12 Years a Slave is the Roots of this early century. It is an unapologetic look at the institution of slavery from capture, to servitude, to recovered freedom. It is a film that every American should see, especially for anyone who is inclined to argue that American slavery was not so bad and that the Civil War was all about Northern aggression.
Based on the Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of his time in bondage, 12 Years not only works as an autobiographical account, it also serves as a psychological examination which makes viewers ask themselves just how we would endure under the same circumstances. How many pleas followed by beatings would I suffer before conforming to a master’s definition of obedience? Is the slim chance of obtaining my freedom worth the great risk of being found out which could result in my torture and death? And is death preferable if the odds are that I will never be free?
12 is not an easy film to watch. The depiction of violence is justified but just the same it is hard to view without trying to hide your eyes. In most films of this nature I would criticize it for throwing every slave/master/racial truism because doing so often binds the storyline to sensationalism (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I’m looking at you). In Slave the abuse is the story. I write this not only because the film is based on actual events, ‘o but because the before mentioned psychological minefield viewers experience with Solomon whose identity is even stripped down to adopting his slave name of Platt. It is hard to divorce oneself from the idea of how easy it is to adapt a case of Stockholm Syndrome when faced with random violence that can include a slap in the face to being whipped to death in a plantation centered ceremony. How agonizing to have fellow slaves ignore your plight and go about their business all because if they do not hold up the pretense they too can be whipped.
Of course the acting was all top drawer. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon. He has starred a variety of roles including many American features, but prior to Slave his most recognizable role was Lola the drag queen in Kinky Boots. 12 Years has launched Lupita Nyong’o as Hollywood’s current “It Girl” and has given her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar as well. Filling out the cast is Michael Fassbender is memorable as a psychotic plantation owner, Benedict Cumberbatch as a less psychotic plantation owner, Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s better half, and Alfie Woodward as Mistress Shaw (a black woman who may or may not be a slave but definitely rules her roost on the Shaw Plantation. (I don’t know if the book gives more backstory about her character but I would love to learn more about her. One gets the idea that she was a slave whose master has fallen for her and elevated her to the role of plantation mistress.) And, oh yes, Brad Pitt appears as a wisdom observing working man who is the key to Soloman’s release. His presence also provides an insider’s moment of levity knowing that Italian posters for the film advertised it as a semi-romantic romp with Pitt looking towards the horizon as his hair blows just so (Fassbender is given the Harlequin romance treatment as well.) Pitt as a producer won his first Oscar for the film. Also winning first time Oscars were director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley.
I don’t know exactly how this film will play on the smaller screen. I suppose it depends if you are someone who wants your painful stories told within the uninterrupted quiet of a theater or if you prefer breaks in the drama that home viewing offers. I recommend 12 Years a Slave to everyone because it offers up conversation and despite having a slow start it has become an event film that will be discussed for years.