Reviewed By

Christopher Armstead
Let's talk '12 Years a Slave', director Steve McQueen's critically acclaimed film which I'm sure will gather all kinds of worthless award nominations when that season rolls around.  Now just so you know, I think this movie has incredible value, but the awards… I know they are important to the people that get nominated and win them, but I personally see no value in them.  And that's just one of the soapboxes I'll probably be standing on while discussing this film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor assumes the role of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man in 1841 New York.  Life for Solomon at this time is about as good as it can be for a Black man in the United States as he owns his home, has a viable profession as a violinist, has a beautiful wife (Kelsey Scott) and two lovely children.  Then one day during a business trip to Washington D.C., after being plied with wine by two seemingly upstanding gentlemen, Solomon inexplicably wakes up in a dungeon in chains.  Why these gentlemen went all the way to New York, tracked down a Black man, dragged him to D.C. under false pretenses to sell him into slavery…This I do not know.  I guess we will have to roll with 'they're just assholes' logic. 

Thus begins Solomon Northrup's descent into the terror that is American slavery.  One of the problems Solomon will have to deal with, as one who has been relatively free his whole life, is that he is not indoctrinated to the condition that is slavery, which means he will have to be forcibly indoctrinated.  A crash course on intense dehumanization shall ensue. 

Intense dehumanization or basic human slavery, whichever you wish to call it.  A few days earlier Solomon was shopping for fabric with his wife, and a couple of days later he's being beaten, whipped, witnessed the murder of a fellow kidnapped freeman, shipped to coastal Georgia, is stripped of his birth name and sold.  Now if there is such as a thing as a benevolent slave owner, which is certainly open for debate, Solomon is sold to one in Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Mr. Ford's benevolence doesn't stop Solomon from witnessing all kinds of atrocities, including himself being strung up and hung. 
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That particular hanging situation will lead to Solomon being sold off to cotton field owner Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender) who is not benevolent.  Not even a little bit.  If being in bondage is a bad situation, then being in bondage under the eye of Mr. Epps is the worst possible scenario in this bad situation.

The years go on, the atrocities continue, the fragility of Mr. Epps psyche gets shakier and shakier, and hope for Solomon Northrup regaining his old life begins to drain away.  But we know going in that this ends for Solomon after twelve years.  I assumed it was going to end with his regained freedom, but seeing what we've been seeing, there are other ways these twelve years could end for Solomon Northrop.

Every once in a while, when one is feeling brave, one might travel to a discussion forum to read some randomly insane quotes from a poster about a film.  Naturally, a movie such as this one being racially charged, is going to bring out some truly nonsensical ramblings from various anonymous nutjobs.  Reading those in themselves are almost more entertaining than the film, if they weren't so frightening.  To address just one of these, does Hollywood make too many slave movies?  '12 Years a Slave' isn't really a 'Hollywood' movie so to speak, but arguments sake, let say that it is.  The answer, of course, is no.  Slavery culminating in the civil war is probably only second in the history of the United States to the American Revolution itself in its importance, but I would venture to say that there are more movies in the vast American filmography on the afore mentioned American Revolution, World War II, Vietnam, the Depression, Prohibition, World War I, or Serial Killers than there have been about slavery.  Not the Civil War, but slavery.   This is American History.  As presented to us by a British guy.  And for disclosures sake about the movie '42', in regards to one particular comment, Jackie Robinson wasn't a slave.

The images that McQueen presents to us, through the eyes of Solomon Northrup are at times unrelenting in their brutality, and often leaves one with a feeling of hopelessness for those trapped within the invisible plantation walls.  I imagine how difficult this could be to watch for anyone who knew slavery was insidious, but never knew how bad it could be, and I'm still of the mindset that McQueen didn't go as far as he could've, though he's gone probably as far as anyone has dared to show.  I mention this because as a Black person born in the late sixties, raised by parents brought up in the Jim Crow south who had grandparents born into slavery, we knew already.  This part of American History was not shielded from me or my siblings or my cousins.  Nothing in '12 Years a Slave' shocked me are stunned me, but that doesn't mean it didn't have an effect on me and it did serve to add my profound sadness that slavery was allowed to exist for so long.

Chiwetal Ejiofor was outstanding in the lead, in what I'm sure was a difficult emotional task, being a detached outsider, thrust into an impossible situation.  Actresses Adepero Oduye and  Lupita Nyong'o , along with Michael Fassbender were very good in support, with Ms. Nyong'o being a true revelation.  It would be hard to watch this film and not be swept up in the emotion of Solomon Northrop's plight, a testament to the lead actor and the director guiding his movements.

Now if I were to levy criticism at this film, there were times, in the guise of symbolism, the director seemed to insert scenes that came out of some film school text book.  A shot of the sky here, a random shot of something or another there.  The more savvy film watcher probably understood precisely what the director was going for here, but for me these various shots served to take me out of the movie momentarily. 

That aside, '12 Years a Slave' is a great movie.  Is it a difficult movie?  It can be, but I don't think it has to be.  Millions were born into and died in bondage, and this is our history.  This film is the most powerful voice American Cinema has given this history of ours to this point.
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