Song of Solomon

By Allan I. Ross

Autobiographical slave narrative depicts appalling chapter of U.S. history

Other writers have called “12 Years a Slave” “revelatory,” “brutal,” and “necessary.” It’s been grouped with the Jackie Robinson biopic “42,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the upcoming “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” as part of a wave of vibrant filmmaking featuring strong, positive portrayals of African Americans. Most controversially, “12 Years” has been compared to the Academy Award-winning “Django Unchained,” which was written and directed by Hollywood’s quintessential envelope-pusher Quentin Tarantino, because of the shared subject matter — slavery.

Certain elements of all of the above warrant further exploration, particularly the “Django” thread, but each in its own way does the film as much a disservice as it does forward the discussion. This makes the film about as easy to review as defusing a bomb; one wrong assumption or generalization and BOOM — you’re a racist. Or a troll. Or, you know, someone who just didn’t “get” it.

But let’s start with the things we know for sure. “12 Years” is a superbly assembled film featuring one of the most potent acting performances of the year: Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Solomon Northup, a real man who was kidnapped, stripped of his freedom and his identity and enslaved in 1841. Ejiofor serves as the membrane through which you get to feel the dehumanization of slavery — and is it ever painful. You can practically taste the pride this classically trained violinist must swallow with every sugar cane stalk he strikes down, every cotton boll he picks and every lashing he takes. To say nothing of the loss of freedom, which is too nightmarish to even allow yourself to think too much about. Ejiofor is a phenomenal actor, and watching his transformation as he slowly resigns him self to his fate is excruciating.

Ejiofor is flanked by a pair of strong supporting performances from Adepero Oduye, who plays a similarly kidnapped woman who’s heartbreakingly stripped of her children early in the film, and Lupita Nyong´o, who suffers from being the object of constant lust from her master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is appropriately cruel and merciless, but it’s here where the movie starts to show its seams.

In WWII movies it’s the Nazis. In prison flicks it’s the guards. In films set during the Antebellum Era, it’s the slave masters who are vessels of insufferable sadism. In each case, you have the low-hanging-fruit of bad guy fodder — and in each case, an opportunity to explore what really is going through the mind of someone who has absolute control over another person. In the year 2013, it’s completely unrelatable, but in relatively recent American history, it was socially acceptable to beat, rape and murder another human being. How do you justify that to yourself?

“12 Years” has a golden opportunity to get under the skin of the slave owner; Fassbender is one of the most exciting actors to emerge recently and with a slightly tweaked script he could have done something no one had dared put to film. However, he plays Epps as an unhinged alcoholic (and possibly schizophrenic), which is too easy of an out. Ejiofor works too hard and his character is too well-constructed for such a loose-cannon foil.

Then there are the creative liberties taken with Northup’s narrative. Streamlining someone’s autobiography is nothing new to Hollywood, especially to create certain natural storytelling beats. But when the truth — or at least the author’s account of the truth — is so compelling and the beats are already built in, changing the story only serves to dilute the stakes. The book is public domain, by the way — you can read it yourself after you get done with the film.

But maybe that’s the point of the film — this is obviously a discussion long overdue. Any piece of art that actually makes you want to learn more about true horrors of American history is welcome. To compare it with other movies featuring African Americans — regardless of subject matter — only heightens the “other-ness” of race, which is the exact opposite of what this film is trying to do. If “12 Years” can be compared to anything, it should be “Saving Private Ryan,” that rare movie that is just as effective in the classroom as in a film studies class.