Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley
It seems telling, to me, that more than a month after having seen the film, I am finally finding not just the time, but the wherewithal, the focus and arrangement to sit and write about my experience with this movie, for it has perhaps taken that long for its brilliance to fully settle, even if I knew it was among the year’s best the moment I left the theater. Also telling is how much this film has stayed with me after such a length of time. I watch a lot of movies, and sometimes I downright forget movies, but this one has stayed with me much much longer than the average film, and even still stronger than some of my very favorites of the art form. It is a whirlwind powerhouse of a film filled with technical excellence, yes, but its narrative, its heart and soul, is deep and dark and full of both.
Based on the little known non-fiction account, overshadowed in its day by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 12 Years a Slave is the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York in the 1850s. He has a family, a wife and child, and makes his living with his beautiful violin talents. When an opportunity arises to join a traveling band fronted by two gentlemen, he takes the chance, and ends up kidnapped into the cotton picking slavery of the south. He changes hands more than once, making the acquaintance of various owners (Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano), all the while struggling with his own personal experience and battle to regain his freedom, and the greater evil of slavery that surrounds him.
Steve McQueen has quickly rocketed up my must see director’s list. I shudder to think about some of the choices the film makes, and how lesser directors may have handled the material. McQueen handles the subject with compassion, and care, but also with the grit and attitude that something as brutal as this requires. As I said, the film is a technical marvel, McQueen first among all. But the photography, the musical score, and the performances are all outstanding, and stand among the best I’ve seen of 2013. Ejiofor in the lead role realizes the character deeply and completely. His equal is Lupita Nyong’o, whose Patsey is perhaps even more heartbreaking than Northup himself.
Slavery is perhaps the greatest scar upon the history of the United States of America, so it was very telling to record the audience reactions in my theater of middle aged, middle to upper class white people. One couple got up in left the showing, upset with the harshness and brutal honesty in which slavery is portrayed. I also overheard a group behind where I was sitting murmuring, pleading for the film to complete its runtime so they did not have to see the violence, the injustice, any longer. 12 Years a Slave is not something that is easy to take, but it is something that should not be overlooked. It was the most unflinching depiction of slavery I have ever seen, yet I can’t help but feel it was still a sanitized version of the institution.
In a way, 12 Years a Slave is a film which replenishes the soul. It manages to accomplish this feat by first breaking it down utterly and completely. Through Solomon’s journey, we are shown the evil of man. His treatment under the egregious Epps (Fassbender) is such that we wish Solomon back with his former master, Ford (Cumberbatch), viewing him as an ‘acceptable’ slave owner in comparison with the likes of others, who justify their flagrant evil through religion. But the other side is seen as well. For every evil, there exists also just enough good, and soon that good is seen, restoring faith in man’s ability to forgive, to coexist, and to thrive. A selfless devotion for the natural rights of others. Man ultimately came together to put slavery down, even if it was not the effort of all men together. As atrocious as the Civil War period and years previous in the Deep South were, to see the progress we’ve made is reassuring that eventually, even is through lengthy tribulation, good will win out with determination and strength of will. It remains our responsibility, our duty to be both our brother’s and sister’s keepers.