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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.
" It's hard to imagine a film that the world needs more profoundly than "12 Years a Slave." For the ...
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup in the new film ‘12 Years a Slave.’ Photo courtesy Fox/Searchlight

McQueen uses longer shots than most films use, to direct your attention to things one needs to understand in order to absorb the human suffering in a difficult story. It is a kind of ministry of presence that the subject deserves from us but which few filmmakers attempt to evoke.

The film provides us with the means to reflect, for example, on what slavery did to the souls of even kindly slave owners, and on the legacy of the many mixed children who emerged from slave households.

It provides a picture of the slave trade as it was really practiced. It offers a couple of potent examples of how plantation wives participated in the oppression of slaves, and provides an array of windows into a slave economy, finally putting the lie to the romantic illusions about the old South that Hollywood and, indeed, American history have pedaled for generations.

To watch “12 Years a Slave” is to participate in a collective deepening of consciousness that we desperately need in order to make sense of our present circumstances. It is art that asks something of the audience, for sure -- but it rewards that attention with images that will unsettle you in the way that only the best art does.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. You can find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.