Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: John Ridley, Solomon Northup
Biography/History/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: November 8, 2013
All kidding aside, Scott, 12 Years a Slave is extraordinary.
Totally agree, Gregger. Quite a powerful movie.
We’re introduced to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Negro living in Saratoga Springs, NY in the year 1841. While his wife and children are on a 3-week trip, he is invited by a pair of circus owners to travel with them to Washington D.C. and play violin in their orchestra. Solomon isn’t long in D.C. when one day he wakes up in a cellar with shackles on his hands and feet.
Solomon tries to explain to his captors that he is a free man from New York, but he learns the hard way that the more he speaks the truth of his identity, the more brutally he is beaten. He is taken by boat to the deep south where he must live the life of a slave. Some of his white slave owners are crueler than others. One particularly evil master nearly kills him, and he is sold to another who is just as bad. The entire movie portrays Solomon’s attempt to maintain his dignity as he seeks to restore his freedom under the most horrific of conditions.
Scott, this movie provides a vivid look at the inhumanity of slavery in the old South. It will draw comparisons to the Summer’s The Butler for a look into the lives of how Blacks have been treated in America. The most compelling thing about this film is that it is the story of how a free man is cast into slavery. We see Solomon in his ordinary world, a full citizen with all the rights and privileges of any other man in his town of Saratoga. And literally overnight he is stripped of his identity and cast into a world where revealing that you know how to read and write could mean your death. The stark contrast between these two worlds makes his story at once chilling and compelling.
12 Years a Slave is hard to watch but it must be watched. Our ability to learn from man’s inhumanity to man is very much dependent on our willingness to see and confront the very worst ways humans have treated each other. For that reason we must see movies about the holocaust, about genocide, about torture, about slavery. And then we must do everything in our power to ensure that these atrocities are never repeated.
There are dozens of scenes in 12 Years as a Slave that portray horrific suffering, and the suffering is physical, emotional, and spiritual. There are scenes of brutality that are too terrible to bear, but bear them we must. Are these scenes over the top? If they were not true, perhaps so. But their veracity justifies their need to be shown, to be disgusted by, and to be learned from.
The impact of this story is how we can walk in this man’s shoes – asking ourselves “What if this happened to me? What if one day I woke up in chains with no way of getting home?” The concept of it boggles the mind. This is the strength of director Steve McQueen’s and writer John Ridley’s storytelling. They have successfully drawn us into this man’s nightmare and made us feel his pain.
Solomon’s story represents a classic hero’s journey. We meet him in his ordinary world where he is a free man. Then something terrible happens and he is cast into the “special world” of slavery in the deep South. He is separated from friends and family and must face enemies and make allies in this new world. The rules here are different and he must learn to maneuver in this strange place and learn the rules or suffer the consequences. The consequences in this case are the lash of the whip or even death.
Greg, the casting in 12 Years a Slave is phenomenal. All the actors deserve kudos for their remarkable portrayals of toughness and strength, anguish and despair, hatred and love, heroism and villainy. Chiwetel Ejiofor in particular jolts us into the reality of enslavement and the tragic toll that enslavement takes on our mind, body, and spirit. Ejiofor most certainly deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
We see and vicariously experience the pain and anguish of the slaves. We are shown various gradations of evil among the white slave owners, who range from heinously evil and vicious, to moderately cruel, to empathetic yet still condoning of the barbarous system. There are also nuanced differences among the slaves, from actively rebellious, to reluctantly submissive, to utterly defeated.
I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that Solomon eventually returns home since the title is 12 Years a slave. When he does, he returns as the master of two worlds – the world of a free man and the world of a slave. We learn in the epilog that he goes on to fight against slavery as an abolitionist and member of the underground railroad. This is the fulfillment of his hero’s journey: coming home with the elixir – the knowledge of what it is to be enslaved and the resolve to see slavery ended.
12 Years a Slave is as powerful a movie as any we’ve seen this year. It’s a painfully honest look at what it was to be a slave in the Antebellum South. It’s one of those movies that we must watch so that we never forget and so that it can never happen again. I give 12 Years 5 out of 5 Reels and Solomon Northrup 5 Heroes out of 5.
Gotta agree with you, Greg. 12 Years a Slave is a searing look at the worst form of human abomination, namely, the disgrace of brutal slavery. If you’re not in tears when you watch the relentless suffering, if your heart isn’t bursting when you witness the powerful final scene of the movie, then you have no human heart. This is one of the year’s best films and I nominate it for our REEL HEROES Hall of Fame. It most certainly deserves the full 5 Reels as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And as you so aptly point out, it portrays the hero’s journey most powerfully in its full form, earning it the full 5 Heroes as well.