MOVIE REVIEW: “12 Years a Slave” Chronicles Fall of Once Free Man Into Horrors of Slavery

★★ ★★ out of 5

“12 Years a Slave” is not a metaphor or a sentence handed down to a plantation owner. It’s a feature film by British Director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) based on the 1853 book by Solomon Northup. That is not a typo. I am talking about a book published more than a century and a half ago.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor from “Salt”) was born a free man and was having a nice family life in 1841 New York until he got suckered into a trip to Washington, D.C.  While there, he was kidnapped and taken to Louisiana to be sold as a runaway slave. This is still two decades before President Lincoln freed the slaves, in case you have not seen that movie.

Of course Solomon tries to explain his situation, but the only thing worse than being a black man at that time was being an educated black man. The movie demonstrates how most slaves are beaten, and those who could read or write were beaten to death.

We watch as Solomon becomes a slave. Worse than that, we see him witness many of the atrocities of slavery. To give you an idea how bad it was, they had to invent the word “abolish.”

These were some of the most powerful scenes of the film, though not played for shock value. The filmmaker drew me into these stories, and then I felt cheated that I did not see what happened to these other people. But then, Solomon never knew what happened to them either, as this was no cinematic fairy tale with a happy ending where all the loose ends were tied up.

The movie did not blow me away like I heard it did for others. I have read that people thought this was the best ever screen representation of slavery. I guess those people did not see “Roots.” While slavery was the backdrop for this movie, I did not see it as the overall theme. The performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon was incredible, and Oscar worthy, but he played it more like 12 years in prison. He knew he was “wrongfully accused” and never lost faith that he would find his way back to his life as a free man in the North. The other slaves had no such hope. To me, this contrast between Solomon and his fellow slaves is the theme of the movie. This supports the arc of his character, from a free man in the North, who was aware of slavery, to a man 12 years later who was forced to live as a slave and see the fate of his fellow man.

By the end, I felt cheated by the several paragraphs that appeared onscreen as a postscript. What happened after the movie as Solomon sought justice and how Solomon’s life changed sounds even more compelling than the movie I just saw. I should thank McQueen for not making it a four-hour movie.

I don’t think this movie teaches us anything new about how bad slavery is, and I don’t think that was the purpose. The movie did show us the story of an incredible man who lived on both sides and how he handled it. It’s well done, worth seeing and worthy of 4 stars out of 5. But I will be looking for the sequel to blow me away.

Tom Basham is an indie filmmaker.

Here is a link to his movie review site:

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Category: Arts & Entertainment, Movie Reviews

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