The film 12 Years a Slave is based on the 1853 memoir of the same name written by Solomon Northup. It’s been made into a film before, but not one on such a large scale as this one. 12 Years a Slave received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay – four of the “big five”. It also received nominations in the two supporting actor and actress categories. Those three acting categories are for the three main characters in the film. There are smaller appearances from a number of other familiar faces. It probably wasn’t hard for director Steve McQueen to attract talent to such a high visibility production.
There was some talk after the 2012 Oscars that McQueen was snubbed by not getting nominated for his film Shame (2011). In fact, that film received no Oscar nominations at all. That really wasn’t that surprising given its subject matter, though. It faced an uphill battle with the appearance-above-all-else Academy members. This time McQueen picked a topic that was almost guaranteed some automatic nominations unless he really screwed up. And he was much too talented for that to happen.
Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man living in
in 1841. He was educated, with the ability to read and
write. He played the fiddle, but must
have had better sources of income earlier in his life from other jobs he
mentioned in the film because his family (wife, two children) are shown as
being relatively well off. He takes what
he thinks will be a well-paying job in Saratoga, New York , but falls victim to
kidnappers. The weak excuse is that he
matches the physical description of an escaped slave named Platt. Washington,
He is transported to Louisiana and sold first to one owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who treats him relatively well (“relatively” being a relative term), but then after a run in with a white man (Paul Dano) he is sold to another owner (Michael Fassbender) who prides himself on treating slaves hard. On this plantation is a female slave (Lupita Nyong’o) that alternately delights and angers her owner. Given the title of the film and the fact that he wrote and published his own memoir it’s no spoiler to say that Northrup eventually gets his freedom back. I won’t spoil how that occurs, though.
The most effective thing about 12 Years a Slave isn’t that it shows the horrors of slavery – Roots did that earlier and more effectively (more on that in a bit.) It’s that this film shows the shades of gray. It would have been a mistake to show all slaves as noble people nobly putting up with their suffering and to show all white people as evil, conniving monsters. We get white characters from all points in the spectrum, from honorable men, to an owner that tries to do the right thing until it would ruin him financially, to ones mad with jealousy and lust. We get black characters that want to fight back, to ones that want to draw as little attention as possible, to ones that try to intervene from time to time, to ones that make the best of their situation – to the point of having servants of their own.
Key among these is Solomon Northrup himself. He at first believes a terrible mistake has been made, but once it sinks in what is happening he protests loudly. He is severely beaten for this. The movie doesn’t make him unrealistically heroic after that. I don’t care how much of a man you think you are, if you get beaten to within an inch of your life you will do most anything to keep it from happening again. Northrup convinces himself that his first owner is a decent man because he listens to and respects Northrup. A woman was also taken at the same time as Northrup. She gets separated from her children and cries without stopping. Northrup finally can’t take it any more and yells at her to shut up because her crying is not going to bring her kids back. Northrup rarely refuses to do something he’s told, no matter how bad it is. The poster for the film is deceiving because other than for a few seconds he never really tries to escape.
I mentioned the TV miniseries Roots earlier. I’ve seen the question asked whether 12 Years a Slave will be as important as Roots or have as big an impact, since it is treading pretty much the same ground. My answer is that that will not happen. That’s not because 12 Years a Slave is not a good film; it’s simply because of the sheer number of things competing for people’s attention nowadays.
Roots was a landmark in TV history. Its impact cannot be overstated. An entire nation was swept up in it and it literally changed television as a medium. It aired over eight consecutive nights, building word of mouth as it went along. In 1977 there were only three TV channels. There was no internet, no Twitter, no smart phones, very few personal computers, one gaming console with one game (Pong), no streaming movie services, no movies available to rent in any format, nothing big and flashy as an alternative to distract people from the miniseries. I was a child when it first aired and wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch it at first, but my mother relented and I got to see the last three nights of it. I’ve watched it several times since. 12 Years a Slave simply can’t compete with it because of the entertainment market as it is today.
Again, this doesn’t mean that 12 Years a Slave is a bad film. Gladiator is a lesser version of one of the story arcs in Spartacus (1960) and it is still a good film that took home the Best Picture Oscar. 12 Years a Slave can do the same thing. And coincidentally, both films are about slavery, too. Of course, it’s probably been a lot of years since Roots was last broadcast so there is likely an entire generation of people who have never seen it and 12 Years a Slave will be a fresh approach to the topic for them.
Just as an aside, last year the Best Picture nominee Django Unchained received a ton of criticism for the use of a period-accurate racial epithet. This year 12 Years a Slave uses it even more often, also in a period-accurate way, and I’ve yet to hear a single criticism anywhere for that. Where are all those people that were howling about it last year?
Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o all received nominations. Ejiofor has been doing good work for years in films such as Children of Men and Serenity, and he even had an early in his career appearance in Amistad. I’m glad he’s finally getting some recognition. Fassbender re-teams with his Shame director, this time as a supporting character. He gets the much flashier role, but I feel that Ejiofor more than holds his own with Fassbender. Nyong’o is a newcomer. Just like Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips she receives an Oscar nomination for her first film.
There are a number of familiar faces in smaller roles in 12 Years a Slave in addition to the ones I already mentioned. Brad Pitt, a producer on the film, has a short section. Paul Giamatti plays the man who first sells Northrup. Alfre Woodard plays a woman who has done very well for herself in a bad situation. Sarah Paulson plays the wife of Fassbender’s character. And the two stars of last year’s Best Picture nominee Beasts of the Southern Wild – Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry – appear in this film shot in their home state of Louisiana. I confess that I didn’t even realize Wallis played Northrup’s daughter at the beginning of the film, so short was her time onscreen.
My only real criticism of 12 Years a Slave is that the passage of time is not well conveyed. Were it not for the title I would have thought Northrup might have spent at most a year or two in captivity. We don’t really get the sense of the years weighing on him as time passes. And the section where he gets his freedom feels just a little abrupt after the slower pace of the film up to that point. It felt like maybe a scene or two had been cut from the ending.
12 Years a Slave is a measured film on a very touchy subject. Even though it’s not quite as effective as Roots, it is still a worthy effort on the topic. There are some brutal moments in the film, as you would expect, but they are not extremely graphic. They might be too much for the most sensitive folks, though. If you want to see a good film on this topic, and especially if you have not seen Roots, then I recommend you give this a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars