Tuesday, October 22, 2013
12 Years a Slave 
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RogerEbert.com (S. Wloszczyna) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review
12 Years a Slave  (directed by Steve McQueen, screenplay by John Ridley based on the published memoirs of Solomon Northup), which enjoyed a special screening at the recent 49th Chicago International Film Festival, tells the true story of Solomon Northup a free-born African-American from Saratoga, New York.
An excellent violinist, he was tricked into traveling down Washington DC (south of the Mason Dixon Line) to perform a number of concerts. Celebrating the end of his tour with his (white) employers, he was apparently drugged by them. Waking-up the next morning he found himself chained in a holding pen for run away slaves. Protesting his freedom, he was told by his captor: "Prove it." Of course he couldn't. If he had any papers at all, they would have been back in his hotel room. Since he was apparently abducted from there, his captor wasn't going to let him communicate with anyone to look for said papers much less let him travel back to his hotel room to search for them himself.
So then began the TRUE TO LIFE Count of Monte Cristo [IMDb]-like story of Solomon Northup (played with certain Oscar-nomination caliber by Chiwetel Ejiofor). After a few days of being held in a holding pen within the city-limits of Washington D.C., he, along with several others were clandestinely transported (today we would call it human trafficking) across the Potomac River into Virginia and then by ship to New Orleans where he was sold under the name "Pratt" to a Louisiana plantation owner named Ford (played by Benedict Cumberpatch) as a slave.
Now Ford wasn't necessarily "evil" but that makes him arguably almost worse. On the ship between Virginia and New Orleans, Solomon had been advised by another slave (who had apparently been a fugitive and now captured was going back to his previous owner) to keep his mouth shut about his previous education/skills. Still it soon became clear to Ford (and more problematically to the white hands that Ford had as the overseers of his slaves...) that Solomon/Pratt was no ordinary slave. Solomon had an education. Indeed, he had apparently worked _as an engineer_ on the construction of the Erie Canal back in his home state of New York.
To Ford, Solomon/Pratt's unexpected knowledge/skills were something of an "unexpected bonus" that he received when he purchased him for $700. To Ford's white hands however, notably to Solomon/Pratt's immediate overseer, the probably _illiterate_ Tibeats (played in crazed/wild-eyed fashion by Paul Dano), Solomon/Pratt's skills just made him an "uppity N" who needed to be shown/kept in his place. Most of us come to know that it's _never particularly a good thing_ to find yourself "smarter than your boss" but what if you're a slave...? So this could not end well ... and it doesn't.
Again Ford was not an "evil man" but one who invested $700 in his slave Pratt and didn't want to lose that investment. So he didn't want to wait until Tibeats and his "unwashed but white" cohorts killed him. So Ford _sold Pratt_ over to another slave owner, Edwin Eps (played by Michael Fassbender), apparently known in the area as being one willing to buy "problematic slaves" from the other slave owners in the area but ... (1) probably at a loss for the other slave owners and (2) with rather high-to-sadistic expectations of the "problem slaves" once he's purchased them.
So a few years into his captivity Solomon/Pratt has journeyed into hell-hole worthy of the above mentioned Count of Monte Cristo [IMDb] or the Old Testament Joseph or of the lead character of Stephen King's Shawshank Redemption . Does Solomon get out? Thankfully he does. (How? I'm not gonna say ... go see the movie :-).
At the end of the film, we're told that Solomon was one of the few black men who were abducted in this way from the North to be able to find his way back to freedom (and, obviously, he wrote about his experience in his memoirs). Not surprisingly, Solomon Northrup also became an outspoken voice of the pre-American Civil War Abolitionist Movement. His indeed was a remarkable (and remarkably awful) story. Here was a man who REALLY DID LIVE THROUGH a lot of our worst nightmares.
So excellent movie folks and I won't think of story of The Count of Monte Cristo [IMDb] the same way again as I now know of someone who actually lived through the tale _for real_.
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