“12 Years a Slave” is the rarest of films. While the object of most films is to entertain and or inform through the telling of a story, “12 Years a Slave” transcends to an experiential level. As with other transcending films, in telling the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, “12 Years a Slave” penetrates the macro level of knowledge or believed understanding of the institution and takes the viewer to the micro level of experiencing life as a slave. As “Saving Private Ryan” offered viewers a minute feeling of combat, and “Schindler’s List” fostered the slightest experience of the holocaust, “12 Years a Slave” exposes the viewer to the experience of being a slave and having absolutely no rights or control over their lives.
This experiential element is accomplished in director Steve McQueen’s liberal use of extended close-ups. McQueen allows the camera to linger, often silently, on those offering and receiving the brutal treatment that was a cornerstone of slavery. This directorial decision not only gives voice to the hate of the abusers, and pain, fear, and hopelessness of those enslaved, but transfers these feelings to the viewer. While each member of the cast offers strong performances, Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s performance as Solomon Northrup is one for the ages as he demonstrates complete command over all aspects of acting, pitch perfect delivery of dialogue and facial expressions that powerfully convey the full spectrum of human emotions. Michael Fassbinder offers a visceral portrayal of slave breaking owner Edwin Epps while Sarah Paulson’s performance as Mistress Epps is utterly chilling.
“12 Years a Slave” is not an easy film to watch or pleasant experience to undergo, and while not appropriate for children and young youth, it is a film Americans should see. In recent months and years political leaders have made comments that either minimized slavery’s effects or blatantly contradicted the reality of this the nation’s worst scar. In addition to the traumatic effect on individuals, the film shows the devastating effect slavery had on families where children were usually separated from parents and one another. For America, slavery is not just a story from the past, it is a significant part of the story of America, and all Americans. Slavery clings to American history as the Spanish Moss clings to the Cypress trees of the various plantations Solomon labored and upon which director McQueen repeatedly focused his camera. The film also educates those who may not have known of the illegal but profitable practice of kidnapping free black men, women, and entire families in the north and smuggling them to the Deep South to be sold as slaves.
“12 Years a slave” also addresses the power of scripture and faith. As depicted in the film scripture can be used to establish faith that fosters hope even when all seems hopeless or it can be misused to justify hate, as well as terrorize and tyrannize victims into submission. One of the film’s more powerful moments is when the slaves of Edwin Epps sing over the grave of a fellow slave whose death was the direct result of abuse and neglect by Epps. That these persons can maintain and indeed proclaim their faith while living a hellacious life that, through proof texting by their vicious owner, they are told is ordained by God, is a living testimony to the power of faith and that the Light that is Christ truly shines through even the thickest darkness.