“12 Years A Slave” is a solid film. It is tight, emotional and moving.
Although the film approaches the 12-year journey of freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in a traditional, mostly linear manner, it does so well.
Solomon Northup lives with his wife and two kids in Saratoga Springs, NY, where the four get along surprisingly well on only a violinist’s salary. One bright day-in-the-park, two well-dressed and unassuming men approach Northup, offering him a two-week gig in Washington. Solomon accepts, graciously, and leaves with the men that evening. We see the three wining and dining at an expensive-looking restaurant during the night, Northup wholeheartedly enjoying both meal and company. But the next morning Solomon wakes up in chains.
It’s a dark, damp room, exactly as one might imagine it. Blue and gray. Two white men enter on a confused Northup. One man pulls a lever and Northup, standing, thuds swiftly to the floor while the other man handles a bludgeon, proceeding to beat Northup senselessly, repeatedly on the back with no discernible intention of stopping. Northup is put on the market, and sold to a plantation near New Orleans, a place where mossy growths dress the tall, seemingly dead bayou trees like flayed flesh set out to dry.
Whipping, corn-husk dolls, cotton and a violin; what follows is a nightmare of a story, accented literally with blood, sweat and tears, but perhaps lacking the sense of accomplishment and productivity those three are typically associated with.
Steve McQueen’s direction, though not particularly daring, lends itself to a film that captures the irresolvable dissonance that plagued the whole slavery episode, the constant struggle between the inherent inhumanity of the subject, and the drive of the slaves to find meaning in their lives
McQueen is clear, concise and for the most part unforgiving, not wasting time on any unnecessary shot — admirable considering the film’s 134-minute runtime — and placing appropriate weight on slavery’s many horrors.
Of particular interest is McQueen’s use of long, drawn-out shots, which introduce a sort of deadpan irony to the film’s many horrors. In one of these scenes, Northup is about to be hanged on an old plantation tree by some angry white men. The three pull one side of the rope and on the other Northup is hoisted by the neck in the air. The men are stopped by a white man of higher authority, and Northup hangs there for what must have been at least a minute, toes barely touching the ground, almost still as he attempts to let himself down. Other slaves move across the shot behind him, going about business as usual.
Does “12 Years A Slave” deserve to win “Best Picture” at The Oscars? No. It is a truly moving picture, with dreadfully convincing acting, efficient directing and a tear-jerking ending for the books, but the film’s appeal is ephemeral. In many ways the film would have been more permanently moving had our protagonist died at the whipping post and some valiant assertion of his or someone else’s humanity.
As it is, however, Solomon Northup survives after 12 years — not a spoiler, indicated by the title — and, like him, the viewer is returned to the comfort of the civilized world. This ending is, I think, a disrespect to those — the majority — who never were returned to their families, who died like animals, uncared for and overwhelmed with pain, without purpose or home, sad and alone. May they rest in peace. But this is also a disservice to an audience, who is now deprived of thought. The audience is not forced to think further about the horrors of the Antebellum South. The filmmakers allow them to view, then move on, which is, I think, this film’s biggest failing.