12 Years a Slave

Jan 30, 2014

With the seasonal glut of great movies on offer at this time of year, there’s a lot of competition for our attention. Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave is certainly not a romp or a laugh-a-minute, but it should be on your tick list. This movie is a cinematic beauty. It is also a story that needs to be told.

12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a “free” black man who is duped and sold into slavery. Through Solomon, we find out about an aspect of slavery in the United States of which many of us are perhaps unaware.

The story of Solomon’s efforts to prove his identity, and his status as a “free” black man, is compelling, but it is also a vehicle to illustrate the story of human beings treated as chattels, with no rights whatsoever. It explores human cruelty and feelings – feelings of unquestioning superiority over others, and feelings of accepted inferiority.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the lead role of Solomon – who is forced to accept the name of Platt, an actual runaway slave – is the clear star of the movie. He’s in almost every scene, portraying a whole gamut of emotions – frustration, depression, confusion – and the audience watches as those emotions change and are turned on their head: mixed and mingled.

At one time, when told to accept his lot if he wants to survive, Solomon/Platt says he doesn’t want to survive, he wants to live. But when his life takes yet another devastating turn, he murmurs that all he wants to do is survive.

There is a lot of violence in the movie: the sexual violence is palpable; the physical violence is painful; but perhaps it is the verbal bullying, the degradation and the total mental and emotional violence perpetrated and accepted – sometimes submissively, sometimes defiantly – that strikes hardest.

Lupita Nyong’o, as the young female slave Patsey who endures horrendous treatment, is wonderful. Michael Fassbender is similarly fantastic as the cruel slave owner, Edwin Epps.

Brad Pitt appears very late in the movie. Perhaps it would have been better if he had remained as a producer and financial backer. His appearance – as a good guy, looking far too Brad Pitt-like and with a rather odd accent – has the viewer slipping out of the Deep South of the 1800s and into the 21st century. His soliloquy about the need for humanity and equality would fit well into a speech at a Band Aid-type concert today.

12 Years a Slave is a long movie: nearly two hours. But it’s worth it.

While it is based on a true story, we don’t know all the answers at the end. The statement in the final credits is that Solomon, on gaining his freedom, went on to tour widely promoting the abolition of slavery, but the date and the cause of his death, and where he is buried is unknown. This seems incredible. So incredible that perhaps a sequel is called for?

More InDaily film reviews:

The Wolf of Wall Street
Inside Llewyn Davis
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
The Book Thief
Saving Mr Banks
August: Orange County
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
American Hustle

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