|A group of enslaved men [including Solomon Northrup] waiting for work instructions|
Over the weekend, I went to see the film, 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup. Overall, I thought that it was a great film. In fact, it was unlike any other film that I have ever seen depicting the lives of enslaved Africans in the United States. Solomon Northrup’s narrative does what so many have tried to convey through fiction; it took an educated, talented, free, family man and placed him into the chains of slavery. However, Northrup didn't have to jump into any time machine or fall into a trance just to find himself in the middle of the antebellum south. Instead, he was an educated African American family man living in the North during one of America’s darkest times in history – Slavery. In an instant, Solomon Northrup was betrayed and found himself in chains. It didn't matter whether he was educated or a family man, but that he was a strong, able-bodied black man who could fetch a good price on the New Orleans slave market.
I will not delve too far into the story line, but I will say, again, that it is narrative based on true events. In Summary, Solomon Northrup was kidnapped and taken into slavery against his will. It was the result of a business deal with two white men who took him to Washington, D.C. to be part of a show. Northrup was an accomplished violinist. After talking business with these men and socializing, it is thought that the men poisoned/drugged him and during Northrup’s unconsciousness, he was sold to slavers. After he regained consciousness, he didn't have proper paperwork or documentation to defend his name or status as a freeman, so it was his word against those who had already purchased him. As a result, Solomon Northrup was taken from the slave pens of our nation’s capital to the slave auctions of New Orleans where he was sold to a planter in Louisiana. There, he would remain a slave for the next 12 years.
Solomon Northrup’s narrative resonated with me in different ways, but the most compelling reason was seeing an educated, free man diminished to a slave. The director did a great job of showing how Northrup goes from being a dignified family man to demoralized chattel. For example, there are many instances during the film when the camera just focuses on Northrup’s eyes and facial expression. It shows the inevitable decline in his posture as his spirit becomes more and more broken. He went from standing proud and upright to becoming slumped over with eyes to the dirt. It was upsetting. It was upsetting because I am connected to that enslaved past. It was also upsetting because I am connected to the human experience, and it saddens me that we are capable of such atrocities. Nevertheless, it is a story that must be told. There are too many people – especially new immigrants – who are unaware of America’s past. We have to teach them and tell them the entire story … everything.