Home » Columns, Movies

Review: 12 Years a Slave – Ugly history masterfully filmed

Posted by on November 1, 2013 – 7:48 am

12 Years a SlaveIt’s mind-baffling to think that only about 150-years ago in the “land of the free” that it was acceptable for a white person to own a human being of another race and legally force them to do the “owner’s” bidding. It’s even more unsettling to realize that even after all this time has passed, with so many obstacles overcome, we still live in a world where racism and prejudice play a part in our society. 12 Years a Slave is a masterfully filmed look at one of the ugliest chapters of American history and reminds us that for as much as the United States preaches about “freedom for all,” we didn’t always practice that mantra.

12 Years a Slave has been the recipient of a lot of critical acclaim and it deserves every accolade. This is one of the best films I have ever seen and while I’m certain there are cynics out there who will attribute much of this movie’s praise to liberal hyperbole and white guilt, no one who has seen this meaningful film could justifiably deny that it is an artistic masterpiece.

In 1841, a black man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated citizen of Saratoga, New York, is tricked and kidnapped while visiting Washington, where he is sold as a slave. He spends the next twelve years in bondage, unable to contact his family, working the plantation fields of Louisiana, fearing for his life if he were to dare speak of his plight; until he is finally assisted by a sympathetic Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) in 1853.

This film is a true story based on the book by Northup, written the same year that he regained his freedom. It’s interesting that this tale of a well-to-do intelligent free man who is unjustly forced into servitude seems to have captured the attention and sympathies of audiences more so than some of the other films in this genre that focus on the struggles of the more common victims of enslavement. It’s a sad statement that it takes seeing someone we can relate to in that situation before we take notice of the injustice. It’s a phenomenon that gives weight to Martin Niemoller’s “then they came for me” poem.

12 Years a Slave12 Years a Slave is a cinematic treasure trove that puts British filmmaker Steve McQueen in the top echelon of A-list directors. This movie is a creative marvel that blends incredible acting with disciplined visual brilliance and a moving score by Hans Zimmer that almost seems like it belongs in a science-fiction film, but works perfectly in this all-too-real story. That these events actually happened in the real world is scary as hell.

The film’s spectacular screenplay by John Ridley, based on the Solomon Northup book, contains dialogue with a literary tint that reminded me of the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit and last year’s Lincoln. The spoken words sound almost as if they belong in a very intelligent manuscript, rather than in a person’s mouth, like listening to a Shakespearean play. I can’t tell you if people actually ever spoke in this manner, but nevertheless the tone of the language works wonderfully for this film and it is fascinating to listen to.

The passionate performances in this film are first rate across the board, but the acting by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave girl who has the unmitigated misfortune of being pretty and a hard-worker, is certain to garner Academy Award nominations. Paul Dano as a demented slave driver and Michael Fassbender as a cruel plantation owner also deliver standout performances in what were surely very difficult roles to portray. There are also great cameo appearances by Taran Killam, Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberbatch.

12 Years a SlaveSome of the most mesmerizing moments in this film occur when director McQueen keeps the camera lingering on scenes of human barbarity, deliberately forcing you to fully absorb the weight of the movie’s powerful imagery. He does this also with sound, often maintaining audible horrors long after their respective scene has transitioned into a more peaceful setting, such as an ironic plantation church service.

12 Years a Slave is probably the most significant and powerful blend of cinematic artistry and historical drama since Schindler’s List, and it is every bit as good as, if not better than, that important film. This movie should be required viewing for every American. Grade: 9/10

You can read Solomon Northup’s historical book, Twelve Years a Slave, for free online at the Internet Archive library: archive.org.

Photos © 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures