Best Picture Winner
Best Supporting Actress Winner: Lupita Nyong’o
Best Adapted Screenplay Winner: John Ridley
If ever a movie forces us to remember our past, in all its brutality, reality, and honesty, it is best picture winner 12 Years a Slave. It depicts the life of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery under false papers and pretenses. The source material comes from the memoirs penned by Northup himself of the same title. As a result, this history of American slavery is immediate. It is personal. It is real. It is gut-wrenching. And it is necessary.
Other movies have, of course, depicted the cruelty of our American history. But few have slapped us across the face with it. How has it taken this long to create such an important thing?
We watch, painstakingly, as Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped, beaten, and taken from his home in the northern states to the deepest south of Louisiana. His first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is kindly but conflicted. While he treats Solomon with respect for his talents, it’s as if he is trying to atone for the brutality of the slave-owning he is not willing to give up.
We do not look away when Solomon is hung up by his neck and left to stand on the tips of his toes as minutes…hours… what seems like an eternity go by. Close shots of his mud-soaked feet, barely touching the ground, are juxtaposed with wide shots of the plantation where a strangled and wriggling Solomon is but a blur in the background. All is quiet, except for the gentle blowing of a summer’s breeze moving through the pastoral branches of the Louisiana south. Slaves continue to go about their day’s labor. This is one of those masterful cinematic moments. You desperately want to look away, but just can’t bring yourself to. When Ford finally returns to cut him down, he maintains that he cannot protect him after a confrontation Solomon has had with the calculating and inferiority-complex laden overseer John Tibets, played by a hysterical Paul Dano.
As a result, Solomon is sold to the infamous Master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), known as a man who “breaks slaves.” What came before was merely a prelude to the horrors to come. Epps is brutal. He is ruthless. But even more frightening, he is a believer. Every word about scripture, property, and rights that comes out of his mouth is dripping with utter and terrifying conviction. His “rights” as “master” are no more widely felt than by Patsey, played with an honesty and rawness by Lupita Nyong’o that will rip your heart clean out of your chest. Chiwetel Ejiofor may anchor this movie in his portrayal of Solomon, but her representation of Patsey is its heart and soul.
In so many of the depictions of the history of slavery and discrimination, we are almost always confronted with a more or less mythical “white savior” type character. The Help harkens as a recent example of this mold. These “saviors” often seem to serve a cinematic purpose of soothing our white soul sand helping us feel better about our collective historical crimes. Even though they may be characters anchored in history, their presence is often over-glorified. I admit I typically find them unnecessary and in truth, a distraction from the efforts and struggles of those we have oppressed.
Though there are, of course, kind-hearted white characters to be found in our dark and dismal past, 12 Years a Slave does nothing to glorify them. Nor should it. Brad Pitt’s late arrival as Samuel Bass is understated, as is the role he plays in freeing Solomon. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley treat his presence as mere fact, nothing more, nothing less, an encounter necessitated by the content of Solomon’s memoirs. Solomon’s freedom is his to gain, and it is his strength and perseverance that should be celebrated, not the strength of the white figures who may have helped him a long the way.
Towards the conclusion of the film, we witness a scene so horrifying, so brutal, and so real, I imagine it evoked a visceral reaction in many viewers. But it is perhaps one of the more important depictions of what we put slaves through, not only physically, but emotionally and psychologically. We want to look away, but again, most will find it difficult to do so. When the movie concludes a short time later, you will leave feeling as if you have actually witnessed, for the first time, what slavery was truly like in the United States. And though it is an exceedingly uncomfortable thing to witness, it is indeed a necessary thing.
I use the pronoun and possessive “we” and “our” quite often throughout this piece because I feel it is necessary. Though “we” may have not literally perpetrated the crimes of slavery, “we” are responsible for perpetuating myths and falsities about them. And “we” are the ones who in many ways do not fully acknowledge the collective wounds of this period in our history that still fester and bleed today. I do so because I am quite surprised that in 2014, 12 Years a Slave is, to my knowledge, the first piece of popular film to bluntly and directly address the harshness and truth of our past. By not acknowledging and atoning, we perpetuate these wounds.
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