Based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave follows a free black man from New York, Solomon Northup, who gets deceived, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in the South. The story then continues through the cruelty and pain he endured during the 12 years he spent as a slave. The movie was directed by Steve McQueen and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, and many other well known actors. It was released in 2013 and became a critically acclaimed three-time Oscar winning movie. 12 Years a Slave is a movie very rare of its kind that I believe every American should see. This movie stands out from other movies about slavery in the United States because it is so captivating and gut wrenching due to the fact that it is the first movie made about slavery in the United States that accurately depicts the true horrors of slavery. It gives Americans a new perspective into America’s dark past that media often dismisses or attempts to forget.
The movie begins with insight about Solomon’s life as a free man living as an accomplished violinist in New York with wife, son, and daughter. One day, when his family is out of town, he is approached by two men, Hamilton and Brown, who offer him a job to play the violin in the circus they perform for. Solomon agrees, believing this will be a great opportunity to make great money for his family. Then, while out for drinks with the two men before they all leave for what Solomon believed was Washington D.C., he gets drugged and wakes up in chains. Soon he realizes the harsh reality; he is soon being shipped to New Orleans as a “runaway slave.” No one listens to Solomon’s claim that he has papers proving his status as a free man and instead gives him a new name to go by, “Platt.” Solomon tries to plot his escape, only to realize the danger of doing so. He decides he must get by each day by merely “surviving” rather than truly living. He is then sold to William Ford, a kindly mill owner who appreciates Solomon’s thoughtful nature and intelligence. But Ford is forced to sell him to a cruel alcoholic master who subjects him and other slaves to unspeakable brutality. For years, Solomon nurtures his dreams of returning home. He stashes slips of stolen paper in his violin and develops a natural ink with which to write a letter. But when his greatest efforts come to nothing, he realizes just how trapped he is. Solomon watches helplessly as those around him succumb to violence, crushing emotional abuse and hopelessness. He realizes that he will have to take incredible risks, and depend on the most unlikely people, if he is ever to regain his freedom and be reunited with his family. Northup’s repeated attempts to regain his freedom finally yield success when Bass, a Canadian abolitionist working as a hired hand for Epps, is convinced that Northup’s story is true and alerts the authorities in Northup’s hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York. A sheriff arrives with a neighbour of Northup’s from Saratoga, and he is released.
12 Years a Slave revolves around two major themes: slavery and justice. The racism in the film fuels the slavery and Solomon Northup’s suffering. The narrative illustrates how racism is an instrument for human wickedness—a justification for a slave owner to be unrelenting, cruel, and inhumane. 12 Years a Slave clearly points out that racism is a learned behavior, not an inherent understanding that people are born with. The overarching purpose of 12 Years a Slave is to reveal the heartbreaking realities of slavery and at the time that the book was written, for the sake of strengthening anti-slavery attitudes and furthering the Abolitionist Movement. So Northup’s assertion that racism is manmade and a means for human brutality ties neatly into this purpose. 12 Years a Slave also reveals that racism imposes limits on truth and justice. For example, John Tibeats, one of Solomon’s several cruel masters, frequently tries to murder him, but Solomon knows, “Had he stabbed me to the heart in the presence of a hundred slaves, not one of them, by the laws of Louisiana, could have given evidence against him.” Likewise, when Solomon is eventually freed and brings the slave dealer James Burch to court, Burch is allowed to testify as a witness on his own behalf, but Solomon is not given the same privilege. Burch is found innocent, and the court deems Solomon’s evidence “inadmissible.” Solomon points out that racism stood bluntly in the way of justice: “I was rejected solely on the ground that I was a colored man—the fact of my being a free citizen of New York not being disputed.”
12 Years a Slave is not a comfortable movie to watch, many scenes often made me cringe and want to look away. But, the movie’s brutal look at American slavery is also brilliant and essential for Americans to watch to truly understand the evils of slavery during this time. There’s no question that this is one of the most searingly intense portraits of slavery ever committed to film, and that it exercises the brutality seen on screen to bludgeon slavery’s grim, cruel and conscience-less degradation. It’s certainly worthy of the critical plaudits it’s receiving. But I’d strongly suggest that this film, as important as its subject matter is, is equally worthy of careful and critical consideration regarding whether or not exposure to such violent and sexual images of degradation is necessary (or profitable) to understand how horrific such things were … and still are even in our modern world.