You don’t see a movie like “12 Years a Slave” merely to be entertained. Being knee-deep in two books on slavery already, I considered waiting a while to see the film myself, at least initially, until I asked asked to review it. Let’s put it this way: If Alex Haley’s “Roots” was your freshman course on the subject in late ‘70s, then this is the graduate seminar.
John Ridley’s screenplay, adapted from the 1853 book “12 Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup, is a sweeping validation of the institution’s devastating impact. More, Black British director Steve McQueen and his cast, led by the sublime Chiwetel Ejiofor, own the narrative as if they lived through it.
Before his kidnapping, Ejiofor’s Northup is a free black man living a charmed, middle-class life in upstate New York. Flashbacks of happier moments left me wondering how much the man identified with the enslaved during this time. One scene touches on this, when a young black man follows Northup and his family into a store. The men’s eyes meet momentarily until the young one is summoned gruffly by his white owner.
Was it a case of out of sight, out of mind for this “free” black man? No one knows. What viewers see is a seemingly good-natured, trusting, smart individual handed a fate many would consider worse than death. After his kidnapping, in 1841, by white men who sell him into slavery in Washington, D.C., Northup, who moves between several owners, summons the will to seek help, repeatedly, in the face of relentless brutality. He also realizes he can’t save everyone in spite of his compassion for those suffering around him.
I never bought into the idea that slavery, in all of its depravity, imbued black folks with some magical nobility above everyone else. If one is treated less than others, or if one dehumanizes others, then it’s easy to see how ambivalence, amorality and immorality can take root. The characters in “12 Years,” both black and white, deploy all manner of rationalization to navigate questionable and often horrific decisions. This film reminds us of our responsibility to re-examine how complacency, desperation, cowardice, fear, denial and greed can perpetuate inhumanity towards others. It is a fantastic attempt at broadening our collective consciousness.
That said, folks better win some Oscars.
“12 Years a Slave,” Rated R, 133 min.