12 Years A Slave [Celluloid Hero]
12 Years A Slave (2013)
The 2014 Best Picture winner is the second film that I have seen from director Steve McQueen (the first being 2011's "Shame"). He has a very blunt style, putting disturbing images out without hiding behind any walls. His characters have been raw and emotionally tormented, almost to the point of being unrelatable, but still manage to pull me in.
"12 Years A Slave" is a true story, based on a book from 1853 about a black man living free in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Solomon Northup lived a perfectly content life in the North as a free man, owning a house with his wife and children. He gets an offer from two traveling entertainers to accompany them to Washington DC for two weeks and perform with their circus. These two men end up drugging Northup and selling him to a slave trader.
Obviously, Northup immediately protests. The harsh reality is simply finding someone who would believe him. Northup says he's a free man from New York, but the trader says he's an escaped slave from Georgia. Northup didn't have any identification or proof of his freedom, so it was his word against the white man. He is shipped down to New Orleans, where he is initially purchased by a relatively kind slaveowner, William Ford. After a physical altercation with the plantation's carpenter, Ford sells Northup. The sale is ostensibly for Northup's safety, because the carpenter and his crew are set to lynch him; however the slave owner purchasing Northup from Ford is far crueler than Ford ever was.
After a few failed attempts at escape, Northup becomes acquainted with a Canadian who is doing work for Northup's owner. When the Canadian expresses his disgust for the practice of slavery, Northup confides in him. The Canadian believes his story, and promises to contact the authorities in the north and tell them of Northup's situation. It's a risk for Northup to tell his story to a white man who could easily not believe him, but in the end it pays off.
It's a harsh movie to watch, with several brutal whippings depicted, and a drawn-out lynching. It's also tough to see the day-to-day treatment of the slaves. I feel like in most depictions of the slavery era, there was usually one person who treated blacks kindly. In this movie, there isn't really a "kind" person, just a few levels of sadism. Director Steve McQueen makes a few overly artsy decisions with his cinematography, and the story didn't really need anything like that. In fact, cutting out some of the scenery shots could've cut down on the 134-minute runtime; that's really the only thing I have to complain about. The acting was fantastic, from the headliners of Ejiofor and Fassbender to the supporting roles of Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano.
I couldn't believe I had never heard this story before, and when I think back to my schooling, there was never even mention of kidnapping free men and selling them into slavery. I've seen a lot of depictions of this dark time in American history, but this may be the most impactful.