The Korea Herald


A study of human cruelty

Steve McQueen’s award-winning saga ‘12 Years a Slave’ gets Korean release

By Claire Lee

Published : Feb. 18, 2014 - 19:32

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A scene from “12 Years a Slave.” (Pancinema) A scene from “12 Years a Slave.” (Pancinema)

“Never underestimate the meanness in people’s souls,” author Alice Munro once wrote. “Even when they’re being kind ... especially when they are being kind.”

Steve McQueen’s award-winning slavery saga “12 Years a Slave” is a thorough study on human cruelty, and what it is capable of. In the film set in Louisiana in 1841, harrowing living conditions and hard-to-watch violence constantly overlap with exquisite shots of nature, such as gently flowing water, the full moon, and painfully beautiful sunsets.

What creates a sharp contrast with the scenery is the worst aspects of human nature, the kind that takes genuine pleasure in others’ pain. We see a young female slave being raped by her master and then slashed across the face by the master’s jealous wife a few days later. The mournful sound of a mother crying ― a slave who was separated from her children ― coincides with the voice of her master as he recites a Bible verse about children and their values.

The film is an adaptation of the 1853 memoir of the same title by Solomon Northup, a free man and musician in New York, who was kidnapped in Washington D.C., and sold into slavery in Louisiana in 1841. There, he was enslaved for 12 years on farms in the South, after being renamed “Platt,” until he finally regained his freedom in 1853.

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is convincing as Northup, who undergoes both physical and emotional pain as an enslaved and exploited man. He goes through two masters. One is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a relatively benevolent master, and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is abusive and violent.

During his slavery, Northup attempts to escape by trying to get in touch with his family and friends in New York, but fails as he is betrayed a number of times. Those who are kind to Northup and recognize his talent ― he knows how to read and play violin ― only use him for their benefit and refuse to acknowledge that he is actually a free man. It is not until he meets Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter who offers to help, that Northup is able to contact his family back home.

Arguably one of the most challenging roles in the film is Epps, the abusive slave owner. He is a layered villain, especially when it comes to his relationship with Patsey, a young, attractive slave who works alongside Northup. Epps is obsessed with her, favors her and is often kind to her, but also takes pleasure in physically hurting and raping her. Fassbender’s intense performance as the emotionally turbulent character convincingly expresses the complexity of human cruelty, and how it is often disturbingly linked with vulnerability and self-loathing. The film also explores the acts of kindness in unequal, abusive relationships ― and how they can only be another form of abuse.

McQueen’s fine art background is evident throughout the film. The rich, muted tones of the color palette as well as the moving images of nature in the warm Louisiana sun are what also make this film memorable aside from its compelling, important narrative.

“12 Years a Slave” opens in Korean theaters on Feb. 27.

By Claire Lee (