Movie Review: “12 Years A Slave”
If you want an over-the-top cinematic experience, don’t pay to watch 12 Years A Slave.
If you’re more comfortable with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained than the reality of American slavery, don’t watch 12 Years A Slave.
But if you want to see American slavery as it really existed, then you need to go see 12 Years A Slave.
In a film that is being praised by moviegoers, critics, and historians alike, British director Steve McQueen has taken a stab at something Hollywood has historically been shy about addressing: American slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a Black man living in upstate New York in the 1840s who is abducted and sold into slavery in the South. His struggles to survive, maintain his identity, and ultimately to return home his family provide a compelling storyline.
Based on the 1853 narrative which Solomon Northup wrote about his experience, 12 Years A Slave is most outstanding in its authenticity. It’s not an overly artistic experience, as it lacks a strong soundtrack and long, dramatic dialogues. Instead, director Steve McQueen presents us with a relatively simple storyline, devoid of greater context or side plots. The simplicity of the film allows the viewer to focus on McQueen’s disturbingly-accurate portrayal of slavery. With graphic whippings, singing in the fields, sexual exploitation of slave women, and animosity between classes of slaves on the plantation, 12 Years A Slave is the most realistic and historically-accurate movie about slavery ever released in the United States.
This film is of great importance for Hollywood, which has produced very little about America’s own dark past of human bondage despite making hundreds of films about foreign atrocities like the Holocaust (Defiance in 2008, The Pianist in 2002, Schindler’s List in 1993, etc.). Only a small handful of films and TV series (Django Unchained in 2012, Amistad in 1997, and Roots in 1977) have portrayed American slavery, with varying degrees of success. With Hollywood’s ongoing “Black renaissance”, the American movie industry has begun to recognize the need to make films addressing racial issues in a realistic manner. Several films released just this year (Fruitvale Station, 42, and The Butler, to name a few) stand as evidence of this trend.
Like the era and events which it portrays, 12 Years A Slave is brutal and unflinching. Hopefully this movie will receive the praise and viewership that it deserves as a breakthrough historical drama and as a product of Hollywood’s growing interest in genuine racial storytelling.
As Americans, our dark past of slavery is not something for which we are particularly proud or knowledgeable. Maybe that’s why Hollywood has shied away from that era. But because the vast majority of Americans don’t spend a great deal of time reading history books, movies have become powerful conveyors of the events of the past and how those events relate to our country in modern times.
There’s no more powerful conveyor of the story of American slavery than 12 Years A Slave, and its story is one worth being told again and again.