There aren’t any worth while anecdotes that i have to put here in my introduction, other than the fact that it is amazing that after falling into obscurity for 100 years the book 12 Years a Slave was found and rightfully put back into its place of helping to expose the gruesome reality of slavery in the United States.
I have to wonder what other important and insightful narratives (not just of slavery) have been lost to posterity due to the ever rolling march of time.
A freeman’s life is something very easy to lose in pre-Civil War America, and one unwitting mistake proves to have horrifying consequences for one Solomon Northup.
The brutal realities of slavery take very little set up time, and the movie’s quick pace gets us to them in a furiously efficient manner; which i find is a positive as i don’t need to see an entire opening act worth of setting up Solomon’s peaceful existence before his kidnapping. I don’t need explanation or exposition to relate to his existence, and the director simply counts on my empathy and knows that anyone should feel revulsion at seeing a person being treated so to inhumanely.
This leaves the film to focus on what’s important, and that is how repulsive and brutal the institution of slavery was to the people who lived in it. The movie is only 15 minutes old when Solomon is subjected to his first beating and whipping, and the movie sets up within the first 1/2 hour how arbitrarily and quickly violence and upheaval came to slaves. As he loses his family, then he loses his fellow kidnap victims to violence and the slave trade in quick succession. In fact stability only seemingly arrives when he is brought under the brutal ownership of Edwin Epps, and that is of little comfort to him.
The drama as a result flows naturally out of the narrative, and even given the extreme nature of what i’m watching (perhaps even because of it) the movie doesn’t feel manipulative.
Aiding the drama are all around great performances from the cast members; with Chiwetel Ejiofor being undeniably (and unsurprisingly) the best in the film. Supporting members also shine like the helpless yet defiant Lupita Nyong’o, the suitably deranged Micheal Fassbender, and even a bit part from Sarah Paulson who manages to imbue her small role with a calculated and delicate malice.
While the movie’s pace certainly helps keep urgency and impact to the events unfolding, it does come at a price. Namely that the passage of time is completely shoved to the wayside; by the time the movie had finished i had no real sense that 12 years had passed by. While this might be by design, to subject me as an audience member to how Solomon must’ve felt as his life was buried under the brutal years the ending of the movie feels a bit rushed as a result.
I have no idea how much time Solomon waited for a response (months? Years?) to his letter, as it’s only minutes within the movie that are spent on some seemingly unnecessary padding. Emotionally the movie is over 15 or so minutes before Solomon is set free, with a final whipping scene so brutal and emotionally charged that has it stand out in a movie that is inundated with them. As a result it makes the ending feels bizarrely anti-climactic; as Northup’s 2 hours worth of brutal treatment are resolved in a couple of minutes.
Another minor annoyance is that one scene in particular comes off as overly theatrical, where the blocking, line readings, and acting feel like they are taken from a stage rendition of the story than one suited for film. Thankfully the other scenes in the film don’t feel so artificial.
Lastly Hans Zimmer’s score gets the job done in providing suitable understatement to the mournful and emotionally charged events, but does so in the laziest and unimaginative manner possible.
While the movie does have some faults, namely its pacing, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching and brutal look at a time and place when people weren’t treated as such. Where they were brutalised, and raped, and subjected to unspeakable inhumanities simply because of the colour of their skin.
It is with great fortune that Solomon Northup survived and escaped slavery to pass down his story, so that i hopefully never happens again.
OUT OF FIVE