My daughter’s college friend said he saw “Gravity” over the weekend and loved it. He said it made his palms sweat because it confronted his worst fears. My daughter said she saw “12 Years a Slave” and it was “intense, realistic and numbing.” I agreed, and it was then I realized this review would be a challenge. Most people want fantasy escapism – to get their adrenaline pumping by watching someone else confront their worst fears – not realism.
Truth be told, I wanted to start this review differently. I wanted to start with a quote from the great American hero, Frederick Douglass, whose own story of being a slave along with his insightful analysis of the economic, psychological and human toll of the system that deals with buying and selling of people, was embedded in the film; as was Harriet Jacobs’ who wrote “Incidents in a the Life of a Slave Girl.” I wanted to talk about how the movie captured the degradation of humanity (both black and white) from the brutal system, and the genteel mask the slavocracy hid behind. There were so many meaningful scenes I wanted to analyze. But then I remembered my daughter’s friend and thought all that wouldn’t necessarily inspire him (or me) to go.
So this review is an attempt to reach the “Gravity” crowd, a movie that continues to gross at number one for the last three weeks. If you want your hands to sweat, if you want to confront your worst fears, then see “12 Years a Slave.” If you want to see a work of film literature, then see “12 Years a Slave.” Americans love to watch all sorts of violence and evil – so if you want that, this is your movie too. The movie is racking up awards, and the acting is phenomenal. Amidst the difficult and tear-jerking scenes is something unique for movies: redemption.
I can’t put my worries that people won’t turn out in numbers that this movie deserves on audience preferences alone. U.S. slavery – like modern day racism, its offspring – has never been a big topic for the Hollywood film industry. But when it has been, the slavocracy’s myths, distortions and lies permeate; just think of the Academy Award winning “Gone With the Wind,” a 1930s production that has become a cultural icon for generations. There has never been a serious attempt to portray truthfully a system so powerful it caused the Civil War, until now.
The film distributors must have thought about this challenge, as the first weekend release was limited to art houses and theaters with large Black audiences. This weekend it will open to more theaters. The reports are the movie’s ticket sales were good; grossing almost $1 million, which industry experts say is “impressive” for the limited number of screens. The theater we went to was packed with black and white moviegoers of various ages. That was heartening.
“12 Years a Slave,” directed by UK director Steve McQueen and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, is revolutionary. Based on a narrative written by Northrup in 1853, the film takes you inside slavery, from the slaves’ point of view, with complex, nuanced and varied responses by both black and white to man’s inhumanity to man.
Northrup was born a free man in New York. Married with children, he made his living as a musician. But in 1841, he was lured by slave traders to Washington D.C., where slavery was legal, to be kidnapped, transported and sold at auction to a Southern sugar plantation owner. Northrup is eventually rescued but millions of others remained behind.
Slave narratives were popular literature during the 19th century, promoted by the abolitionists – a movement of black and white men and women dedicated to ending slavery – and widely read. Northrup’s narrative was a “best-seller,” as was Douglass’ and many others. This is where the redemptive part comes in. There was a movement of black and white Americans who fought the system and demanded its immediate abolition; first and foremost – the slaves themselves with their resilience and resistance. Northrup joins the anti-slavery abolitionist movement, a fact that is not shown in the film but is mentioned at the end. Northrup also enlists a travelling carpenter (played by Brad Pitt), who lectured the savage Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) on the evils of slavery, to assist his escape.
Called “sublime piece of cinema,” “harrowing and illuminating,” “powerful and unforgettable,” the accolades and awards for the film, its director and cast keep pouring in and rightfully so. I would add my own accolades: truth telling, revolutionary and terribly evocative. This movie is not for the faint of heart, but for those who take heart in the enduring power of the struggle for freedom and humanity. I wish everyone in America would see it.
Directed by Steve McQueen
2013, Rated R, 133 min.