Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

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A free black man in America before the Civil War is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.

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Steve McQueen, 2013

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a cultured New Yorker who lives with his wife and family. When they go on a trip for her job, violinist Solomon goes to Washington with some circus managers to perform. They betray him to slave traders, who take him to the South where slavery is common practice. After a harrowing boat ride, Solomon is given a new name and is sold on to a landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who treats slaves better than most and gives Solomon a violin. Solomon manages to earn a modicum of respect here, in spite of the indignities he faces. However, the situation isn’t to last and Solomon is sold to the cruel, vicious Epps (Michael Fassbender), who beats his slaves daily and saves particular abuse for his best worker, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), whom he simultaneously lusts after and despises. Solomon is forced to pretend that he isn’t as educated or intelligent as he is in order to survive his captivity, but he repeatedly tries to break free.

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This was just such a hard movie to watch. I’ve been trying to sort out my feelings about it since Wednesday, when I watched it, because they’re conflicted. On the one hand, it’s an important movie, not because it’s Worthy, but also because it’s a movie about slavery written, directed and performed by Black people. The emotions laid bare are viciously raw, and the actors are really putting their all into this. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o are both excellent, and Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson are also good as the slave owners whose abuse is horrendous. Personally, I’d argue that Paulson’s controlled fury is more impressive than Fassbender’s irascible violence. The score is beautiful, and the movie is shot exquisitely, making the moments of brutality all the more striking. The horrors shown are not unknown – we know how badly slaves were mistreated – but they’re visceral and shocking nonetheless (not only in the violence, but also in the other ways these people were dehumanised, through humiliation and degradation). The white people are all so horrible in various ways that Brad Pitt’s brief role as a sympathetic Canadian (ha) is borderline unbelievable, and there’s a stark and fascinating contrast between the North and the South of America in that time that would provide interesting material for a whole other movie.

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Director Steve McQueen and actress Lupita Nyong’o on set (because I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use a picture of Lupita).

The problem is, this movie lacked a real sense of story. It was a series of episodic scenes – Solomon is kidnapped, gets sold from one man to the next, and then the movie ends somewhat abruptly. There isn’t a sense of time passing – at one point, I realised we hadn’t seen Brad Pitt yet and there must be a fairly significant amount of time left in the movie, but I still couldn’t figure out how long Solomon had been suffering. Looking at the cast list just now, I’d completely forgotten Paul Dano was in this movie at all – he’s a nasty overseer who works for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford, the conflicted slave owner who first buys Solomon. There isn’t a journey, either. The moments that are supposed to be hopeful are so clearly misleading as to give the audience no illusions, which means that Solomon’s ensuing disappointment is hard to relate to. Personally, it didn’t take me long before the constant brutality made me feel distant from the story; I don’t know if this is a personal flaw or one that exists in the film, but I had to keep thinking and reminding myself of how important everything was instead of being swept along and feeling it. The film is about systematic racism, the methods society keeps in place that keep people who aren’t of the dominant class (in this case, as in most, rich white people) from having a voice, and is thematically fascinating. In trying to do justice to a terrible injustice, it seems like the storytellers lost their sense of what makes a compelling story rather than documenting wrongs.

12 Years a Slave on IMDb

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