A Review of 12 Years a Slave

Please note: this is NOT going to be a discussion of the horrors of slavery in the United States. At all. This little blog is not the appropriate forum for that and I am not qualified to discuss it. I am here to discuss a film, nothing more.

After 12 Years a Slave’s domination in Academy Award nominations, I felt I had to go see it. And…I’m torn. This is the most conflicted I’ve been after seeing a film this year. I want to like it and to fall under the spell everyone else seems to have fallen under. But…well, read on.

I will absolutely praise 12 Years a Slave as a great costume drama. It has some absolutely incredible performances from Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyoung’o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. There are some genuinely moving scenes and we come away truly touched by the story. If that’s all you want, then go see 12 Years a Slave. You will not be disappointed.

But there’s this air that hangs over the film. 12 Years a Slave believes that it is offering a fresh insight on the institution of slavery in the United States. It thinks that it’s exposing secrets about our great national shame.

It’s not.

Maybe it’s impossible for the true horror of slavery to be captured in a dramatic film. But several filmmakers have tried, and they all seem to follow the same formula. Everything from Roots to Amistad shows everything we need to see – the savage beatings, the inhumane working conditions, the hopelessness of the people trapped in this situation. But that’s the problem – ALL of them show it. After a while, unfortunately, the usual reaction to this constant barrage of a formulaic story is to become immune to the message. There’s this sense of “I’ve seen it before” that prevents us from absorbing the horror. Django Unchained and CSA: Confederate States of America broke that formula and, to me, were more effective.

12 Years a Slave didn’t break that formula. It has a good idea by telling Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) true story of how he was a free man, kidnapped in Washington and sold into slavery under the name “Platt.” But that’s almost forgotten until the tail end as it becomes “just another” film about the horrors of slavery.

It’s still a horrifying story. Solomon’s master Epps (Michael Fassbender) is an appropriately cruel man who reads the Bible to justify his beatings.  The film also has a sort of documentary approach – there’s very little music (except with the slaves singing in the fields) and the camera often takes a voyeuristic approach to its subjects. Often times it hides in the plants and the leaves push back when they follow the subject. Those are nice touches and it makes me feel for the characters. Even Benedict Cumberbatch’s slave master is depicted as relatively kind (he saves Solomon’s life after Solomon beats up an overseer) but is still a slave master who does not wish to hear the truth about Solomon. Even the scenes in New York are good. One scene has a black servant follow the free Solomon and his family into a shop. The pain on his face is clear, and it’s done without a word. Letting the story unfold was good enough to get the point across.

What didn’t get that point across was the constant preaching about how terrible slavery is, as if we didn’t know that already. There is seriously a monologue from Brad Pitt (he shows up for two scenes) about how wrong slavery is and how Epps would be forced to confront his sins. It is also Pitt (whose character comes from a magical land where there has never been any racism whatsoever…I believe he called it “Canada” but that surely can’t be a reference to the actual Canada. There actually were slaves in Canada until 1833. Oh yea, and I read on Wikipedia that the real Solomon had to cancel a lecture in Canada out of concerns for his safety.) who finally helps Solomon regain his freedom. And that resolution happens in all of five minutes, even though the reality was much more complicated.

It sounds like I’m criticizing that one character and that one character alone. I am to a degree because it is so pretentious and such a terrible storytelling technique that I can barely believe AMPAS is letting 12 Years a Slave get away with it. And that character was just so out of place anyway. I liked Lincoln for being unafraid to express what people thought back then. Even the abolitionists seemed worried about black people later demanding equal rights. That seems monstrous to us, but that was a thought that was given serious consideration in the 19th century. 12 Years a Slave never confronts history head on. It’s just, once again, turned into a tale of good versus evil. I’m sorry, but history is never that simple and it’s a disservice to present it as such.

I did like the story of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Well, I didn’t LIKE it, but I thought that it was effective in getting the message across. She is supposedly the best cotton picker amongst the slaves, frequently picking more than 500 pounds a day. She is also frequently raped by Epps and then beaten by Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson). One scene has her approaching Solomon and trying to pay him to murder her. He refuses point blank, at which point she weeps about how she doesn’t have the courage to do it herself. The rape scene with her and Epps is a great piece of acting, and the scene in which she is beaten for going to another plantation to get soap so she can wash herself was horrific.

I came away feeling for her and her story. It was also something new to explore. Previous films had been rather…reluctant to discuss that sort of thing would happen. 12 Years should be commended for facing it, but it’s lost in the main story of Solomon.

I feel terrible writing this review. I can already hear the complaints. You’re right – I don’t “get it.” I never will. Films are a way to help me understand. Unfortunately, they’ve been trying too hard for too long. It’s almost become formulaic. 12 Years a Slave is good at following that formula, but for such an important subject I want more and I know it is possible to give it to me. 12 Years a Slave did not.

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