I grew up during the tumultuous sixties and seventies on the East coast of the U.S. During my formative years, I learned, along with most schoolchildren of that era, the history of the U.S. which barely touched upon the reality of slavery and the slave trade, apart from very few mentions in the history textbooks (Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, et al.,).
The first real and seemingly authentic glimpse of what slavery was actually like was from watching Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a T.V. mini-series taken from Alex Haley’s best-selling book from 1976 (which also happened to mark the nation’s bicentennial). This mini-series was simply called Roots, and was a huge success in terms of television programming (Nielsen ratings) and garnered many awards. My family, along with most American families, were glued every evening to the captivating drama unfolding for eight consecutive nights. The story piqued my interest on the subject of slavery and I subsequently read many of Alex Haley’s books, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as many other related stories about slavery in the American South. Then in early 1982 came Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which was then made into a feature film in 1985 and incidentally introduced the world to Whoopi Goldberg. But I digress, my point being that we haven’t had many feature films since the 1980s specifically depicting the realities of slavery during the antebellum American South. Last year saw Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a brutally humoristic look at a slave’s well-wrought revenge. Although entertaining, Django is more about fantasy than actual real-life events.
This generation of youth however, have little or no comprehensive knowledge of America’s shameful history of the Atlantic Slave Trade of nearly 250 years (1619-1865) and how it led to industrial capitalism and the subsequent universal exploitative system of imperialism. Most people were stolen from the West-Indies and various African nations to arduously toil in the American South’s cotton fields which in turn led to the boom of the textile manufacturing mills of New England during the industrial revolution.
These events literally forged a modern nation built from the blood, sweat and tears of African-Americans and made America a leader in manufacturing textiles, as well as giving it the greatest boom in economic growth the country had ever known. The introduction of fashion at the turn-of-the-century, also had the textile industry to thank but more specifically (and importantly), the brutally enslaved African-Americans who picked the cotton and the socially and economically deprived labourers who worked in the textile mills across the country. Often these labourers were illiterate and impoverished individuals who earned pennies a day, toiling under brutal factory conditions. The United Stated economic success during the mid- 19th century as well as the start of the 20th century (and well into the 1970s), is in part due to those generations of individuals who were used, abused and brutalized in order for businessmen and politicians to make America economically prosperous.
Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, is a narrative/memoir written about that shameful part of American history. Solomon, who was married, with two children, had been born a free man, and had been educated, was a successful carpenter and musician. As a result of a chance meeting with two white gentlemen, he was duped with the promise of earning quick money, then drugged, beaten and sold into slavery, and thus subsequently spent twelve years on a Louisiana cotton plantation. It was after his rescue that he wrote about his ordeal. The book is short at 288 pages, but eloquently and insightfully written by a man who had enjoyed civil liberties and freedom well into his adulthood but who then lost it by mere coincidence.
Back in November, my daughter and I went to see 12 Years a Slave by director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) and I can say that it is gorgeously shot by cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt and keeps the viewer glued to the screen throughout. The lead role is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor ( Children of Men, Melinda and Melinda) whom I first took notice of in 2002, in the film Dirty, Pretty Things, with Audrey Tautoo (Amélie). Personally, I believe the role of Solomon Northup is the role of a lifetime for any actor, but for Ejiofor, the role has not only garnered well deserved accolades but may just be the role of his career. Ejiofor is riveting and emotional. He portrays Northup with quiet dignity and reverence from beginning to end. It is an all-star cast movie event, with actors, Michael Fassbender in the role of the brutal master, Edwin Epps, and Brad Pitt, with a cameo role, as the kindly carpenter, Bass. The breakout role in this film however is from a newly graduated actress from the Yale University School of Drama, Lupita Nyong’o whose portrayal of the brutalized Patsey, will have you reaching for tissues and someone’s arm to hold. Be forewarned that there are moments of savage brutality during the film but it is a horrifying brutality that was all too real for those human beings who had to suffer and endure years of abuse at the hands of their masters and mistresses during this shamefully and utterly incomprehensible time of the antebellum United Sates.
This years’ 86th Academy Awards has nominated 12 Years a Slave for nine (9) academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Lupita Nyong’o), Best Achievement in Directing ( Steve McQueen), among others. See the entire list of nominations for this film here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2024544/awards?ref_=tt_awd
12 Years a Slave is an important film to watch and a story that needs to be told to a generation who know little or nothing about the antebellum plantations of the American South and its subsequent generational scars inflicted upon a people who for centuries had been ripped from their families and homelands, in order to satisfy a growing nation intent on economic prosperity, no matter the cost to human lives. The film is an artistic work of dedication towards the truth and the horrors of a time most North Americans would rather forget. Yet McQueen shines light into the dark and horrifying part of history barely mentioned in the American history textbooks of my youth. A must see film if only for the fine acting roles it has produced. I’ll be watching on Oscar night with a box of tissues and all the excitement this film has generated for yours truly, since its release.
That is the word for this cold and wintry January. Do something ‘green’, pay it forward and be wonderful, until the next time.