12 Years A Slave

Serious You Guys slavery was bad.

I mean, in case you didn’t know. Americans wear their slavery history hair-shirt like the French wear their treatment of the Algerians.

It can be tiresome.

So, a movie like 12 Years A Slave is kind of refreshing.

Turns out racism isn’t a black American billionairess who has some difficulty window shopping a $38,000 handbag in Switzerland. It’s more about, you know, the degradation of an entire country.

This is, I think, a pretty accurate depiction of slavery, at least in a movie sense. The story, if you don’t know it, is about a free black man named Solomon Northrup who was lured to Washington DC where he was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. As the title suggests, he spends twelve years in bondage until finally freed.

And, really, knowing that doesn’t mitigate the power of that eventual liberation.

Why this film stands out from other treatments of slavery, I think, is that it shows the richness of the degradation caused by slavery. Just from the get-go, the fact that a human being is a commodity allows them to be “stolen” and also “disposed of” as the whim suits.

As Solomon is given a new identity and sold, we see the next level of degradation: That of a good Christian who hates the system, and sees the evil in it, but is economically bound by it. However, most of the story takes place on the plantation of a not very good (though still very devout) Christian whose awfulness is given free reign by his complete power over other human beings.

The blacks themselves are given a human range of states to be in, as well. This is kind of nice, as the urge to sanctify can be overwhelming. But there’s Solomon, who feels the degradation acutely, as a free man, and there are slaves who have gotten along with their masters, and one who his her master’s favorite mistress, with much favors associated, and one who wants to be killed rather than be in the same position, and so on.

Slavery affects everyone who takes a part in it. That’s the point. It would make sense, of course, for Solomon to have penned a memoir that highlights that, but even in situations where the racial factor wasn’t the key factor (say, in ancient Rome), and Greeks were enslaved for intellect, it was still degradation.

You’ll hear that the film is brutal in its violence, and while that’s true, it’s also rather restrained. Except for one scourging, director Steve McQueen leaves a whole lot to the imagination, which is sufficient, as we’ve seen in many movies this year. The social situation is so refined (antebellum South) on the one hand that it throws the savagery of the system into sharp contrast.

Chiweetel Ejiofor (Love Actually, Children of Men) is an obvious choice for a Best Actor nomination, having to play—as Northrup must have played—many different characters in order to stay alive as a slave. He has a quality of nobility, of Everyman, even, that makes you root for him from the get-go. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is just heart-rending as the slave who wants Solomon to kill her.

Couple that with a moving score by Hans Zimmer and photography by Roger Deakins, and I think we’re looking at a whole lot of Oscar here.

The Boy loved it.

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