S2: The Black Elite (Outside the Box) – Highlighting Blacks in Prominent Roles in Film/TV.
Ep 5: 12 Years A Slave
The beauty of Black History Month is the forced reflection America has to have with itself. What is known as the “land of the free” was not always so. In fact, talk to most American historians and they can only go so far into the lore before mentioning America’s black eye: the enslavement of Blacks. Furthermore, the Antebellum era is easily the grossest period in America’s history. To not be aware of this dark veil in present day has to be a practice in willful ignorance. However, upon digesting 12 Years A Slave for the first time, there were practices in that era that not even I was privy to.
12 Years A Slave is based on a true story. This powerful work of art features a strong Black Elite roster and rounds out with stellar cast in integral roles. The true story of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free man in New York, living with his wife, Anne, played by Kelsey Scott, and his kids. His eventual kidnapping and being sold into slavery, during a circus tour, leads to his quality of life deteriorate until he his finally able to reunite with his family after 12 years. Chris Chalk as Clemens provided survival tactics that Solomon often goes back to in order to survive. He later meets Eliza, played by Adepero Oduye, a depressed soul, who is separated from her two young children as all three were sold into separate plantations. But not until he is moved to another plantation he is graced by the presence of Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o, whose intricate circumstances would grant her abuse from both the owner and his wife. Michael Kenneth Williams and Alfre Woodard cameo in two dramatically different spaces as Robert and Mistress Shaw, respectively. Robert and Mistress Shaw achieve their freedom in different ways, though neither are necessarily at faults in their decisions. As for the stellar supportive cast: Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt play the important White faces that make impacts of Solomon’s 12 years for better and for worse. The casting culminates into phenomenal representation of characters Solomon Northup depicts in his own novel.
12 Years A Slave truly shines in its language, or mise-en-scene. Directed by Steve McQueen, not to be confused with the “King of Cool” himself, this Steve McQueen is apart of the Black Elite. Working in tandem with director of photography, Sean Bobbitt, the pair are able to do so much than just tell Solomon Northup’s story. This film is without a doubt a work of art from framing down to lighting. No shot or angle is done without purpose. There is a particular scene where Solomon is hanged. Barely surviving by the tips of his toes, we are treated to a beautiful disaster as the location’s eloquence literally clashes with the horror of this man hanging for entirely too long. A hard moment to be apart of but an even harder moment to appreciate given the context. A part of me feels this was done intentionally as from beginning to end every scene is lit, dressed, and framed to such a degree it begs to be studied though the film challenges your grit.
There are many moments in 12 Years A Slave that feel like an absolute horror movie. The premise alone is enough to warrant fear on its own. Throughout the film, until Solomon is freed, we are about as scared, if not more so, for him, Patsey, all the slaves on the plantation, except that drunken Armsby fellow. The height of this comes in a scene with Solomon and Edwin Epps. After being tipped off, Epps confronts Solomon in the middle of the night about him trying to send a letter. Though Solomon was able to talk himself free, the scene is thick with various, “hot damn!” moments that should be seen to be properly felt. Patsey encounters pure horror on her own with her being whipped beyond belief, a scene of horrific disgust. Yet the scene is so pristinely shot, true cinematics will be conflicted to say the least. 12 Years A Slave may be a historical drama but one may fairly point out it could easily be a historical horror film.
There are many points to expound on from Bass’ own issues with slavery to the emotional roller coaster we accompany Solomon on. 12 Years A Slave breaks down into one of the most prominent cinematic works in recent history. Growing up, I was required to sit through repeat viewing after repeat viewing of Roots every Black History Month. With Steve McQueen’s 2013 masterpiece, another crucial piece of history should be thrust into the Black criteria. If slavery is indeed a black eye to America, the treatment and enslavement of Solomon Northup, a free man is without a doubt, one of the darkest shades of purple in its eye.
*One of the few bright spots during Solomon Northup’s tenure as a slave. As he does, we should never be afraid to fight for ourselves, for what’s right. No matter who our oppressors may be.