12 Years a Slave : A Beautiful, Painful Masterpiece (WARNING : SPOILERS)
Written by Maliika Walker- Island Stage
This morning I woke up, took a shower, and prepared breakfast in my own home. I then took out my tablet and proceeded to read. The fact that I was able to do these things today, as a free black woman, did not enter my mind at all. Today many of us live as free people, without any thought of the pain and suffering our ancestors experienced for us to be here. Now, imagine if we were in the era of slavery and you had to depend on your Master for soap to wash yourself after working from sun-up to sun-down picking cotton. Imagine if you could not be caught reading anything or that could result in 100 lashes of a whip. Imagine someone taking out a mortgage to purchase you, as if you were a home. Parents, imagine being separated from your children forever because they were sold to another owner and you had to continue your life knowing your children were out there somewhere and you could do nothing to help them. Imagine you starting a new job, but the day you show up to work you are drugged and sold into slavery and you had no way of fighting for your rights. Ladies, imagine being raped whenever your ‘master’ wanted lay on top of you then having the master’s wife treat you with contempt because their husband desires you. Recently I watched Steve McQueen’s painful, yet beautiful film,’12 Years a Slave’, for the second time and I was drawn to reflect on the freedoms we take for granted today.
’12 Years a Slave’ tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon, who supported his family as a musician, lived in his home with his wife and two children. Solomon was a man who walked thru town with his family, freely shopped, completely unaware of the tragedy that was to come. One day he makes the mistake of accepting a job offer from two traveling musicians at a circus in Washington D.C. They take him for dinner and drinks in D.C. He wakes up in shackled and chains. The look of despair on his face, as he realizes his situation, is heartbreaking to watch.
Ejiofor is brilliant as Solomon Northup. You truly feel every emotion his character is feeling. Solomon’s expressions of disbelief and bewilderment as he was transported by boat to Louisiana, and sold like live cattle to his first owner, are truly felt by the audience. You see his agony as he watches powerless while the slave trader separates a woman from her children.
Solomon’s first slave owner, Ford, was hypocritically humane. He looked of a man who could sleep at night because he was ‘fair’ to his slaves. Upon arrival on the plantation, Ford informs his wife that the wailing woman was separated from her children. The wife then recommends her new slave to get some water, some rest and her children will soon be forgotten. I got so angry I could have grabbed the wife and threw her to the ground. How dare she imply that a woman can get over her children being ripped out of her arms and sold to the highest bidder. It was obvious Ford could tell Solomon was a ‘learned’ man, a term at the time used for people of color who could read and write, but he did nothing to find out more about his reason for being there. Instead he gifted Solomon with pleasantries and an instrument as some type of peace offering. It was obvious to me he was kind to help his own conscience. After Solomon got into a fight with one of the plantation’s overseer’s he was sold to Edwin Epps, a hard man known for breaking slaves. When Solomon learned he was being sold he tried to explain who he was but Ford explained he was a debt and now he had to sell him for Solomon’s safety. End of story. He wanted to hear nothing about Solomon’s true situation. It didn’t matter because all he meant to Ford was a debt, a piece of property he owned and had to sell. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine being in Solomon’s position. It was at this moment he must have finally understood what a fellow slave told him earlier, that Ford was a slaver and could care less about his situation.
Life on the Epps plantation would be the extreme opposite of what he faced on the Ford plantation. Solomon was treated favorably by the owner on the Ford plantation, coupled with being new to the institution of slavery, he still had his pride and recent memories of freedom. It was because of this that he felt comfortable mouthing off to the overseer and even hitting him with a whip. He possibly felt he hit his limit with this man degrading him day after day, especially since the man was not the brightest tool in the box. But that was a different planation entirely. The Epps plantation would be even more of a nightmarish experience for Solomon.
Edwin Epps was a psychotic, alcoholic slave owner who seemed to enjoy dispensing daily cruelty on his slaves. Michael Fassbender is pure evil as sadistic owner Edwin Epps.. His slaves would pick cotton from sun up to sun down and if he wasn’t happy with the amount picked, they were whipped. No one faced more punishment and brutality than Patsey, played majestically by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. Patsey picked more cotton daily, over 500 pounds, than any other slave on the plantation (male or female).
However, she was an obsession for her owner, Edwin Epps, which meant she was subject to rape almost daily. Edwin Epps wife was jealous of her and even hit her with a bottle when she caught her husband staring at her. Sarah Paulson is a twisted and villainous as Mistress Epps, a woman just as evil as her husband. Her hatred for Patsey was like her husband was carrying on an affair with a willing participant on her property. This of course was not the case. My heart went out to Patsey as she was subject to abuse by Mistress Epps whenever she wanted to further demean her for her husband’s obsession. Edwin Epps was apparently tormented by his attraction to Patsey so he would not only rape her but beat her as well.
Thanks to the kindness of a visiting contractor, Solomon Northup’s friends are informed of his situation and he is returned to his family. The time Solomon dreamt of the entire film, a chance to see his wife and children again, is possibly the happiest and saddest ending to a film in recent memory. Solomon stood in front of his family a much different man than he was before he was kidnapped. I actually began to weep for him as he apologized to his family for showing up at their home after so much time away. Solomon was blessed to regain his freedom but what about those who never got such an opportunity. Most free men & women who were kidnapped never regained their freedom. Let’s not forget that the majority of people of color in the western world were slaves for hundred’s of years.
I am not of the naive thought that some form of modern day slavery is not taking place in the world today. I feel powerless in the fight to combat such evil. All I can do is pray for the victims currently suffering through such an unimaginable existence. The men and women responsible for carrying out such atrocities will eventually face the judgement of God.
I write this piece as a descendant of slaves in the United States. Just think, you are alive today because your ancestor’s found a way to survive. You are alive because your ancestors survived the middle passage from Africa. Upon your ancestor’s arrival at their eventual destination, they were enslaved and they faced this indignity day after day, generation after generation. They found a way to fight for all of us. I can not imagine the strength and fortitude it took to live thru such an existence. To be a man and not able to protect his family from whatever horror’s their owner planned for them. In many ways ’12 Years a Slave’ was a display of the attempted breaking of the spirit of the black man. Look at the plight of the black man today. I could not help sitting there thinking about the battle black men faced during slavery vs. today.
Oh to be a woman and not be able to wake up and look forward to day filled with pleasant subtleness, to not be able to eventually see a light at the end of the tunnel. When I think of women like Patsey, I think of women who continue to suffer from domestic violence and feel they have no way to escape. Some of these women feel death is the only escape and continue to be trapped in a vicious cycle of abuse. Some women of today can get help from the authorities, or family, etc. Women during slavery had no such rights. They simply had to find a way to face each day. Since watching ’12 Years a Slave’, I can’t help but feel I need to make every moment count. We all owe it to our ancestors to make a difference in this world. To blaze a path of success for the next generation as was done for us.
To all of those who walked this earth before us, we give thanks to you for your sacrifices, your strength and courage. Your resilience against unthinkable adversity is the reason we are here today and we give thanks. We will always be eternally grateful that you found a way to LIVE!!