Nearly two hours into 12 Years a Slave we finally got to the most horrific, gut-wrenching scene. After two hours of being emotionally exhausted, three adults gave up and left the theater, no longer able to handle what they were seeing. Moments later a woman got up with her two children, the oldest of whom couldn’t have been over 10. The first thought I had was “what sort of fucking idiot brings their kids to a movie this brutal?” My second thought was “how the fuck did they make it this far?”
That’s the sort of movie this is. It is 134 minutes of sheer brutality wrapped in sadness and loss, covered in a patina of depression. Words cannot fully describe just how utterly hopeless this movie made me feel. Yet at the same time, it’s oh-so hopeful. I mean, the title says it all, right? He’s only a slave for 12 years! He’s free by the end, right?
DM;WS (Doesn’t Matter; Was Slave). Though the film does promise a happy ending of sorts it makes sure to demonstrate just how shitty life was for anyone who wasn’t white in the 19th Century American South. A mere 12 hours as a slave would make you question everything just in this world.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York state with his wife and two children. He does well for himself as a talented violinist. His wife earns money with her excellent baking skills, and once a year she takes the children and cooks for a wealthy…someone…they’re sort of vague. But she does so for a few weeks, living on-site. One year (1841) Solomon is approached by two entertainers while his wife and children are away. These two gentlemen ask him to accompany them to Washington D.C. as a violinist, offering to pay him handsomely.
As you have probably guessed, he is sold into slavery instead. He’s also renamed Platt so that it’s harder for anyone from his life as a free man to find him.
What follows is nothing but sadness interspersed with pain and more sadness. He is first sold to landowner Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, who does not quite pull off the accent). Mr. Ford is a decent man who recognizes some of Solomon’s skills and is willing to listen to advice. Unfortunately his Overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano) is a jealous prick, and things do not go over well. (It’s interesting to see Paul Dano is still only cast as a terrible person.)
To save Platt, Mr. Ford sells him to the only plantation owner in the area willing to buy him, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, who almost pulls off the accent). Mr. Epps is the opposite of Mr. Ford. He’s a self-righteous prick who truly believes that his slaves are mere property.
Much of the film takes place on Epps’ property, and absolutely nothing is pretty about it. ‘Platt’ goes harrowing event after harrowing event, including several scenes with fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the object of Epps’ affection and his wife’s scorn.
Seriously, there is not much else to say except that it is somehow one of the most gorgeously filmed movies I have ever seen. Despite the sadness of the tale, each shot is perfect. The camera captures just how hauntingly beautiful the American South can be almost as an apology to cinemagoers for having to endure the brutality of the subject matter.
I think a man I spoke to after I saw the film said it best. “Every racist in America should be forced to watch this movie.”
If a racist can sit through this film and not reconsider their point of view afterwards, then they are irredeemable. If anyone else can sit through it and not feel one iota of emotion, then they should be cast out from society.
12 Years a Slave: A+