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12 Years a Slave

I don't want to survive. I want to live. - Solomon

But he does survive. That much is certain going into 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen's epic on the kidnapping and enslavement on Solomon Northrup in 1841. You know going in that he will make it through and bear witness. The New Yorker describes the film as "the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery". What they don't say is that most films about it aren't very good films. What's they competition? "Roots"? "Amistad"? Some movie set in the south, camera passes on some slaves, maybe a white guy holding a whip? 60 years ago, you wouldn't even see that. The camera would then go back to the protagonist, and the story continues. Remember "The Patriot"? They just ignored the entire issue altogether, and that was made recently. Yes, this is the definitive movie on slavery. It's also the only movie that wholly focuses on slave "life". It depicts the horror just fine. Where it fell short was on depicting the length of that horror.

The movie is a shade over two hours long. Within twenty minutes, Northrup is chained and headed for New Orleans. Five minutes before the movie ends, he sees his salvation. For 108 minutes, 12 years are supposed to go by. But that passage of time is missing here. That to me is the movie. The cast is amazing but nobody is on the screen longer than 10 minutes with the exception of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, and Michael Fassbender. That makes everyone else a distraction. You're not watching a Canadian abolitionist, you're seeing Brad Pitt with a funny beard. You're not seeing a decent(?) slaver, you're seeing Khan or Sherlock try a solid American accent. I know they bring star power to the movie, but do they have to be so beautiful? They are there for 5-10 minutes at a time, in one particular scene, and meanwhile whole years are passing. Would it surprise you to learn Solomon was on Edwin's plantation for ten of his twelve years? That may have been the point, when we see Solomon see his children for the first time since his kidnapping. They're not children anymore. I saw the violence, what I didn't see was how normal it was. I didn't see twelve years of violence.

Does it diminish the film, knowing he makes it? No, I don't think so. But his experience is so personal and depicted so briefly that the movie glosses over the most terrible stain on American history: That slavery was a systemic and institutionalized destruction of tens of millions of lives, for hundreds of years. That its abolishment split the union in two. And that it wasn't that long ago: the last American slave died just sixty years ago. When his wagon pulled away from Edwin's plantation, look above his shoulder at Petsey in the background. She collapses in the last second. It's a reminder that nothing here is a happy ending.

That's a nit pick, the movie is wholly terrible and beautiful. Nothing is held back: killings, beatings, torture, chunks of flesh ripped from whippings, rape, cruelty, degradation. The most haunting scene in the movie happens early: After defending himself from a cruel carpenter, Solomon is strung up by the neck. He's saved only by the overseer, who won't allow him to die but doesn't cut him down ever. He's lowered just enough so, if he stands on his tip toes, he can barely breathe. The shot lingers there for a minute. The other slaves go about their duties, children play, as Solomon tries his best not to lose his footing. Cut to a few hours later, before his master comes and cuts him down. The camera does not pull away in this film.

The acting is phenomenal. Ejiofor will get a nomination, if not a win. Nyong'o deserves the same. I felt like it couldn't gone for another 20 minutes, maybe into Solomon's life after slavery. There's a very interesting story to tell about what happens when he returns, but all we see of it are a few sentences on the screen.

Random thoughts:

  • Another example of beauty masking terror: The gorgeous landscape of plantations.
  • The language in this film is incredibly beautiful. There's very little colloquial speech, it's very flowry. Almost Shakespearean. At times it felt like an old play.
  • Hans Zimmer provides the completely unnecessary score. All I remember was the same four notes whenever Solomon became emotional.
  • Speaking of music, slave work songs takes a central roll in a few scenes. Be still and take it in.
  • I was really hoping to see Jamie Foxx show up in his blue suit and blow Paul Dano away. This guy is destined to play creeps.


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