Let me start off by saying this movie isn’t as brutal as you’d think–not in the way that you’d think. There’s only a few scenes of abject brutality and punishment and they’re over pretty quick. What sticks with you is how pervasive it is; how impossible it is to escape; how long this goes on. It’s a presentation of the massive, systemic issues with slavery and that’s what sticks with you.
Hollywood has never truly had a great film on slavery. Roots showed the slave life for what it was, but wasn’t as complex. Glory had the complexity, but didn’t show the slave life. Steve McQueen put together a movie here that shows slavery for its complexity both through slaves and slave owners. It didn’t pull its punches. It didn’t hide slavery’s brutality, but it didn’t indulge in torturing its audience either. It held the gravitas while allowing the audience to hope. It played with the audience’s ideas of right and wrong and brought it back into the morals and ethics of the time period.
This is the movie that slavery deserves.
12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northup’s slavery. He was a free man living in New York with a wife and two children, living as a violin maker and player, until he was kidnapped, tortured into accepting a life as a slave, and working as a slave for 12 years. That’s the basic gist of it. The rest is the nitty gritty details of slave life.
The most incredible part of 12 Years a Slave is how humanizing it is. There are no GOOD GUY or BAD GUY signs hanging around actors necks. It shows the spectrum of people both inside and out of slavery. We’re with Solomon throughout this movie, but we’re still watching his torture, we’re feeling it in him and all of his thought processes. While he starts the movie thinking this is a temporary situation, he changes into finally accepting that he’s a slave. All credit is due to Ejiofor for hinting at those issues with just looks on his faces–and to McQueen for getting that out of his actor.
And yet, we were transported to this time where this was all right and normal. It was the way of the land. Nobody stood up against it. People saw what was wrong with it and did nothing.
The film itself is a little disjointed–as it should be, since we were given extremely specific examples of brutality and the operations of systemic oppression in antebellum south in a 12 year span. The action in it though comes together to form a pretty solid narrative, piece in piece out, of the overall affectations of slavery.
I remember reading in my US History textbook about how some slave owners never even heard of whipping slaves, as if there were good slave owners. For once, a movie showed one of these slave owners and didn’t pull its punches. Even the “good” slave owner, Ford, (played very convincingly by Benedict Cumberbatch), tortured his slaves psychologically, forcing them to stockholm syndrome there way into loving him. Solomon gets rewards for being a good slave and he seems to be OK with that, waiting for his moment to break free. In addition, Ford was an apparently decent man, but still complicit in everything wrong with slavery.
Maybe the most powerful part of this movie is when Solomon is finally freed and it dawns on the viewer that this was “only” 12 years for one man who was lucky enough to be freed. It wasn’t every day of his life, of his parents lives, of his grandparents lives, of every life before in his lineage and most likely after. He wasn’t going to see his children born into slavery and suffer the same life he had, playing while other slaves were hanged in front of them, beaten and raped. The entire tone of the movie absolutely nailed the constant chaos of the environment in an otherwise normal field work setting.
My hope is this will be used in schools to teach about slavery and the complexities of systemic slavery.
Verdict: Maybe the greatest movie on slavery ever made, will rest easily among the best historical dramas in film.