Synopsis: Based on a true story, Soloman Northup was a free black man living in New York when he is abducted and sold into slavery. Soloman struggles against the cruelty of man, the unexpected kindness of some and glimpses at the rarity of honourable men. He strives for dignity all while trying to survive and longs to see the day when he returns to his family once again.
Brutally truthful, the film spares no gory detail in recounting Soloman’s painful years. The torture scenes were long, violent and not for the faint-hearted. To think this actually took place, even if once upon a time, is utterly horrific.
Sentimentality is a recurring theme seen through out and should be as empathy and sentiment is what separates us from animals. Northup wistfully remembers the beautiful moments with his family as he carves their names into wood. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, Ford, cannot bare seeing a mother part from her children and disagrees with the tradesmen who says, “sentimentality does not exceed the length of the coin”. How discouraging that the core of humans can be so fragile and overturned with something so materialistic as money. Soloman is in an even worse state than the rest because he knew what it was to be free and having known that freedom, for a long time he refuses to be in the same category as a slave from his name, to the clothes, to the writing, until one day, a fellow slave dies and he starts to sing with the rest of them at the funeral, acceptance of what he is.
Sleeping in one room with no beds, very little to eat and tortured if not obeyed- indistinguishable from the way we treat animals. Referring to them as “niggers”, even when talking to an individual strips them of any identity they ever had and becomes as similar as saying “sheep”. The thought of the slaves being able to read and write frightened their owners as being literate is always a sign of intelligence and determination, so they deprived them of education as well.
Ford is the first master that Soloman encounters and we realise quickly that he is made of kindness, mercy and is a man of god as he recites the bible to his household staff. The scene where Soloman was on the brink of death from being hanged, standing there for hours and hours while everyone, including the rest of the slaves, not dare to help him in his horrendous ordeal, with Mr Ford being the only to put him out of his misery. While Ford does offer him tenderness, it is the bare minimum of what man is actually capable of doing- he hates in his heart of the circumstance but does very little to do anything about it.
Mr Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, represents the worst of humanity- from merciless beatings to rape, he is ruthless in his dealings with the slaves, only barely redeemed by the woman, Patsey, with which he rapes and has feelings for- but even then, he beats her when is wife urges him to. He uses the slaves for entertainment and forces them to strip in order to be beaten- all dignity gone. A massive amount of time is drawn out and stressed on Mr Epps’ story- perhaps that is to depict how common it was to have the misfortune of falling into the hands of a master like Epps. Additionally, even though the slaves are seen being treated like animals consistently, Mr Epps allows us to perceive something different: the slaves were not only treated like animals, but they were being treated by animals.
Bass, acted by Brad Pitt, encompasses the nobility of mankind and the rarity of that nobility. He insists on putting himself in the slaves shoes, working the hot long hours with them in the field and defending their rights as human beings when being attacked. Ultimately, this just man is the one to free Soloman.
These three white men, Ford, Epps and Bass were probably the three type of men you were likely to encounter in pre-civil war America; the kind, the ruthless and the honourable. By displaying these three characters side-by-side we are able to observe without great difficulty the contrasting nature of man; that one point in our history, the morals of man were tested to limits; will they feel in their hearts but turn away from the horror? Will they succumb to the animal-behaviour of torturing? Or will they be gallant?
Once or twice in the film, Soloman is presented with the opportunity to escape but he doesn’t take it. Sacrificing what is probably short-term freedom, for long-term freedom, he survived with what dignity he could posses as a slave until the time came when it was legally free of him to leave. Intriguing how at such unjust times, he still felt the law will come through for him and wanted to leave an honest man. As Bass stated, “the law changes but universal truths are constant”.
The ending was a bit abrupt I admit but maybe they wanted to emphasise the shock of his freedom? It was a bit disappointing to see that he got his liberation from the hands of the law rather having taken it himself. As he left, all he could offer the slaves he left behind was a hug and a look of pity and forgets about them as he rekindles his relationship with his family. It wasn’t an ending of victory but of mercy. He survived and that is triumph enough I suppose but it still felt lacking. They should have spent a little more time on the how Soloman went on to lecture and fight for liberty of his race and less time on the gruesome, torture scenes. This way, the film might have felt a little bit more empowering when ending with the strength of the best of us rather than the disgust at the worst of us.
Ultimately, a raw and powerful film on our growth as human beings from history. Watching this film has made me realise what a long way we have come from those treacherous ages. There is still human trafficking and slaves in today’s world but at the very least, it has become illegal and we do the best we can to protect the people of this world from the worst of humanity to this day, inspired by the heart-breaking but great history of our planet.
Verdict: 8.5 of 10 kicks
What do you guys think of the movie? Feel free to leave a comment 🙂