Film Review: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (directed by Steve McQueen)

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by Kevin Bowen on October 29, 2013

in Film


Among movies about race in America, how many great films have been made about slavery? We’ve seen pizza places going up in smoke for our sins (Do the Right Thing), gentle drivers (Driving Miss Daisy), and sisterhoods of maids (The Help). Most of these films focus on the sixties or modern day occurrences. Even Spielberg’s Lincoln barely touches on slavery as more than legal theory.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 YEARS A SLAVE (film still).

This enormous, shocking gap has been filled movingly by British director Steven Rodney “Steve” McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a likely breakthrough for this terrific director.  The film is John Ridley’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name about a free black violinist named Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is kidnapped from his New York family and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He first goes to a relatively livable plantation (given the other possibilities) where his master (Benedict Cumberbatch) values his talents, but ends on a poor cotton farm with a tyrannical slave owner (Michael Fassbender).

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 YEARS A SLAVE (film still).

Never short on cruel truths, 12 Years does not spare the difficult human labor, dry throats, the sting of a whip on skin. Ejiofor traps us in the reality of suffering, of being property, of living near death. The first question about slavery isn’t only how slaves survived these conditions; it is how any society could live willingly with so much torture around them – and how much human potential was wasted in the fields.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 YEARS A SLAVE (film still).

As a history major, I’ve read more about the reality of slavery than many. 12 Years a Slave plays a great deal like The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass (how long until this is a film?). High school history books might overlook some cruelties, such as rape, that are told here and will be new to some. Both books also emphasize the fear of literacy and knowledge among slaves: Knowing the alphabet is a life-threatening risk.

Brad Bitt in12 YEARS A SLAVE (film still).

These works are best when they are not only about slavery, but the surprising complexity of the social relations of the era. 12 Years stands out for the allowance it gives to the men and women, white and black, to show decency or spite. Some rise (Brad Pitt’s abolitionist), others have their human decency swallowed by the system (Cumberbatch), while others feel empowered by evil (Paul Dano’s foreman, Fassbender’s villainous slaveholder).

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 YEARS A SLAVE (film still).

Even in showing human complexity, 12 Years a Slave never flinches from seeing slavery as the great national sickness. This is made clear as Solomon waits in an underground prison underneath Washington D.C. and the camera pulls back to include a long shot of the Washington skyline of the time and the unfinished Capitol Building (cinematographer Sean Bobbitt). It’s a stark reminder that this happened here, against our ideals, not long ago.

12 YEARS A SLAVE (film still).

photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

12 Years a Slave
New Regency
rated R, 133 minutes
now in limited release
opens nationwide November 1. 2013

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