and simple fact—that what is true is true and right, white or black alike."
Solomon tells Bass his story, and the man agrees to get in touch with Solomon's friends and family up north—which he actually does, at great risk to himself. Why? In part, he says to Solomon, "My life doesn't mean much to anyone. It seems yours might mean a lot to a lot of people."
Slaves sing spirituals as they work. And at a funeral they sing "Roll, Jordan, Roll," which rejoices, "My soul arise in heaven, Lord, For to hear when Jordan roll." A man concludes his prayer for the deceased, "God love him. God bless him. God keep him."
William Ford reads Scripture to slaves at a weekly church service. And it's Ford's faith that prompts his less harsh treatment of his slaves—even though he remains a slave owner and he employs overseers who are not even close to kind. (After Ford's men try to hang Solomon, Ford cuts him down and brings him into his house.)
Epps quotes Scripture too, taking Luke 12 out of context and threatening slaves that if they fail to do their master's will, they "shall be beaten with many stripes." But his "faith," in contrast to Ford's, is more superstition than true Christianity. An example: After Solomon and a group of other slaves are purchased by Epps, his cotton harvest dips badly. Epps describes it as a "biblical plague" and attributes it to the new slaves. So he sends them to work for another plantation owner until his crops recover.
Bass, meanwhile, labels slavery "unrighteous" and says that there's no justice in it. He insists that there will be a day of reckoning for slave owners. Another white man (a former overseer) says that torturing slaves wears down one's soul over time. "No man of conscience can take the lash to another human being, day in and day out, without being shredded," he says. And an older black woman says, "The curse of the pharaohs [is nothing] compared to what awaits the plantation class."
Patsey mentions taking a walk to "commune with the Lord." When she's brutally whipped, she repeatedly cries out, "Oh Lord." Solomon dares to tell Epps that he'll face eternal justice for the sin of whipping Patsey; Epps replies that it's not a sin because Patsey is his property. He claims that God has given him Patsey as "the blessing and reward of righteous living." Epps' wife, Mary, has another perspective entirely, saying that Epps' sexual abuse of Patsey is "unholy."
When Patsey begs Solomon to drown her, Solomon is horrified, saying, "Why would you consign me to the damned with such an ungodly request?" Patsey replies, "God is merciful, and He forgives merciful acts."
Epps rapes Patsey, an assault that's suggested to be habitual. We see explicit sexual movements from the waist up. Patsey is coercively compliant and unresponsive, knowing that resistance would result in beatings and/or death. When she stops breathing during the rape, Epps slaps her face, apparently to ensure that she's still alive.
An older black woman tells a younger slave that she learned early on that enduring a slave owner's abusive sexual advances was a much better fate than being regularly whipped.
Two scenes show slaves bathing with buckets of water and rags. We see male and female bare backsides, as well as women's breasts. At a slave market, several are lined up naked for inspection. We see nude male torsos from the midsection up and full-frontal female nudity.
In a crowded room used for sleeping, Solomon rolls over to see a woman staring at him. She grabs his hand and places it on her breast—though Solomon (who is married) seems at first reluctant to comply. What follows are explicit motions and moans from her that imply much more sexual contact. Afterward, she cries, and Solomon looks pained. Her actions suggest how desperate she is for any tenderness and human contact; her crying indicates she knows it isn't right.
Solomon and his wife are shown in bed together, clothed; they kiss.
Epps orders Patsey to be stripped naked, tied to a post and whipped after she goes to another plantation to get some soap to wash herself. And the man he orders to whip her is Solomon. Solomon does land the awful instrument on her back about a dozen times. (We see her face and Solomon behind her.) But Epps isn't satisfied with how hard Solomon is punishing her, saying, "Strike her until flesh is rent and meat and blood flow." He puts a gun to Solomon's head and says he'll start killing other slaves if Solomon doesn't comply. Solomon whips her eight more times, harder, before the enraged Epps grabs the whip himself. Blood sprays from her back with each of his lashings, at least 20 more of them. We see the last few blows land (as well as her bare backside and breasts) as he nearly kills Patsey. Afterward, other slaves tend to Patsey's unimaginably injured back.
Every day, Epps' men weigh the cotton his slaves have picked. Those who don't pick as much as the day before are whipped (which happens to Solomon at least twice). Solomon is also beaten severely with fists and a whip, which flays his back open.
Solomon gets into a fistfight with Ford's man Tibeats. The overseer responds by trying to hang Solomon. Another man stops the hanging—sort of. He keeps Solomon from dying, but lets him dangle from the noose with his toes barely touching the ground for the rest of the day. For perhaps three or four very long movie minutes, Solomon hangs, choking, gagging and spitting, on the edge of suffocation. In a separate scene, Solomon comes across men in the act of hanging two slaves in the woods.
A slave who tries to stop a rape is stabbed and killed. Epps' wife cruelly scratches and scars Patsey's face with her fingernails, as well as throwing a glass bottle at her head. Patsey is shown with one eye completely red and bloody, and it's clear she's been hit by either Epps or his wife. Epps puts a knife threateningly to Solomon's chest. An overseer repeatedly kicks a slave who collapses in the field, dying.
Crude or Profane Language
God's name is misused a half-dozen or more times, four times paired with "d‑‑n." We hear seven or eight uses of "d‑‑n," three or four of "b‑‑tard" and one or two of "b‑‑ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Solomon drinks several glasses of wine at a restaurant with Hamilton and Brown. It's implied that the wine is spiked with a drug that knocks him out. Epps is increasingly dependent upon alcohol. He drinks from a steel flask during the day and is repeatedly intoxicated. He hires a white worker who admits to having a whiskey addiction.
Other Negative Elements
Ford's wife grows weary of Eliza's continued mourning for her children. She cruelly tells the slave, "Your children will soon be forgotten." And when Solomon tries to plead his case to Ford, saying, "Master Ford, you must know that I'm a free man," the man replies, "I cannot hear that"—in part because he still owes money for Solomon.
Every so often, a film arrives that aspires to be much more than just mere entertainment. I'm talking about stories that utterly transfix our attention as they force us to confront some of the most brutal—and yet most important—moments in our shared human history.
Steven Spielberg's films Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan accomplished that. So did Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Lee Daniels' Precious. And now Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave does too.
It delivers a riveting, shocking and heartbreaking glimpse into the practices of slavery in pre-Civil War America, giving viewers a documentary-like perspective while gazing unblinkingly at scenes of unthinkable brutality and inhumanity one moment, desperate hope and incredible tenderness the next. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Glieberman writes, "12 Years a Slave lets us stare at the primal sin of America with open eyes, and at moments it is hard to watch, yet it's a movie of such humanity and grace that at every moment, you feel you're seeing something essential."
There's no question that this is one of the most searingly intense portraits of slavery ever committed to film, and that it exercises the brutality seen onscreen to bludgeon slavery's grim, cruel and conscience-less degradation. It's certainly worthy of the critical plaudits it's receiving.
But I'd strongly suggest that this film, as important as its subject matter is, is equally worthy of careful and critical consideration regarding whether or not exposure to such violent and sexual images of degradation is necessary (or profitable) to understand how horrific such things were … and still are even in our modern world.