12 Years a Slave: A Dark Chapter

When it comes to the history of the United States, we haven’t been around for a long time. Sure, it’s been a couple of centuries, but that pales in comparison to some of our other folks across the Atlantic or the Pacific Oceans. During our short history, there are a few moments that Americans can be proud of. With the recent passing of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 1944, I’m drawn to this particular moment. Thousands of soldiers, mostly Americans and British storming the beaches of Normandy to save Europe from Nazi tyranny is a proud, yet somber moment. As it should be.


But there are many, many other moments in our nation’s past that deserve much attention and criticism. I’m talking of the institution of slavery. A machine of power and abuse that dominated much of the political landscape in this country for more than a century and a half left scars across our society that, unfortunately still show themselves to this day, even though 150 years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation. This dark story in our past needs to be studied and remembered, not for the sake of heritage or some other ridiculous excuse, but to learn from the mistakes of our forefathers and to learn how to not repeat them. It’s critical for our progression into a better, well-informed society.


I’m not here to launch into some diatribe about the misremembered role of slavery and how it cleaved our country in two during the Civil War (the war about slavery. End of story.) but rather to paint a picture as to how the institution has been examined in media. There are a few well-known examples of slavery’s terrible influence in the past, namely Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, released in the 1850s. But there are other voices that are equally as championing of the Confederate cause, specifically Margaret Mitchell‘s 1936 epic, Gone with the Wind. or D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. 


But, as far as a hard-nosed examination, a no-nonsense version of slavery dealing in tropes and stereotypes, there have been very few quality looks into the subject by Hollywood. This is where Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave comes in. The film, set in the 1840s and 1850s follows the life of Solomon Northrup, a free-born northern African-American man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south. The film, based on the real-life story of Solomon Northrup is a gritty examination of the antebellum south, the greed of plantation owners, the lives of slaves, and one man’s struggle to remain dignified in a world that feeds off his loss of humanity.

Now, for the rest of the movie.




Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor is a learned northern free African-American man who lives a quiet life with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. When his wife and children go out of town on a trip, two men approach Northrup, who is well-respected in his town, and offer him a chance to travel with them for two weeks, playing his violin, which Solomon plays quite well. While in Washington, DC, Solomon passes out drunk and wakes up the next morning in chains. He is then taken to a slave auction in New Orleans and is sold into slavery in Lousiana.


Northrup’s first master, Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is comparatively a merciful master. But when Solomon when acts out against the head carpenter on the plantation, Ford sells Solomon, whose new name is Platt, to Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Epps is an exceedingly cruel master who delights in whiskey, whipping his slaves, and sexually abusing a female slave Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o.


Solomon never stops trying to leave the plantation, but rather than trying to run away, he insists on attempting to send letters to his northern friends to rescue him. Finally, after 12 years on the plantation, Solomon is rescued by a Canadian carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt) and sent home to his family.


The narrative structure of 12 Years a Slave is a particularly interesting one. Rather than start at the beginning, or at the end, McQueen chooses to start the story in the middle, or when Solomon is at his lowest. At this point, he struggles to find suitable ink for a homemade pen to write a letter. As the film progresses, the story jumps back and forth between his current life and his past life, slowly revealing more and more about him. This is a structure that I find to be a particularly compelling story-telling tool for McQueen. Rather than giving us everything at once, the story plays out organically over time. 1.




Like I said above, 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northrup’s autobiography named Twelve Years a Slave which he published in 1853. Winning the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay was John Ridley


First, while I was watching the movie, I picked up on the lyrical nature of the film’s dialogue. It reminded me of a poem, but also reflective of the perceived dialogue of the time. As the movie wears on, though, religious references are sprinkled throughout the movie and it reminds me of reading the Bible. I’m reminded of the following exchange between Northrup and Epps after Epps has viciously whipped Patsey:


Solomon: “Thou devil! Sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice thou shalt answer for this sin!”

Epps: “No sin! There is no sin! A man does how he pleases with his property. At the moment, Platt, I am of great pleasure. You be goddamn careful I don’t come to wantin’ to lightenin’ my mood no further.”


My second observation and the one that is the hardest to explain relates to how the story is told to us. In many books and movies, even television shows, the story is guided by what I call the “narrative hand.” This hand leads you through the plot, seamlessly from one point to the next. This can take the shape of an actual narrator, or the scene sequences or context clues lead you to the next scene. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. It’s a natural way to tell a story.


This film has no narrative hand guiding us through. Rather, it’s the shot selection and the editing that get us through the story. The lack of the guiding hand is a unique way to tell the story and it’s my personal favorite way. It gives no “intent” on the part of the author or director, but rather presents the story just as it is. It’s a difficult concept to explain. But think of other films, Like No Country for Old Men, that feature this kind of storytelling. This, to me, points to a character-driven story rather than a plot-driven one. The writing, from top to bottom, in 12 Years a Slave is absurdly great, and it alone would make me rate this a “10” movie. 1.




Hans Zimmer composed the score for 12 Years a Slave, and just like nearly every one of his other film scores, this one is perfect for the setting of the movie. The primary score is mostly small sections of strings, or drums with earthy, droning sounds that help to underline the trauma and the horrendous nature of the movie. But the score is also very subtle and nuanced when it needs to be which reflects the film itself. This is much like Zimmer’s score to Inception, but it obviously sets a much different tone than that movie.


On the other side of the coin are the sound effects. I don’t normally write about the sound effects in a movie, but this one is different. McQueen uses silence and long, intimate shots to help “build” Solomon’s character. But Solomon is not in a vacuum, but rather on a plantation in the Deep South. Therefore, there are bugs. The backdrop of nature’s splendor and Solomon’s shock at the trauma he’s just seen is a juxtaposition that I couldn’t ignore. The simple insects chirping in the background while Solomon slowly comes to grips with his life seems to provide an excellent frame. 1.


Set Design


Shot in Louisiana, 12 Years a Slave captures the Deep South in a way that not many movies can do. Spanish moss dangles from trees, swamps fill the low-lying area, and the air just looks hot and stifling. Additionally, the movie was shot at four different southern plantations around New Orleans. One of the plantations, Magnolia, was just a few miles from where Solomon was actually held, lending gravity to the set.


Additionally, the costuming in 12 Years a Slave is incredible. Utilizing more than 1,000 costumes, the characters dress in everything from the simplest rags to the most flamboyant outfits of the Antebellum South. 1.




Sean Bobbitt was the director of photography for 12 Years a Slave. He was nominated for Best Cinematography for the film, but did not win.


Shooting the movie in 35mm widescreen film, Bobbitt used the format to capture the stark beauty of the south and give the film a warm and rich feel.


Additionally, the south is beautiful in own’s way and the movie definitely captures that. Bobbit and McQueen were inspired by Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s paintings for their shot composition in 12 Years a Slave. Goya’s paintings, to paraphrase McQueen, show brutal scenes of the overall human experience, but they’re fantastic paintings because they’re gorgeous. They encourage you to look at them even when the subject matter is disturbing.


Objectively, 12 Years a Slave is a brutally gorgeous movie, I haven’t written about a film that’s this starkly beautiful since The Deer Hunter. The cinematography doesn’t shy away from the obscene nature of what’s happening on the screen, but also demonstrate that this kind of abuse and violence can happen in a place and setting so unspeakably beautiful.


Additionally, 12 Years a Slave is a story not only about slavery but also about people, from the dignified like Solomon and Patsey, to the grotesque like Epps. As such, there are many close-ups of all actors so as to demonstrate the reproach, anger, evil, vicious, tragic, and hurt in each and every face. 1.




Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in a movie with an all-star cast as Solomon Northrup, an educated northern free-born African-American man. Northrup’s quiet life is interupted when he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. For the next 12 Years, Solomon’s life is dominated by being a slave on numerous plantations in the deep south.


From the start, Northrup’s dignity is threatened. He’s forced to stand for auction, play the violin for his white masters at their wish, suffer whippings and beatings, and forced to hide the fact that he can read and write from his masters. He’s a man that tries to survive, and does so by keeping his head down.


But slavery, naturally, tests him. Solomon sees all sides of mankind in the microcosms of southern plantations. He must deal with abuse after abuse. He still remains strong, though, digging deep within himself and relying on a dream to see his family again, even as one year passes to the next. Solomon is in bondage, sure, but he refuses to let it define him.


Ejiofor’s performance is one for the books and it garnered him a nomination for Best Actor. As I stated previously, this is an intimate movie and Ejiofor’s subtlety while performing this role was second to none. His emotions were always perfectly pitched, from joy to terror and everything in between.


Getting a win for Best Supporting Actress was the Kenyan-born Lupita Nyong’o, who played Patsey. The relationship between Patsey and Solomon is an unusual one, but also very intimate and powerful. While not sexual or romantic, the two lean on each other and become very close.


Patsey’s life is harder than most, despised and abused by Mistress Epps (played by Sarah Paulson) and repeatedly raped by Edwin Epps, Patsey eventually believes that her life must end and she tries to convince Solomon to do it. He refuses, but it shows the desperation to which Patsey has been driven. Deprived of even the most basic of necessities like soap (which other slaves are given), Patsey is an horrifically tragic figure in the grand scheme of the slavery machine.  Her story is the story of millions of other slaves who aren’t lucky enough to be rescued. 1.



Taking the director’s chair for 12 Years a Slave was the British director Steve McQueen. McQueen was nominated for Best Director for this film, but did not win.


McQueen first envisioned the project in 2011 after he read Northrup’s book. He had been searching for a project about slavery in the American south. At first glance, much of the film, as artistic and as great as it is, are hard to watch. Seeing Solomon Northrup’s story in 12 Years a Slave is a deeply moving and human experience. The worst and best sides of humanity are on display at one time.


There’s one scene that I always came back to while contemplating this movie. When Solomon is nearly lynched when acting out against Tibeats (Paul Dano), he’s left to hang from a tree branch for hours on end with only his toes keeping him alive. All the while, workers continue on in the background, unable to help him down. This scene is hard to watch, yet it’s an important one. Solomon’s resolve and commitment to staying alive almost dare you to look away. His life hinges on this moment and he’s never the same after it.


At its core, though 12 Years a Slave is a movie about power and how far some are willing to go to keep it. Slavery was an institution and machine in early American history and there are numerous symbols of that power throughout the film, from physical chains and beatings, to mental ones like forbidding slaves to read and to write.


But it also demonstrates how institutionalized that power and racism had become in the south at the time. Solomon could literally do nothing to get out of his situation for a dozen years, yet was subjected to every harmful beating and torment that no person should ever experience or inflict on another person.


McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave makes no apologies for its portrayal of the south and of slavery. It’s a rebuke to pieces like Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation which glorify the southern cause and champion Confederate heritage. This is a shameful heritage to champion. To paraphrase words from Susan Wloszczyna’s review for Roger Ebert, 12 Years a Slave is so upfront about its brutality and violence that it’s like we, as the audience are seeing slavery for the very first time. For all its history, pastoral views, and romantic ideals, the American south during slavery was a vile and degrading place.


This movie makes me emotional writing about it, and I’m tearing up in this coffee shop. It’s uncomfortable to see and some parts of it are unspeakable. But it’s supposed to be. By the end of it all, I wept for Solomon’s life, a man torn asunder by evil men and women. There is no easy way to watch 12 Years a Slave, but it’s a film that must be watched. The story is uniquely American, and it  is an instant classic. 1.


Bonus Points


Did you really think I wasn’t going to give this a 10?


Final Score: 10/10


Oscar Facts

The 86th Academy Award for Best Picture went to 12 Years a Slave on March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomenaand The Wolf of Wall Street for Best Picture. The award was presented by Will Smith and accepted by producers Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, and Anthony Katagas. In total, 12 Years a Slave won three awards after earning nine awards. Gravity won the most awards with seven Gravity and American Hustle both garnered 10 nominations.

Other winners that night included Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Director, Matthew McConaughey winning Best Actor, Cate Blanchett winning Best Actress, and Jared Leto winning Best Supporting Actor. Ellen DeGeneres was the host and the marquee moment of the night was the selfie that DeGeneres took with many members of the audience. The photo was retweeted 3.4 million times and went viral so quickly that it temporarily disabled Twitter. 


Next Week

Next week, I continue with Sam Mendes’s 1999 winner, American Beauty. After that, it’s All Quiet on the Western Front, The English Patient, An American in Paris, Gigi, Hamlet, and Out of Africa. 



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