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12 Years A Slave (2013)

October 31, 2013

12yearsrun12 Years a Slave isn’t a picnic in the park, nor is it one of those feel good movies that lifts your spirits and makes you believe in the kindness of humans. Those thoughts get negated within the first 20 minutes when we are thrown head first into the gut wrenching true story of Solomon Northup. A freeman living in New York with his wife and two children, Solomon’s only mistake was being  talented, black, and alive in 1841. After meeting two traveling business men, Solomon is duped and sold as a slave. One minute his fiddling skills alludes him the life of a party while he sips sweet nectar among whites, the next he’s being auctioned off to the highest bidder.

What follows next is his tumultuous time in slavery where he’s stripped of his identity and voice and must endure what that does to not only his spirit but those around him.  Solomon (Chiwetel Eijofor) quickly learns that his past life of culture and brilliance makes him a target in his new lifestyle where his newest, malicious owner, Edwin Epps, (Michael Fassbender) only sees him as property. The real life story, and director Steve McQueen’s portrayal, of Solomon Northup is best summed up by producer Brad Pitt’s altruistic character Bass: “amazing, but not in the good way.”

McQueen’s tragic classic consists mostly of medium close-ups of landscapes and people. Everything from the frothy algae covered Louisianan swamps or the sweat escaping from Solomon’s sun scorched faced authentically captures the atmosphere of the Antebellum era. McQueen encompasses an array of soft, placid shots that contrast effectively against the harsh sequences we endure. Although McQueen creates tension filled scenes by just letting them pass on while we watch, the story doesn’t receive the same treatment. Writer John Ridley delivers key moments in Solomon’s life and slavery, just not a reference of time. It’s easy to lose track of the time frame as there is no indication of even a mere five years passing. Solomon’s hair never changes in length, he’s always close to clean shaven, and no one ages until the film’s end. Yet, in spite of this shortcoming, Ridley’s script results in a meaty sociological examination and discourse.

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What 12 Years a Slave doesn’t do is exploit or force down your throat the horrors of slavery—although it may seem that way to the faint of heart. Instead it forces viewers to understand the time in which these people existed. A world in which we are the offspring. A period when deplorable atrocities being committed were a normality. 12 Years A Slave timidly explores how slave owners of the period dealt with the times. For some, it was second nature to beat and rape and mutilate and degrade and demean another human being. These people slept peacefully at night because the law of government and of God allowed it. Others on the benevolent end of ownership found themselves bound to a system and way of life that despite feeling adversity towards dared not challenge. It was still a system that allowed them comfort and luxury.

12 years a Slave is dejecting. When I wasn’t in near tears after being reminded of the brutalities endured by members of the film, I was shocked at those very same brutalities, aghast at the past’s mindset, and furious at the evils of humanity. There’s no getting around the sadness and anger that may be endured when watching 12 Years a Slave. In fact, that’s the easiest part of watching it. The hard part is figuring out what to do with those feelings afterwards, especially for a situation that took place centuries ago.

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What do you do when  you leave 12 Years a Slave on the bittersweet note it ends on? How do you avenge the tears rolling down your face or the rage sweltering inside, or for some, the guilt you feel? It’s not simple, but one must be above it. We must use the knowledge we know of the past to evaluate our present and decipher our future to understand why the African-American race still faces turmoil despite having a black president. We must be angry at the system, not the players.  We are beings capable of anything and that means breaking the infrastructure that enslaves us all. 12 Years a Slave is a call to arms to the world, so that we won’t allow our selfishness and timidness to allow injustices to anyone ever again.

SEE IT. End of story.

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