Friederich Nietzsche once wrote, "If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you." As is profoundly depicted in the recently released film, "12 Years a Slave," slavery, in all its malignant cruelty, is that abyss. And the myopia of those who trafficked in human cargo was chronic and proved ultimately debilitating.
The institution of slavery was an embedded pathology, a collective psychosis, which gripped our nation for more than a century, initially made manifest in the plantations of the South and buttressed by the virulent prejudice and discrimination that rippled through antebellum and post- antebellum America.
The word "holocaust" has been reserved to depict the atrocities of the concentration camps of Europe during World War II, its denotation crafted from the darkest parts of the human heart. But while acknowledging that this historical event and its horror remains beyond our comprehension, when slavery is viewed through an unblemished prism, it too is a nightmare that was abhorrent in the extreme, wherein human beings were reduced to mere chattel, bought and sold like so much livestock at auction, while being dehumanized with a malevolent detachment. And when viewed across history, it also seems incomprehensible.
"12 Years a Slave" is a powerful and unyielding view of one man's journey into the heart of the South in the year 1841. His name was Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeman, a prosperous gentleman, living in Saratoga, N.Y., with his wife and two children. Kidnapped, he awakens one morning in a dark room, in chains, and soon finds himself sold and resold, ending up on a Louisiana plantation. His master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is a ruthless and sadistic slave owner, so unhinged that he is blind to his own depravity, and the depravity of his wife (Sarah Paulson), who urges him to shred the backs of the less-productive slaves while knowing that her husband rapes the young women.
Solomon soon understands that he has descended into one of the circles of hell and he bears witness to the personal torment of the slaves with whom he shares his existence, an existence that is, in every respect, filled with an acute and daily privation that seems unendurable. Meanwhile, he faces his new life in the context of the life from which he was snatched. He was a musician, educated, with a family that filled his world and now floods his memories.
The power of "12 Years a Slave" resides in its unremitting honesty. There are no benevolent owners, not even Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who, while humane, still views his slaves as forced free labor and not as people. In one wrenching scene, he buys a young black woman at auction, but not her two children, and so knowingly condemns her to a perpetual grief tempered only by a deep and abiding loss. In another harrowing scene, Solomon is hung by the neck by an overseer, his toes barely touching the ground, and though Ford eventually cuts him down, he is incapable of viewing that moment for what it is: heinous and monstrous.
Like all those involved in slavery, Epps and Ford were incapable of viewing the pain it exacted, or seeing it as an evil of such magnitude that it shriveled the souls of those who perpetuated it, and it laid ruin to those who lost more than their freedom.
That is what "12 Years a Slave" conveys: absent stereotypes and unnecessary melodrama. This film is a spare narrative, based on the story written by Solomon Northrup, a memoir that while it has lingered in relative obscurity has stood the test of time and now, finally, has found its way, remarkably, to the screen.