’12 Years a Slave’: More than a film
by Rob Steinberg
“All men are created equal,” except where some people decide — they are not.
For those enslaved by ruthless capturers, the situation appears hopeless. The victims look up from the bottomless pit and pray for a glimmer of light. Maybe they will find help, or maybe that day will never come. Maybe they stopped praying, or maybe they stopped believing and just gave up.
None of us want to think of such suffering. I know I don’t. But I must remember that I am free, that I am a lucky man and that I am fortunate for many reasons. And for the one I am about to share, I am deeply thankful.
I caught a glimpse of what it took to make a noble sacrifice and correct a horrible injustice. And I am grateful that I got to do it — acting — preserved for all posterity, in Steve McQueen’s masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave.
It picked up the coveted People’s Choice Award at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. The reviews are spectacular and the most amazing adjectives are being used to describe the picture, its director, writer, composer, cinematographer and actors. Some critics are calling it the most powerful film of the past decade and the most formidable film on slavery – ever; gathering comparisons to such momentous films as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
I am very fortunate to be in this film. If asked what I do, I say “I act.” Then, an awkward pause happens, mixed with what I read as a little sadness. I will often get a look like I have an incurable disease. Partially true, I admit. Oh, I’ve plodded along for a while with some good, small parts in big things and some bad, big parts in small things. But, now I have a big, small part in an amazing thing!
This unbelievable story is based on the real-life account and experience of Solomon Northup, who was a free black man living in Saratoga, New York. He was offered a job, playing fiddle in a traveling circus; then drugged, kidnapped, shackled in chains, put on a freighter and shipped to New Orleans where he was sold as a slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is in every scene, expertly crafted this harrowing role that should be nominated and possibly win an Oscar.
The narrative of the film is from the perspective of the man wrongly enslaved. So, I thought it might be informative to give you a glimpse, from my character’s perspective, of what we all went through when Solomon Northup went missing from New York in 1841 …
Life is precious.
It is at once full of possibilities and as quickly, can be laid to waste by others. It is essential that in order to hold its value, you must be of service to your fellow man, without fail. You see, I got to do something significant in my life … something special with the gift of life given to me by my creator. I was granted the ability to return another man’s life to him. I had the hard and distinct honor to rescue my friend, the slave we speak of, in this year of eighteen hundred and fifty three.
My name is Cephus Parker and this “slave” was my friend. His name is Solomon Northup.
Solomon, his lovely wife, and his two children frequented my store in Saratoga, where I sell all sorts of general goods for the home and stock a few hard to find specialty items.
If lucky, when Solomon stopped by, I might persuade him to fiddle a tune on a violin that, yes, I admit, I may have kept there for such an occasion. Solomon was quite skilled at music. While we listened to the magnificent sounds emanating from the instrument, his young children would dance or enjoy a peppermint stick.
Over the years, we would laugh and share a joke with each other. I watched his family grow and they were always a welcomed presence at Parker’s store. I am proud to know him and to call him a friend.
Then, at once, without warning, he was gone. Disappeared from our lives. We tried desperately for years to find out what happened. There was no word … as though he just vanished from the face of God’s green earth – without even a whisper.
His family still came to my store, but early on in his absence, there was little joy. Just sadness and uncertainty. Over the years, hope became harder to hold onto. Solomon Northup and his music were no more.
The days grew into months and the months into years … a dozen of them slowly passed.
One day, I opened a letter addressed to me from a man named Bass. I became overwhelmed to find out that he had knowledge of Solomon and that, yes, he was alive! Though shocked and horrified to learn of his situation, I rushed to his wife who had just received the same letter making her privy to his whereabouts. At first joy, then dread gripped us as we read and imagined his circumstances.
After only but a moment of discussion, I knew what I must do. I would take this task to retrieve my friend. His son wished to accompany me, but our country was horribly divided and it was not possible even for free people of color to sojourn through the South, lest the same plight befall them.
The excursion from Saratoga to Louisiana would be no easy task by any standards, but it would pale in comparison to what my friend’s impossible travails and insufferable conditions must have been these past 12 years. I wept in sadness o’er these thoughts and I wept in joy for the possibility of returning him home, to his family – safely.
What will the passage entail? Over twenty-five hundred miles by land and sea – each way. Sixty days? More?
I will go to the Saratoga courts to collect Solomon’s “free papers” and set off for Manhattan by carriage and rail. I will board a ship and sail along the American coast around the tip of Florida and up the Gulf to New Orleans.
During the long journey back, I will ask Solomon’s account of the dreadful conditions in the South. How difficult must this have been to endure? I can only imagine his suffering. And what I can’t imagine pains me more.
When I arrive in the port city of Orleans, I am sure to pass the market where slaves are sold. Man bartered and sold like chattel. Dreadful.
With documents in hand, I plan to go to the courts to show that Solomon does not belong there and it is my intent to return him, swiftly. I shall enlist the help of the local sheriff to accompany me to the plantation where I am told Solomon is enslaved. If I find him alive, I will return him to his wife, to his children. To his world.
I do not set out on this mission for any kind of praise, reward or financial gain. Quite the contrary, the costs are great. But I do this because I must. It is the right thing to do.
Though a price was placed on dear Solomon’s head, there is no price that can be placed on his freedom. I am but one man and Godspeed, I will show what one man must do for his fellow man.
— Cephus Parker, Saratoga, New York, 1853
None of that is in the movie. Sorry. It is not my journey after all. It is the hero’s journey: the journey of Solomon Northup. It is his story. It is history. The italicized words are mostly speculation.
An actor must imagine it. That is my process. That is my job.
I won’t overly indulge you in the “actor’s process,” but I had to figure out how to become Cephus Parker. How could I do justice to this man who gave so much to save a friend? Have I ever done that – made that kind of sacrifice? I wasn’t sure. I had to think. I struggled.
I was using the wrong word. The word is not “sacrifice.” When you sacrifice out of love and compassion, it doesn’t feel like you are giving anything up.
And there was Cephus Parker. I can’t help but be in awe of my character’s character.
Playing Mr. Parker makes me a better man. You may not see all of that on screen but, in the moments I appear, hopefully the preparation I did will feel as real for you as it did for me.
I believe that everyone involved brought that level of work to this film. It was too important not to.
Brad Pitt, whose Plan B production company produced the film, spoke to reporters in Toronto and expressed his pride: “If I never get to participate in a film again … This is it for me.”
Let us put aside the predictions and discussions about awards and accolades; they can clutter the true importance of this film. What Steve McQueen has painted here will be in the hearts and minds of compassionate caring human beings for a very long time to come. It will serve as a reminder of how our country and its citizens once behaved; of how we mistreated our fellow man.
The potential for inhumanity goes deeper than just this film. It speaks to a dark place we are capable of going if our priorities are not in check. It speaks of free will and what we do when faced with hard choices. It harkens memories of war, extermination, baseless hatred and vile cruelty.
You know the right thing to do when you see it, just as you know what’s wrong when faced with the choice. This film will hold it up to your face and not let you look away. You will want to look away. Don’t. Never look away. It will hold onto your soul and shake it. Keep staring at it and ask the tough questions. This film does.
We can make a decision to treat each other with brutality or with love. We can choose to witness man’s inhumanity to man or be deeply moved to remember our past, lest we never forget it … for we were once slaves too.
After the film festivals, screenings, premieres and award shows have all passed, there will still remain — this amazing work of art. See this film and learn. It will teach. And hopefully it will help us all. I know I am truly blessed to be a brush stroke on the canvas of this landscape, of this story, of this history, captured on celluloid forever.
Rob’s personal photo highlights from the “12 Years a Slave” – New York Film Festival Premiere:Tags: 12 Years A Slave, Actor, Cephus Parker, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Film that makes a difference, Hollywood, New York FIlm Festival, Rob Steinberg, Solomon Northup, Steve McQueen