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12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Solomon Northup (Novel), John Ridley (Screenplay).

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o,
Sarah Paulson

5 Stars

Official Synopsis:Based on an incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life.

If there is one thing I learned from Steve McQueen’s fascinating adaptation of “12 Years A Slave” it is that life is never simple. Life is not black or white. Life isn’t even gray. Life is a million different colors existing on the same plane, twisting and mixing into each other. This film is not simple, because humans are not simple.  We may wish it otherwise, but slavery was not simple.

This film gives you a landscape of characters. Characters who are contradictions, characters that are surprising and most of all characters who are complex. The film gives us the reality of the slave trade. There was more going on than the abusive task master and the defeated slave. There was more than the free men and the imprisoned ones. There was more than the women enslaved to covetous and entitled men. There was more than the slave owners who saw the evil in it, but kept the tradition, because that is what people “did.”

It’s hard for me to think of slavers as anything other than evil incarnate, anything more than immoral weak pigs. The absolute worst of humanity. And they were that, human. “12 Years A Slave” never sympathizes with slavers, but it does show an inescapable and terrifying truth.  That this existed. These people who owned human beings were humans. They had children and they loved.  And it really makes you wonder about what dark, selfish and immoral part of them can be found in us.

I saw this film twice, because I knew I wanted to review it. The first time I just experienced the film. The second time I examined the film and the people around me.  I saw and felt new things and I cried more. It was a shared heartache. When my friend who sat next to me began crying, I started crying. I wont lie, there are moments where the realism and honesty of this film will pull an emotional response out of you. How could it not? How could you not be emotional as you watch the soul in a fellow human break?

In my second screening the woman beside me covered her eyes during the few whipping scenes. I say few, because this film is no where near as gruesome or violent as reports suggest. Django Unchained is 10xs more violent and gruesome, but 12 Years is honest and so it makes people uncomfortable.  It is simply intense, which it should be since these lives were intense.

Still, this woman covered her eyes and every time I wanted to pull her hands away and scream WATCH!!! Because the film is about the reality of the slave trade. It’s also about our history and we shouldn’t look away and we shouldn’t hide. Early reports of this film discuss the violence and the beatings, but I will discuss the reality. Slavery is a reality. Just like Hiroshima, September 11 and the Holocaust are realities. People were kidnapped, sold, degraded, stripped of their dignity and beaten. And that was just the first day of captivity.

McQueen gave us that reality. He gave it with the amazing characters ripped right from the pages of history.  And he gave it to us with every shot.  In just one frame you get an entire narrative. You get the story of the people on plantations. You get a glimpse into the mental slavery and the daily terror. McQueen doesn’t just think about aesthetics, it’s about what each shot can do. What can it show. What story does the shot tell?

There is something about Steve McQueen as a filmmaker that makes you watch. It can be the emaciated body of Bobby Sands as he sacrifices his life for his cause, the distance between two siblings who share a dark secret past or the body of a petite beauty as she is whipped within an inch of her life. He makes you look at it, makes you see the twisted realities of our pasts and present. He moves in close so you can see every bead of sweat, every tear and every drop of blood…then he holds on it and forces you to experience it all.

I admit to being a bit biased, because I think McQueen is a master filmmaker, but “Shame” and “Hunger” are two films that I may never see again. I saw them, I got them and they inspired me as a creative person, but I do not have the desire to see them again. “12 Years A Slave,” I will see again, because it’s the kind of film that reveals more with every showing.

Listen, I know slavery is uncomfortable. I know that we want to sweep it under a rug and forget, but we can’t forget. We have to remember our mistakes, we have to remember our history and we have to pray to whatever our belief system is that we never repeat this particular fuck up in human history.  See this film. Just do it. No excuses. It’s important and beyond important it is a beautiful and masterful piece of filmmaking.

For more info: Imdb page and official film website.

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