Twelve Years a Slave

November 10, 2013 4 Comments


What is the most compelling way to make a movie about slavery?

Is is trivializing to make such a film?  Is the purpose enlightenment or entertainment?  Does it matter?  Quentin Tarantino used witty reparte, irony and cartoon-like violence in “Django UnChanged.”   The result polarized its audience, but won Oscars.

Director Steve McQueen (British born) has aimed HIS camera squarely at the institution of slavery in the United States in an approach free of hipness or comic relief. McQueen’s film captures the true story of Solomon Nothrop, a free black man sold into slavery before the Civil War.  We experience McQueen’s unflinching approach through the eyes of Nothrop, who struggles to maintain his humanity in conditions that reek of soul crushing cruelty.  McQueen refuses to romanticize slavery or let slave owners off the hook (or film viewers?)  Those who participate in maintaining a system that enslaves one group for the benefit of others are monsters who sadistically enjoy the cruelty or choose to ignore it.   Period.  This is a difficult film to watch.  McQueen surrounds the  horror of American slavery with beautiful shots of nature, which only emphasizes the ugly truth.  The acting is mesmerizing.  Chiewetel Ejifor’s development of Solomon Northrop never seems preachy or overly-edited.  We identify with the pain in his face as the realty of his situation evolves.  Michael Fassbinder and Paul Dana may be somewhat stereotypic, but again McQueen is indicting a system that depended upon such characters to remain in operation.

The final dialogue of the film provide the  mandate for an audience asked to struggle with the meaning of slavery.  (To quote the lines would be too much of a spoiler, but trust me, they are perfect).


Jolyn Wagner

Must See Movie of the Week
4 Comments to “Twelve Years a Slave”
  1. Bruce Russell says:

    There’s something in common between Amour (the subject of a recent Reel Deal meeting) and 12 Years a Slave: they both try to make you feel something about a subject you already know about. In the one case, what it is like to deal with the decline and death of a loved one; in the other, what it’s like to be a slave. In a way, Christianity is the glue that holds American slavery together. The masters find Biblical sources to justify their whippings and brutality; the slaves find solace in religion and spiritual music (e.g., in Roll Jordan Roll).

    We see different sorts of slave owners: a more humane Ford and a monster named Epps. And we see the morality of the slaves tested. Where would it be better to die than to suffer a particular moral outrage? When your children are taken away from you? When you are raped? When you are hanged and left to tippy-toe in the mud to save your life? When you are told to beat an innocent women or everyone will be killed? When your seemingly last hope is dashed because someone betrays you? How much humiliation is life worth? There are moral tests even in a relatively good world. There are severe moral tests in a brutally evil world. This film is about the evils of slavery, but even more it’s about how slaves should respond to those evils. When is enough enough? When should we draw the line and say, “Here, but no further. This is where I stand”?

  2. Jolyn Wagner says:

    I think the film is also an indictment of white America
    There are NO benevolent salve owners and a psychotic-like adherence to gentility
    The last line of the film “no need for apology” asks us to address the shame of our refusal to apologize

  3. Jolyn Wagner says:

    I think the film is also an indictment of white America
    There are NO benevolent salve owners and a psychotic-like adherence to gentility
    The last line of the film “no need for apology” asks us to address the shame of our refusal to apologize

  4. Bruce Russell says:

    Yesterday at lunch I had a conversation with colleagues and students on the topic of “dirty hands.” The idea is that if we accept benefits that are partly a result of immoral activity, we have “dirty hands.” For instance, if we were the children of a mafia boss like Tony Soprano, and accepted his putting us through college, or an inheritance that we received after he dies, we would have dirty hands. But then all of us have benefited from some immoral activities of our ancestors or country. So we all have dirty hands. That does not mean that we are always morally blameworthy for acquiescing, or accepting, these benefits. If even everything we need to even survive is partly a result of previous immoral activity or arrangements on the part of others, then we cannot be blameworthy if we ourselves did not contribute to the good by our own immoral activity. However, do we have dirty hands? What do you think such a charge might mean? And given that meaning, do we all have dirty hands, not just slaveowners?

Leave a Reply



Fresh from the Toronto Film Festival

The TIFF screens are darkened in Toronto. The past two weeks allowed nearly 400,00 fortunate cinephiles to view over...

First Update/Summary from the TIFF

The 2014 Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing.  Those of us fortunate enough to join the Detroit...

Coursera and the Reel Deal Mind Join Again on September 2 for: Scandinavian Film and Television!

    Does your Bergman filmography feel Im-Personna?   Do you wonder if there is more “at stake” to...