12 Years a Slave

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Over the last few decades Hollywood has made a mockery out of slavery. 2010’s The Help turned the terrifying black plight into a light hearted comedy.  Most recently, middle aged white director Quentin Tarantino turned a very dark time in American history into a revenge fantasy spaghetti Western complete with a modern hip hop score, with the abomination that is Django Unchained. Thankfully the historical period has been saved by director Steve McQueen (Shame) with his newest film 12 Years a Slave.

McQueen’s picture is based on the astonishing true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York during pre-civil war times. One day he is betrayed by some friends, abducted and then sold into slavery. Solomon not only struggles to survive his situation, but to maintain his humanity as well.

12 Years a Slave is the Passion of the Christ of slavery films. It is honest, brutal in its depiction of violence and all about suffering. It exposes the true nature of slavery, not once sugar-coating it to appeal to the masses. The camera is unrelenting when showing the savagery of the slave owners and physical torture the slaves go through. During the middle of the film, Solomon is hung from a rope and the shot goes on for a full five minutes, making an emphatic statement about his desperate situation.

McQueen’s film is very hard to watch, but perhaps it is because the reality of what truly happened is hard to face. The acting in this picture is remarkable; Michael Fassbender’s depiction of a cruel slave owner is shocking, he truly makes you hate him. The dialogue is soul crushing and the score increases the film’s intensity. Expect 12 Years a Slave to be nominated for many Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but win very few. The powers that be would rather keep making masturbatory white-guilt films than give McQueen, a powerful black director, the credit he deserves. Watch this film and show that intelligent films regarding race do matter.

Published in Volume 68, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 13, 2013)

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