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‘12 years a Slave’

Focused and realistic film enriches a neglected truth

Darleen Ortega | 11/6/2013, 12:39 p.m.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup in the new film ‘12 Years a Slave.’ Photo courtesy Fox/Searchlight

It's hard to imagine a film that the world needs more profoundly than "12 Years a Slave."

For the first time --150 years after the abolition of American slavery -- a major motion picture devotes focused and realistic attention to an American slave narrative, without mitigating the story with a white hero or cheapening it with overly easy, dramatic resolutions of the problems served up by that story. It’s the most important film to be released this year and a master class in how film can enrich and deepen understanding of a neglected subject.

The film is based on an actual memoir that was briefly a bestseller after its original publication in 1853 before fading into obscurity. In that memoir, Solomon Northup (who was born free and lived with his wife and two children in upstate New York), describes the circumstances under which he was kidnapped and held in slavery in Louisiana for 12 years.

The memoir was published around the same time as "Uncle Tom's Cabin"-- but, chances are, you've never heard of it, though you've likely heard of the more sentimental and far less insightful "Uncle Tom." We Americans seem to have little appetite for Northup's type of truth-telling.

The film’s British director Steve McQueen (who is of West Indian descent) has said that he is attracted to neglected stories that have not managed to find the audience they deserve. That description certainly fits Northup's story.

An educated African-American who came to slavery only after having lived to adulthood as a free man, Northup apparently brought a quality of consciousness to his experiences that enabled him to narrate slavery's effects on his humanity with remarkable insight.

Helped by an insightful screenplay, McQueen's unsparing direction, and an intense performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the movie depicts not only slavery's physical brutality, but also its psychological toll -- the challenge, for example, of maintaining any dignity or personal power while living subject to the whims and caprices of those who hold ultimate power over one's existence and define one as subhuman.

McQueen's focus on neglected stories also fits the story of American slavery itself. The number and quality of films exploring Hitler and the Nazis is practically encyclopedic in comparison to the relative paucity of films addressing slavery with even peripheral interest. If anything, American films reflect a tendency to minimize this foundational aspect of our history so pronounced that it rises to the level of a collective character disorder.

McQueen's film, then, represents an important corrective, handled with subtlety and courage. It will guide you to a kind of legitimate suffering, requiring you to not only observe moments of devastating brutality but also to absorb how unremarkable such moments were to slaves and their owners.

One of the more profound moments in the film involves a long, hot afternoon in which Northup hangs from a tree at the very brink of asphyxiation, while slave children play in the background and the plantation abides in pastoral quiet. You may find, as I did, that the film holds you in a state of nauseous unease. As well it should. McQueen knows how to take a subject like this that is hard to look at, and to give you a reason to look. Each frame reflects a quality of intention that makes most Hollywood fare seem flippant by comparison, and John Ridley's screenplay (again, unlike most Hollywood fare) resists any temptation to explain or soften this challenging material. Ridley never relieves you of the obligation to grapple with complex truth.