It is without question that slavery in America was a brutal, vicious, and inhumane institution. However, for anyone who thinks slavery was the more relatively benign institution depicted in Gone with the Wind or some of the other mainstream meant-for-entertainment Hollywood films, 12 Years a Slave quickly and effectively puts such thoughts to rest.
The film, 12 Years a Slave, was directed by Black British director Steve McQueen, and adapted from the real-life account of Solomon Northup, a free Black man living in antebellum America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. That the film springs from the narrative of Northup himself offers a fresh cinematic perspective on slavery that makes it a more powerful statement on the subject of slavery in America than perhaps any other film ever made. There is no sugar coating of the facts, and there are no “happy slaves” or kindly White masters or White mistresses here (in this film, the masters’ wives are just as, if not more, sadistic as their husbands). Instead, we are allowed to witness slavery in its raw and unmitigated horror.
Watching 12 Years a Slave, the film was triggering an uncomfortable experience for me as an African American whose ancestors endured the horrors of slavery. However, the realization of the importance of the film — this film is so necessary –gave me a compelling reason to press on. The story, the acting, the cinematography, the directing — just everything about this film — kept me riveted even in my discomfort. Flesh tears with each crack of the whip, wails pierce the air as Black mothers and their children are sold away from each other, and women look as if their very lives are being squeezed from their bodies as they are raped by their White masters.
A visual scene of people being stripped naked and examined in preparation for sale into slavery could have easily devolved into objectification of the Black actors and actresses portraying these people on screen. But, the truth of 12 Years a Slave is unabashedly on the side of the victims and survivors of slavery; and, the perspective of the film is further supported by their humanity. Skillfully and intentionally, objectification is successfully avoided. It is to director McQueen’s credit that he is able to expertly navigate such tricky terrain (How did McQueen not win the Best Director Oscar for this movie?).
Credit also goes to the incredible actors and actresses who fully embody the enslaved people they portray. All praises to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his brilliant portrayal of Northup. Ejiofor emotes loss, bewilderment, betrayal, anger, hope and hopelessness, and more with sometimes as little as a turn of his head or a shift in his gaze (How did Ejiofor not win the Best Actor Oscar for this movie?). And Lupita Nyong’o, who portrays Patsey, deserved every ounce of that golden statue she won for Best Supporting Actress on Oscar night — enough said.
The camera work in 12 Years a Slave is stunning and enhances the movie’s sense of dread. An example of such artistry is found in an extended scene of Solomon so close to death, asphyxiating, as he hangs by a noose from a tree. Solomon Northup’s feet barely touch the squishy, muddy ground beneath his hanging body as the camera alternates between close-up shots of Northup’s feet – as they struggle to gain traction on the slippery ground – and wide shots of Northup hanging while everyday life on the plantation goes on around him. Simply put, director McQueen wants us to feel uncomfortable — very uncomfortable — as we watch the everyday horrors of slavery unfold before our eyes.
With its unsparing honesty, the film 12 Years a Slave challenges us as a country to never forget about the abominations of slavery and to never forget about the Solomons and the Patseys who were forced to endure such hell. For that reason alone, 12 Years a Slave is a film that every American should see.
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