Fair to say that slavery didn't come alive as a shocking horror. We read little or nothing about the torments of the Middle Passage, about the cruelties of a system in which people were bought and sold without regard for family connections or about how much of the southern economy was built on the backs of people who were forced to endure humiliation and toil without either rest or recompense.
Movies haven't done much to clarify the picture. From Gone With the Wind to the recent Django Unchained, we've not had a story dedicated fully to describing what the world was like during the time of slavery -- and doing it from the point of view of someone who had been enslaved.
Now comes director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley from a book by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who in 1841 was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery.
Although McQueen has altered some of Northrup's narrative, Northrup's source material gives 12 Years a Slave an authenticity few other historical movies can claim.
This first-person account of America's "peculiar institution" maintains the formality of Northrup's language, but McQueen's images spring to life with troubling urgency.
Built around a solid and moving performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Northrup), 12 Years a Slave hinges on a hideous deception. An accomplished fiddler, Northrup was tricked by a couple of charlatans into traveling with them as a violinist for a circus with which they supposedly were connected.
Once Northrup left his wife and children in Saratoga, N.Y., his fate was sealed. He was drugged and held in a "slave pen" in Washington a few blocks from the Capitol. In order to survive, Northrup gradually learned to hide his literacy (he was an educated man) and to answer to the name a slave trader arbitrarily gave him. He was called "Platt."
Obviously, we're a long way from the devoted slaves of southern fantasy. Mothers and children are viciously separated; brutal whippings are common, as is the sexual abuse of black women. At one point, Northrup is lynched.
His tormentors are driven off, but he's left to hang from a tree, his toes barely touching the ground, a man dancing over his own grave until his then owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives to end his ordeal.
Northrup's life was threatened when he found himself subjected to an overseer's wrath. The overseer (Paul Dano) couldn't abide Northrup's intelligence. Northrup had figured out a way to get his owner's lumber more easily to market. Dano's character -- a man called Tibeats -- deeply resented any initiative on the part of a black man.
After this horrific episode, financial difficulties forced Cumberbatch's character to sell Northrup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a malicious slave owner who delights in abuse and who is involved in a sexual triangle with his wife (Sarah Paulson) and a slave (Lupita Nyong'o), who also happens to be the best cotton picker on the plantation.
For all of Epps' obvious evils, we probably learn more about southern society from the parts of the movie involving Cumberbatch's "kindly" Mr. Ford. Ford treats his slaves reasonably well, but he obviously accepts the institution of slavery and has profited from it. He's troubled by cruelty, but not enough to reject the system that allows it to flourish.
At times, McQueen presents us with tableaus that might have been inspired by old photographs, perhaps as a way of establishing tension between what we regard as "history" and the urgency of a drama that appears to be taking place before our eyes. A scene in which Northrup encounters a group of Indians might be the film's most mysterious, groups of outcasts who don't know quite what to make of each other.
In 1853, Northrup finally was rescued and restored to his former life. He was able to write a book about his experiences, and evidently helped slaves escape the South via the underground railroad.
As moving as Northrup's reunion with his family is, it can't (and shouldn't) entirely be enjoyed. The story of slavery isn't really about one man's journey back to his home and family; it's about all those who died as slaves, unconsoled by a loved one's touch, distant from the mothers who bore them and regarded as property in an economy built on acceptance of people as chattel.
McQueen, who previously directed Hunger and Shame, allows room for such thoughts. It's also telling (and more than a little sad) that 150 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a movie such as 12 Years a Slave still qualifies as a rarity.