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12 Years A Slave: Film Review

Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox
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Let me just say it as plainly as possible:

12 Years A Slave is the best English-language drama I have ever seen. THE BEST. EVER.

This story of the free-born Solomon Northup who is “tricked” into bondage is one that not many Americans are familiar with, and many who see the film will sadly think it a work of fiction. What is not fiction, however, is the film’s depiction of the realities of slavery: an endless series of daily beatings, whippings, bone breakings, humiliations and rapes culminating in the barbaric spectacle of lynchings in which slaves were hanged and burned in front of stadium-sized crowds, their remains charred and then passed out as trinkets and souvenirs to the “onlookers”.

To watch this, to know it is true (especially during the presidency of the nation’s first African American executive) is to shudder at the foundational evil of America’s birth. It will be an uneasy question for most to wrestle with, especially those who deign any criticism of America as “hate”. (The film doesn’t do itself any favors by having two British leads and a British director, but that’s a separate discussion).

12 Years A Slave is the ultimate “thinking cap” movie, simultaneously compelling and draining, and so perfectly withheld from the pervasive thoughtlessness of standard Hollywood features which exploit and rarely explore (see: Django Unchained). Of all the films ever to come out of Hollywood, this is the most acute examination of the existential and phenomenological perspective on the concept of human pain, the most fundamental suffering that accompanies merely existing and being human.

Solomon’s story is the story of exploration, discovery and alienation, illuminating the human condition in all its aspects, from death to absurdity to fidelity and freedom and beyond. Nothing poisoned American history like the barbaric legacy of slavery, and yet the film somehow transcends the idea of mere tragedy, supplanting the immediate (and sentimentalized) notion of victimhood for the far greater notion of survival with the most desperate desire to exist.

There will be lots of talk of awards for Best Picture and Best Actor (which is certainly warranted – Chiwetel Ejiofor is about to become a household when he wins every award in existence) but all of that seems incidental to what the film actually seeks to accomplish: this real life story of a free man turned object turned chattel is not just the story of one man’s bondage or the story of American slavery – it is the story of our own capacity to institutionalize evil in the name of an unchained and depraved barbarity.

12 Years A Slave delves with unrelenting horror into the idea that there are untold secrets whose disclosure can never undo them for they are outside the realm of logic, compassion and understanding. What is especially chilling to consider is that this is but one story, one tragedy among literally millions. This anguish cannot be quantified in the way that bodies and bones can. The film reminds us that to even attempt to assess the whole of slavery will leave one numb with horror. It can only be considered gradually, over time, if one has the strength of heart and mind to reflect on something so grotesque and evil.

Many do not, and this is why we forget.

Dear reader, you are living in a time of Artistic Greatness. This is The Must-See Movie of the Century. Period.

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"Foundational evil of America's birth"  As a person with a degree in History  you make me sick.  In no way shape or form is America built on slavery and you should know that.  Was it tragic?  Yes.  But your direct implications are not factual in any way.  A discussion of the underbelly of slavery in Africa is even more compelling, IMO.  Anyone who has any interest in slavery already knows of the stories the movie apparently describes.   And maybe some American should do a movie about England's reign of Imperialism.


It's good that the film was made partially by Brits.  It could be hard for Americans to stay true to the story and to the cruelty, they once were responsible for.  


It's good that the film was made by partially Brits.  It could be hard for Americans to stay true to the story and to the cruelty, they once were responsible for.  


You fell asleep during Schindler's List?