More Than a History Lesson: A Review of ’12 Years a Slave’

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  • The year is 1841. A considerable percentage of the African American race is found in the bondage of southern plantations. But in Saratoga, New York, a black family lives in a racially mixed community, roaming freely throughout the town. There is an heir of respect for a man referred to as “Mr. Northup” by his white counterparts. Solomon Northup was a known family man of his town, an educated tradesman with a strong affinity for the fine arts. He pleases the crowd with his orchestral melodies at parties, and his wife and children are direct reflections of his strength, dignity, poise and manner. Solomon Northup was free.

    That is, until April 6, 1841.

    That’s the day that Solomon Northup was lured by two men through the promises of high wages if he performed the one act that brought him the most peace, playing the violin. As the story goes in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave”, Northup awakened in a dark silent dungeon, chained like an animal, awaiting a series of beatings, abuse, servitude and survival. He was undoubtedly now a slave. Stripped of his dignified identity, Northup was renamed “Platt Hamilton” by his captors, who made a small profit from his illegal entrapment.

    “12 Years A Slave” by Steve McQueen stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsy), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps), Brad Pitt (Bass), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw), Kelsey Scott (Anne Northup) and Rob Steinberg (Parker). The film releases today in select theaters nationwide.

    McQueen’s brilliant screenplay adaptation is based upon the autobiography released by the real Solomon Northup in 1853, just several months after he was redeemed from the hell of which he had been condemned for, nearly 12 years.

    The life of Solomon Northup prior to his captivity is a vision unlike the many stories that generations of blacks have faced about their ancestors. Though he was born during a time in which one’s freedom required personal papers and documented authenticity, Northup’s life was a dream in itself for those who worked the harsh fields and plantation grounds in the South. To be torn from that life of freedom – the only lifestyle he knew – kidnapped, and thrown into an environment suitable for livestock was an unspeakable act of cruelty. As I watched each scene carefully unfold, my feet felt the dirt of the plantation grounds and the prickling of the cotton plants on my fingertips. The realism of the setting and careful camera angles put me in the barn with remnants of cotton at my feet, at the end of the lash and at the edge of emotion with each moment of transition.

    The mastery of “12 Years A Slave” along with Ejiofor’s ability to convey the stages of Northup, who, like anyone taken from their rightful place would exhibit – confusion, anger, disbelief, despair, hope, disappointment and slight acceptance, made this an encapsulating project.

    In the midst of the many press interviews and Hollywood premieres, I was able to catch up with actress and writer Kelsey Scott, who stars as Anne Northup, Solomon’s wife. Scott, a graduate of Florida A&M University, took me through her own journey with “12 Years A Slave”, from casting to private conversations with her co-star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, in preparation for an intimate scene that needed their expression and emotion more than their voices.

    I’m still floored that [as you said] that this was a little known black history fact.

    My responsibility, I think, to this woman and to Solomon’s story, was to as accurately as possible, convey that he had a good life, he had a good, free, life…and establishing that base. Because It’s one thing to talk about being abducted and sold into slavery…but to see how good his life was before that and then see that, I think it makes it, um, that much scarier. -Kelsey Scott

    Scott equates the story of Solomon to the present-day prison system, holding inmates who could be falsely imprisoned. The impact that the change could have on one’s psyche is unfathomable.

    On Monday, October 14, 2013, the Director’s Guild of America held an invitation-only red carpet premiere for the film in West Hollywood. Among those on the red carpet was cast member Rob Steinberg, who stars as Cephas Parker, a very significant white Saratoga storekeeper who knew the main character as “Mr. Northup,” a simple, yet complex identity and a significant person of his life. Though this is slightly different from the true account within Northup’s novel text, the impact of their reunion at the climax of the film was nothing short of spectacular.

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