There are great actors who appear in critical moments. Their appearances are often short but their talents make their moments on-screen intense and often upsetting. What I mean is: they are convincing.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Amistad, Othello) is the brilliant British actor who plays Solomon Northrup, the main character and author of the slave narrative 12 Years a Slave which recounts his 12 years on Louisiana plantations. The book was published in 1853 and sold 30,000 in the initial runs. The book then fell into obscurity for about 100 years until rediscovered by two scholars from Louisiana State University who had the book republished in 1968.
When they reached Washington, however, he was drugged and sold into slavery across the Potomac in Virginia, a slave-holding state in 1841. In the holding-pen, he protests his status as a free man and his captor beats him relentlessly, even splintering the board across Solomon’s back. Director Steve McQueen has only given a portend of the nightmare to come.
Paul Giamatti portrays the slave-broker with the gruesomely ironic name of “Freeman.” Giamatti is too accomplished an actor to not play the part with intensity. The slaves are lined up for identification. When Freeman calls out the name “Platt,” Solomon does not answer. He approaches Solomon and says that he must be "Platt." When Solomon answers that his name is Solomon Northrup, Freeman slaps Solomon and tells him that his name is “Platt.”
Solomon is bought by William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to work on a cotton plantation. When Ford buys Solomon he also buys a woman who has two children. The woman is bought but the children are not.
Epps reads from the Bible to justify his mistreatment of the slaves. Throughout the film McQueen uses scripture in juxtaposition for the slaves and the oppressors; an exhortation for comfort for the one and justification for brutality for the other.
The lengths to which the slaves must go to survive is searing and de-humanizing. Alfre Woodard plays Mistress Shaw who was already a slave but had to sell herself again in order to gain the interest and “affection” of the slave-owner named Shaw. If not an escape from slavery, it is at least an escape from the fields and the brutality.
It is a young woman named Patsey, however, who breaks your heart. She is portrayed by the charming Lupita Nyong’o in her first film role and she is magnificent. She is so delicate, so fragile and it makes the brutality so much worse.
Late one night, Epps rapes the sweet young woman. After his departure, she goes to Epps and begs for him to drown her which Epps, of course, cannot do. Her pleading and her cry for the mercy of death are too much to bear. And it only gets worse.
In one of the most broadcast and most memorable scenes of the movie, Patsey has gone to visit the Shaw plantation where she received a gift of a small bit of soap. She tells Epps that she smells so bad that she makes herself gag and she only wanted the feeling of being clean; she wanted some small shred of dignity and even that is denied her.
She is secured to the whipping post and Epps orders Solomon to lash her with the whip. She tells Solomon that she would rather it be from him than from Epps but Solomon cannot whip her as ferociously as Epps demands. Epps seizes the whip from him.
Later in the slave house, as the women are trying to tend to Patsey’s wounds, the bloodied girl looks up at Solomon and asks the question with only her eyes. “Why did you make me live for this?”
Solomon was a violinist. His musical skills had gotten him some occasional favor but even that was too much for him to hold. In despair, he breaks his violin. In another powerful scene surrounding the funeral of a fellow-slave, as the assembled slaves sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll”, Solomon joins the singing for the first time and adopts the message of the song with his own tenacity. “Roll Jordan, roll /Roll Jordan, roll/ I want to go to heaven when I die/ To hear Jordan roll (roll, roll, roll).” The song is done by John Legend for the soundtrack and it is powerful and it is gripping.
As brutal as was the depiction of Patsey’s beating, as infuriating as was the attempted-hanging of Solomon, the most-gripping scene was one of stillness. The music has ceased and there is no speaking. The camera focuses on Solomon’s face as he looks down and to the viewer’s left. Using the “rule of thirds,” McQueen shows Solomon’s face as only filled the left one-third of the screen while behind him is only emptiness. He has lost himself. Then the most unbearable moment is when Solomon looks directly at the camera.
Who could withstand that gaze? Who could not be drawn into that fellowship of agony? How could I not be ashamed of my own skin color? And I am white.
The movie did not end there. But I have found myself unable to escape Solomon’s gaze. Even though Solomon was rescued and even though he found his way home and to freedom, my heart remained with Patsey and the 3,200,000 who remained in chains.