Review of 12 Years a Slave, Directed by Steve McQueen
At the time of Northup’s kidnapping in April 1841, he was exactly 33 years old, the same age most assume Christ was when he carried his cross up to Golgotha. Unlike a God humbling Himself in the form of man, however, Northup was a man forced into the life of a slave, and the prospect of his resurrection was more elusive than three days.—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., from the press notes for 12 Years a Slave
Director Steve McQueen’s (Hunger, Shame) adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave does not invite attempts to apply the film to things other than human ownership of other humans. Try as you might to turn it into a spiritual metaphor or apply it to a religious journey, 12 Years a Slave refuses to allow you to think of it as a metaphor or something other than what it is on the surface: a story of a free man’s journey into slavery, and then back to freedom. It’s a harsh, at times brutal film, devoid of humor or other distractions from the horrors of its main story.
And it is excellent.
Although the film doesn’t want you to exit the theater wondering how you might apply it in your own life (other than to ponder this part of America’s legacy and never allow it to be repeated), its focus on perseverance in the face of severe adversity can’t help but resonate with Christian audiences. Faith is a constant in 12 Years a Slave, even if it’s often distorted by supporters of slavery who use the Bible to justify the practice. More positively, faith also is expressed in the film through spirituals sung by slaves as they work the fields and endure suffering, humiliation and ceaseless indignities.
We first see Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a slave, working in the fields. It wasn’t always that way for Solomon. Through flashbacks, we learn of his contented pre-slave life in 1841, when, invited by two white men to Washington, D.C., while his wife and children are away, Solomon is bound in chains, accused of being a runaway slave from Georgia, and sent to live as a slave in Louisiana.
Solomon becomes the property of another man, then another and still another. These include Benedict Cumberbatch as a plantation owner who reads Scripture to his slaves and shows some degree of mercy to them, and Michael Fassbender as Epps, a cruel master who uses the Bible to support his view that slaves are less human than he is.
Dubbed Platt by one white man, Solomon spends years answering to the name while keeping his head down and waiting for deliverance. Tempted at one point to rise up against his captors and attempt to escape, Solomon refuses. “I don’t want to survive,” he says. “I want to live!” In one agonizing sequence he’s nearly hanged, but later, when a fellow slave asks him for help in committing suicide, he responds with righteous indignation: “How can you fall into such despair?”
The film has several scenes of whippings and beatings that may be deemed too much by some viewers. Less is likely to be said about how beautifully composed the film is throughout its running time. McQueen groups slaves together in the frame in ways that suggest fine paintings—moments that make us aware that we’re watching a film, but which also provide a needed respite from the misery and suffering that suffuse this harrowing story.
Relief ultimately comes in the words of an abolitionist to Epps: “What is true and right is true and right for all,” the abolitionist says. “In the eyes of God, what is the difference?” If there’s a favor he can do for Solomon that might lead to the man’s freedom, he’ll do it. “If it brings you freedom it will have been more than a pleasure,” he tells Solomon. “It will have been my duty.”
12 Years a Slave doesn’t lend itself to easy application, but it does challenge us to think about our duty to our fellow man, and how easily we can minimize or shunt aside that duty while justifying our doing so. The film is a beautifully made story of a sad chapter in one man’s life—and one country’s past—that moves us from despair and loneliness to joy and reunion. It reminds us that people—and places—can overcome the worst sort of injustices and failings, and somehow persevere when there’s a hope set before them.
12 Years a Slave is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.