Year: 2013. Rated R. Contains graphic violence and sexual violence. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti. Screenplay by John Ridley. Director Steve McQueen.
I expected 12 Years a Slave to be handsomely mounted and richly literate, reminiscent of films in the 1980s. But now that I’ve seen it I realize it’s already a classic.
As well as being strikingly produced, it shows the painful plight of African American slaves in a few white-owned plantations in the South before the American Civil War and the success of the abolition movement.
The film starts by telling us this is a true story.
The buying and selling slaves is then shown as business-as-usual.
Paul Giamatti has a small but prominent role as a seller, costumed finely like many other Southern men in the 1840s.
The dubious economics of the endeavor are revealed as the story unfolds, while the class system is starkly depicted along with the slave owners’ depravity.
All the cruelty occurs in the context of Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) descent from a comfortable life in New York state where he lived as a free black man.
Sold into slavery and passing from master to master, he at first wants revenge. This turns to helplessness, then the urge to survive even when facing indignities and institutional savagery.
Powerful scenes will sober and stir any viewer.
Of course, we are not meant to enjoy such brutality, but it has a way of highlighting the unfairness of slavery.
The rape of a slave is not about sex. It’s more about control, power and hate.
And if it weren’t for Brad Pitt’s small but important role, the story would be bleak and incomplete.
Central to a string of powerful performances is Michael Fassbender – a Bible mis-quoting, proud, senseless, shameless, and ruthless master of Northup.
And when his cotton crops fail, he blames his slaves for bringing God’s punishment.
We expect something better to happen, but we don’t know how when the odds are heavily stacked against it.
Perhaps the central question of 12 Years a Slave is how do we maintain our dignity in the face of cruelty and injustice?
Northup plays games, fights back, and faces getting killed.
Slavery has almost broken his will to live, and yet he remains human.
This is a powerful film, a must-see, but it is grim and not for every taste
5 stars (out of 5 stars)
[First published at Anglican Taonga online, 2014]