“You are an exceptional [N-word]. I fear no good will come of it.”
“12 Years a Slave” is the Steve McQueen wonderchild born of two parents: the desire to craft a story about a man who was free and then lost his freedom and the question “why aren’t there more movies about slavery?”
What he found was the story of Solomon Northrup, a free man with a wife and children who was tricked into shackles, brutality, and endured all the horrors that amount to psychological rape.
At first, the questions become what is so interesting about this period in history? What is so compelling about man, Black or White, during this era that so many films must be dedicated to slavery? What more can possibly be said about it; what more can we learn?
After watching what is an uncomfortable and gripping enactment of the grim reality, not only for the slave but also for the master, the realization sets in that this is a testament of suffering, not from the slave’s perspective, but from a free Black’s perspective. A man who swears upon his liberation. A man who learns just how quickly it can be taken.
In that very gaze is newness, a conversation not previously had, not widely. Sure, a great majority of the Africans snatched into chattel slavery were free men who lost that freedom, but what makes Solomon’s story unique within the canon of contemporary slave tales is that he was a free Black man in an ocean of enslaved Blacks.
In part, that portion of the narrative is most timely. It is the racial hardship that prevails through time & change that has not received the attention it demands. The free Black and his status among those who are slaves. That Black who became the “talented tenth” and now is referred to simply as a “bourgie n-word”.
Alfre Woodard’s character, Mistress Shaw, as a slave exalted above the other Blacks on the plantation because of her master’s affections, further deals with this dynamic – being better.
This film, whether it intends to or not, investigates the duality of betterness and Blackness. It also reveals how any betterness can be beaten down under the viciousness of imprisonment. Solomon Northrup underwent a backwards assimilation in the name of survival.
“12 Years a Slave” in that regard helps us evaluate assimilation. Has the modern Black become less African because he loves his African heritage less? Or has she done so merely to survive? The questions stare us square in the face as we watch Chiwetel Ejiofor deliver the performance of a lifetime, knowing he is British, of recent African decent; receiving Oscar buzz for a role in which we watch him receive harrowing and heady lashings.
Another parallel this film makes is to the American Prison Industrial Complex. A man falsely accused, taken against his will, unable to fight a system that is erected against him, and serves years of his life in hard labor though he is innocent. Solomon Northrup could have easily been Gerard Richardson -- presumed not guilty-- or any other in a string of men who have continued to be falsely accused and imprisoned without satisfying the burden of proof.
It is that element that endears us to Northrup and makes us sick.
McQueen doesn’t let up. There are scenes that do nothing for plot pacing, but instead leave the viewer suspended in the discomfort of agony, of mind, body and spirit suffering. The director means to leave us bleeding, needing a cleansing thereafter.
The grotesque becomes abstract and even provocative in our prolonged and voyeuristic witnessing of the open flesh, the forced sex, the tearing of families, the jealousy, the lack of humanity, all of it. At times, even the hope is too much to bear, too sad, too dark.
This movie shows what a monster slavery was; shows how even White men feared for their lives and knew their place. A White man who was not a master, if not a slave himself, was in danger. He was afraid to do anything more. There were those, the many, who relished his power, but then there were some who felt almost as trapped as his slaves. It took a free man undergoing the nightmare of his life to recognize that.
The motif is despair. Even the reunion between Soloman and his family is disparaging. You can see the angst, the burden of all those years. He was beaten, but, remarkably, not broken.
This is a special film not recommended for children or periods when you are already emotionally reeling. You must be sober in conscience to handle this heavyweight.
“12 Years a Slave” opens in a limited Kansas City release for Cinemark Palace on the Plaza, Glenwood Arts Theater, and AMC Independence Commons 20. Check listings for show times.