|Director Steve McQueen with Best Picture Oscar|
There have been many movies about the plight of the slaves. But “12 Years a Slave,” by director Steve McQueen and Oscar award-winning adapter, John Ridley, transcends the others by illuminating the importance of not only surviving, but surviving with dignity. When Solomon (Chiwetu Ejiofor) is first kidnapped, he insists that he is a freeman. In an attempt to break his spirit, his captors beat him within an inch of his life. A fellow captive advises him that if he wants to survive, he must keep a low profile and not let them know he can read and write. The hopelessness of his situation finally sets in as other slaves fail gravely in their attempts to escape. He decides to cooperate, but continues exercising to keep up his strength so he is prepared when the opportunity to escape arises. But he soon observes that cooperation doesn’t save his fellow slaves from abuse. They are considered property and are whipped or killed at their master’s whim.
Solomon finally decides to risk everything to realize himself. He demonstrates his intelligence by engineering a way for logs to be carried across the river. The master is pleased and rewards him with a violin – a show of respect (and a possible way for him to earn money to buy his freedom). The white foreman becomes jealous and attacks him, but now Solomon fights back like a man. Later, the foreman returns to hang him. The master runs the foreman off, but leaves Solomon hanging from the noose barely able to hold up his weight on his tip toes. The master punishes the foreman for messing with his property, and sends a message to Solomon to stay in his place.
The film also examines the lives of the slaves who chose to please their masters. A spirited young slave, Patsey, (Best Actress winner Lupita Nyong’o) captures her master’s attention by cheerfully picking more cotton then the rest of the slaves. He watches her dancing in the slave quarters, entranced, longing to capture her jubilant spirit. When his wife protests, he insists on keeping his slave and suggests that his wife leave if she doesn’t like it. The wife finds little ways to belittle Patsey’s dignity like depriving her of soap. Believing she is entitled to special treatment as the master’s favorite, Patsey goes off to fetch some for herself. Furious at her for trying to escape, the master beats her. She pleads with him - explaining that she was just getting soap and that she has earned the right to keep herself clean. But this angers him even more. Egged on by his wife, he forces Solomon to beat her to demonstrate to both of them that he can do what he wants with his property.
Despite his captors’ best efforts to break his spirit, Solomon Northup never gives up his identity. By exhibiting his strength as a man, he plants a seed of thought – I am a man and no man’s property! By surviving with dignity, he liberates himself and others.