12 Years a Slave is slavery through the eyes of a slave.
There’s two kinds of movies. Type A: you like it or you dislike it. Type B: a movie defined by quality, where “enjoyment” is irrelevant. 12 Years a Slave is most certainly Type B, an unflinching masterpiece that has moments to cherish and moments to detest, but it holds the viewer’s attention the entire time.
The biggest compliment I can give it is that it succeeds through its explicit presentation of slavery. Director Steve McQueen spends one scene after another stripping the human heart of its every layer. The entirety of it is a two-hour catharsis, with John Ridley’s screenplay providing a most uncomfortable display of these unjustifiable acts. The characters are not complex human beings. They’re defined by either their strengths endurances, or by their weaknesses and cruelties. The brutality is excruciating in dialogue, but it’s far worse seen than heard. For what seems like three full minutes, we watch our protagonist try and save himself as he hangs on a noose. Meanwhile, white folk walk around the plantation nonchalantly. It goes without saying that 12 Years a Slave gets worse than that, though. Not since The Passion of the Christ has a film presented such repellent flaying scenes.
12 Years a Slave is a tale we can only wish not to believe. The reality is immense but so tasteless, it’s almost inconceivable. The epic is based on a memoir by Solomon Northup. Its full title is the story in a nutshell: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana. The account brings us back to the depicted period in everything: script, music, costume, and most of all, acting. Solomon Northup is well portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a lesser known actor in the cast, but as worthy of an award for his performance as any given performer here. His performance highlights the determination, opportunism, and bravery in his character. The height of the tragedy is when the slaveowners try to convince Solomon that he’s been a slave his whole life. Yet he knows the truth, because he doesn’t desire anything at all except to get back to his wife and kids again. He doesn’t want to work on a plantation, where he’s no longer seen as an educated, respectable human being.
Or, as he put it himself, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”