Blallywood Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

by on November 6, 2013


The year is 1841. Solomon Northup is a free black man living in upstate New York.  He is a gifted musician- articulate, bright, and sophisticated.  He is a romantic husband, trusting friend, and doting father.  He is well respected by black and white acquaintances alike.  But, when he meets two travelling “businessmen” on the lawn of a town gathering, his world is turned completely upside down.  They convince Northup that they have the perfect business opportunity for him and he accompanies them to DC where they drug him and sell him to slave traders as a Georgian runaway.  He wakes up in a damp and dismal cell completely disoriented, and when he tries to convince one of the traders that he is a free black man, he is beaten near to death until he submits.  He is swiftly sold south to New Orleans and spends the next twelve years fighting to survive the harrowing brutality of slavery.

Familiar faces include Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, and Quvenzhané Wallis.  Not so familiar, perhaps, but notable faces include Adepero Oduye (Pariah) and Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild).  You may even recognize leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup.  If you don’t, you will never forget him.  He is fantastic in this complicated role.  He strikes an unbelievable meld of rage, resolve, wit, physical fortitude, and heart breaking vulnerability that is mesmerizing.  He is a master of remarkable subtlety that makes the film feel deeply intimate.  Another stand out is newcomer Lupita Noyong’o, 2012 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, the same program of which Angela Bassett and Meryl Streep are alumnae.  Noyong’o is Patsy, a fiery young slave girl who can pick over 500 pounds of cotton in one day.  She is also the apple of the master’s eye.  Noyong’o delivers two incredible scenes that are as memorable as they are breathtaking.

Cinematic elements are rich and often stoic with many scenes longer, quieter, and stiller than is comfortable.  It makes for gripping storytelling.  We see many tableaus, so still and so bold that they rival a Renoir painting.  There is a compelling duality between bloody brutality and pastoral landscape that redefines our understanding of the slave’s relationship to the land.  The screenplay is impeccably written with lush dialogue that transcends the foul and inhumane reality.  The language is rhythmic, musical, poetic, and rich with imagery.  The film forgoes histrionics for a simplicity that allows the story and the acting to shine.

Many necessary themes are explored, the most ubiquitous being the idea of ownership.  Slaves were property, priced to sell like any other commodity.  Their bodies were constantly on display- mutilated, violated, and demeaned.  Their bodies were not their own and their spirits were broken by ruthless force.  Slaves were coerced into surrendering any control they intrinsically possessed over their own bodies to the will and work of their master. It was a perverse prostitution that robbed the black psyche of its dignity and sense of self-worth.  Many slaves succumbed to the psychological despair, but Northup was determined to thrive, never losing hope that he would one day see his family again.

Another valuable point to consider is that this is the first film depicting slavery that is based on a real account of a person who lived the life of a slave.  Northup published the memoir Twelve Years a Slave in 1853 on which the film is based.  His account, though adapted for the screen, isn’t sanitized like most works of historical fiction. It is real.

It is important to note, as well, that this film was conceived and directed by a brave new cinematic voice, Steven McQueen, a black British artist.  His unique voice on this material offers a refreshingly compassionate layer to this type of story.  This fall has seen what I perceive to be the most significant contemporary cinematic retelling of an account of slavery EVER.  I predict this film will change the trajectory of films on slavery for years to come. A.

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