Chiwetel Ejiofor commands the screen in 12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Alfre Woodard. Rated 14A.
In South Africa, the long-running Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped force people to examine what happened during that country’s apartheid period, and perhaps even why. There has been zero reckoning in the United States, a nation founded—alongside lofty principles, of course—on a two-front war against indigenous people and whole populations stolen from Africa.
Before America’s Civil War, slavery was intensely discussed, both as a moral crisis and a means of cheap economy in the South, although the voices most seldom heard were those of the slaves themselves. One exception was a first-person narrative by Solomon Northup, a freeborn African-American of substance who was abducted in Washington, D.C., and shipped to Louisiana as free labour. (Ever wonder where the expression “sold down the river” came from?)
It says much about modern history that his instant bestseller was then out of print for a hundred years. Rediscovered at the height of the U.S. civil-rights era, it has now been transformed into an unforgettable cinematic experience by writer John Ridley and director Steve McQueen, who kept the book’s King James–era language intact—one of the few distancing devices allowed by a filmmaker who spared no discomforting indignities in his previous efforts, Hunger and Shame.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian background (seen in things as varied as Children of Men and Kinky Boots), plays Northup, drugged, chained, renamed, and put through a wringer of endless degradations. McQueen regular Michael Fassbender is the tale’s Simon Legree (chief villain of the contemporaneous Uncle Tom’s Cabin), a Louisiana plantation owner named Epps who whips, rapes, and kills slaves for sport and to confirm dominance.
One could argue that Epps’s psychopathic extremity fits with the “bad apples” excuse that the Paula Deens of this world rely on for their Gone With the Wind view of the gallant South. But Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and Alfre Woodard also show up as people compromised by entrenched evil in more nuanced ways. Still, it’s Ejiofor who commands our attention, less because of his inherently noble bearing than for his ability to convey the voice of the ordinary man forced to endure inhumanity that left—and still leaves—far too many silent.