Hollywood’s portrayals of American slavery have run the gamut — from all but romanticizing it in “Gone with the Wind” to riffing ironically on it in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” A new film, “12 Years a Slave,” offers something different: a faithful, unvarnished depiction of everyday life as a slave, and of all the horrors that went with it. Based on the 1841 kidnapping into slavery of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from Saratoga, N.Y., the film is told from a slave’s point of view, with Northrup’s agony eloquently portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor. One thing that comes through is the arbitrariness of the institution; slaves deemed unsatisfactory or rebellious were whipped, or strung up, in a blind rage by their owners. Other owners harbored moral conflicts about the “peculiar institution,” but nevertheless allowed slaves’ families to be broken up.
Through Northrup’s story, “12 Years a Slave” shows how the institution’s relentless inhumanity ripped the soul out of the nation. The impact of slavery extended into the Jim Crow era and is still evident today. From history class, most Americans are familiar with the moral debate and political maneuvering that surrounded the issue. What “12 Years a Slave” adds is a clear, vivid depiction of how slavery looked to its victims.