When slavery is the subject of a film or other media, the assumption is black men and women have been held captive by a master and that freedom is an imagined, longed-for taste which they may never experience. In Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, there’s an ugly twist: a free black man suffers the loss of his birthright.
That individual is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a well regarded violinist who lives with his wife and children, prior to the Civil War, in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1841, during a professional meeting, two entertainment agents propose that Northup audition for a performance opportunity in Washington, D.C. He’s delighted to oblige, and the duo wine and dine him. When Northup awakes, he’s chained and in a prison cell, having been trafficked to the South. Kidnapped, he now has a new slave-identity and the slave-name of Platt. The movie’s title makes clear that, if there is a happy ending, it will not come quickly.
Based on Northup’s memoir, McQueen’s telling centers on the intimate coupling of two critical and seemingly contradictory archetypes. On the one hand, Uranus rules freedom and the eruptive spark of revolutionary expression that turns up when one least expects it. Saturn, on the other hand, is a conservative energy that establishes identities and boundaries for as long as Uranus can be shut out. If Saturn shackles form, Uranus likes to unshackle it. How to straddle this dilemma is clearly Northup’s challenge and which 12 Years a Slave presents in searing and almost nightmarish fashion. In short, over the course of a dozen years to come, Northup will somehow have to preserve the memory of his authentic self (Saturn) strongly enough so that he can eventually throw off (Uranus) his slave role.
The movie is a litany of the horrific indignities Northup faces as he goes from one slave owner to the next. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the first, has a conscience and even gives Northup a violin, but the best he can do is warn him and suggest fleeing. Then there’s the sadist Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has a degenerate relationship with his young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Patsey, whom he calls “Queen of the Fields,” is the one he regularly rapes and – to keep his wife’s (Sarah Paulson) ire at bay – systematically whips. It’s as though Northup must intimately witness and endure this young woman’s slave fate, as well.
Early on, Northup says he doesn’t want to survive, but rather to live. Sometimes, however, the Saturnine proclivity towards survival is the only thing available, especially, for example, when other slaves indifferently go about their business as Northup desperately stands on tip-toes to save himself from the noose. Suffused with details, 12 Years a Slave focuses equally on blueberries, near bursting with juice, on a plate, and blood gushing from black flesh. McQueen doesn’t shy away from reprehensible dualities.
Before Northup headed out for his audition, his wife said, “Stay safe.” It’s a chilling exhortation, given what transpires. As best as possible, Northup spent years – accessing Saturnine survival and persistence traits – trying to make good on her words, in the hope one day Uranus would revisit his world.
Astrology Film Rating: ♄♅ (Saturn, Uranus)