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12 Years a Slave

February 1, 2014

For some reason I didn’t see 12 Years a Slave when it first came to theaters, and I’m not entirely sure why. I think it must have come out the same week as Thor or Catching Fire and so I chose escapism over a brutal unflinching look at one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s short history. Hell, even today I was hoping to catch a showing of Frozen (since the gifs just won’t stop) only to find it had just left my local theater after an exceptionally long run. Uninterested in subjecting myself to January releases when there’s a Steve McQueen movie in theaters, I was one of three people who sat down to watch 12 Years a Slave.

If somehow you’re still unaware of this film, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetal Ejiofar), a freeborn black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After twelve years suffering as a slave, and doing his best to simply survive, he was finally freed in 1853 after which he published a memoir that serves as the basis for this movie. Northup’s life as Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia, is brutal to say the least. Even under his first master Ford (Cumberbatch), who treats him well, his status is clear. The fact that Ford will not recognize that he is ‘more than a slave’ because of his own personal debts truly shows us the harsh reality of slavery. After all, even a kind slaver is still a slaver.

Of course, the majority of the story takes place after he is traded away for his own safety by Ford to Edwin Epps (Fassbender). The Epps plantation is a brutal cotton farm, that at first seems to be composed of the stock characters we’ve come to know through many accounts of slave life, both fictional and factual. However, what truly makes this film important is the way it refuses to back down from the complex relationships between master and slave.

Northup struggles to merely survive; to avoid letting it be known he is a learned man, to never make bold attempts at freedom, and doing his best to avoid falling into despair. Meanwhile, we learn the story of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an exceptional cotton picker who is also lusted after by her master. He regularly rapes and sexually assaults her, while his jealous wife (Paulson) subjects the young woman to numerous humiliations and punishments that are simply sadistic. All of this comes together in a powerful scene in which Epps forces Northup to whip her, being unable to bring himself to do it. These sorts of cringe-inducing psychological tortures were more common than some people might like to believe and it’s important to not shy away from them. Of course, it’s also important to remember that from a historical perspective, there were actually times, many times in fact, when matters of the bedroom (which in the institution of slavery, were generally far from intimate or pleasant) were regularly brought into the public eye via the whipping post.

Northup’s salvation itself is bittersweet. The movie makes it very clear that just because Northup is free, and abolition is only a little over a decade away, doesn’t mean that any of the other slaves in the film have any reason to celebrate. It’s far worse, since they’re all being left on the Epps plantation with no hope of escape from its horrors.

The film itself is amazing. McQueen is an astoundingly good director, and he frames these fantastic shots where we simply watch emotions play across Ejiofar’s face that are literally breath taking. The whole thing draws you in, and every actor gives an astounding performance in this film, bolstered by great costuming, set design, and direction that literally lets antebellum Louisiana come alive as a place. This film is well deserving of all the praise it has already and will later receive.

All of that being said, I can say that you already know if you will see this movie. This is not something for the faint of heart to sit down and watch, many scenes will make you flinch or cry or just feel downright disgusted and frustrated. It’s powerful and it should be watched, because despite being so brutally honest it is also entertaining, however you know your own self better than I do. If heartache and the reality of history are too much for you, there are other films out you can enjoy.

Of course, as I tell you to turn toward a more escapist feel good film, I am forced to linger on the phrase ‘should be watched.’ This movie will make you uncomfortable, and that is a good thing, because we should be uncomfortable with this chapter of our history and we should not forget it. At the end of 12 Years a Slave, you will have felt many things but you’ll be left wondering and questioning, which is the best thing a film can leave you with.

You should watch this movie.

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From → Movies

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