12 Years A Slave
Your American history textbook never prepared you for this.
Adapted from the self-written memoir, "12 Years A Slave" is about Solomon Northup, a free black man who lived with his wife and children in upstate New York, was kidnapped, and sold into slavery in 1841. He slaved away and witnessed unspeakable horrors in Louisiana, never to be freed until 1853. Director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) has adapted Northup’s memoir into a powerful depiction of the cold hard truth about this deplorable time in American history.
The largest conundrum of the story is how Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is supposed to escape the slave trade while still retaining his dignity and pride as a free man. Not one to succumb so easily to the desires of slave masters, he stands and speaks defiantly. When lectured about supposedly not following directions while building a shed, Northup fires back: "I have done exactly as I have been instructed. If there is a problem, it lies with the instructor." These gutsy displays of pride are prominent towards the beginning, and then quickly
diminish as twelve long years of slavery take their toll on Northup's body and soul. He falls into near helplessness. To be free, he must sacrifice either his dignity or his life.
Your emotions will be wrung as well: by the film's end, half of my theater was crying. Not since "The Passion of the Christ" have I seen so many moviegoers cry at the end of a film.
Our biggest means of feeling emotion in film is through the cast, and the movie is incredibly successful here. Lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor displays a dramatic prowess for which he was famous for in "Children of Men." Benedict Cumberbatch ("Star Trek: Into Darkness") plays Master Ford, a benevolent slave owner who is the first to purchase Northup. Lupita Nyong'o plays Patsey, another victim of the slave trade, who develops a friendship with Northup that is soon tested. Her acting brings the film's most powerful scenes to life. Even Brad Pitt takes up no less than ten minutes of screen time, but his appearance and actions prove instrumental to the plot. Pitt’s does not let his celebrity status diminish the seriousness of the film, but augment it. Even less frequent parts are played masterfully. As the saying goes: “There are no small parts; only small actors.”
I have read several complaints about the editing style of McQueen and his editor Joe Walker(“Harry Brown”). They have a tendency to use harrowingly long takes (which briefly reminds one of "Gravity"), supposedly making for boring scenes and failing to break up action. I could not disagree more. These long takes of key scenes give us the rare opportunity in cinema to soak up every last detail of the shot and experience the image as a whole. While I cannot give an example without spoiling the film, let me simply ask: when shame, horror, and violence is presented before you, would you have followed orders, or suffered the sting of a hundred lashes on your back?
My one complaint about this movie is its limited release to few theaters. Considering the importance of this film, it turns my stomach to know it sits quietly while "Insidious: Chapter 2" will most likely continue to get showings everywhere until Halloween passes.
Violence, shame, and horror pervade the film, but we are forbidden to push it under the rug and forget. This film is black history. Black history is American history. American history is your history.
This article originally appeared in Neon Tommy on October 20, 2013.