Twelve Years a Slave was, for most viewers, a clearly moving and compelling look into the horrors of slavery. It broke down stereotypes or misconceptions of slavery - the myth of "good" slave owners, etc. It exposes the sexual exploitation, the indifference toward other human beings, the sheer violence done to all involved (including the owners). The movie successfully broke down walls between the modern era and a time that seems, for all intents and purposes, far removed from our own. Yet it makes us all mindful that we live with its consequences, haunted (especially in the United States) with the legacy such a moral disaster has inflicted upon generations of human beings and their descendants. It is no wonder we still feel the writhing, clinging effects it continues to exert in modern moral consciousness.
The tale is of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a northern-born free black man, who finds himself taken in by some traveling entertainers for a job that seems too good to be true. And, as in most things, it proves to be so. They sell him to slavers and he quickly finds himself in a battle for mere survival amidst horrible brutality where, just a few moments ago, he was eating dinner at home with wife and children.
The tale plays out in terrible, inexorable logical progression. From his initial capture and his identity being reassigned by the slavers to that of a runaway, he is taken by master after progressively worse master. He sits alongside those who are far worse off than himself, despite his own soul-crushing experiences. His own attempts to find identity in achievement and good work for his master are rewarded with hatred and jealousy. His attempts to assert himself in the face of evil and injustice are rewarded with intense torture. Even his owners are aware of his free identity - but to speak aloud the obvious truth would quickly lead to his death. He experiences, quite naturally, despair and helplessness in the midst of terror.
The camera work and scene construction make this starkly and abundantly clear. Chiwetel Ejiofor takes the role seriously, playing Solomon with significant pathos, and is undoubtedly in the running for best actor at the upcoming Oscars. You are swept into the despair of that world, with its dearth of hope or happiness. Not much more could be asked of this movie, which explains its consistently favourable reception by critics.
On the more substantive side, one of the most powerful scenes is the one that might least impact many modern viewers, so removed from religious consciousness. In a scene that occurs in the midst of some of the worst violence Solomon experiences, which seems to drain him of all humanity, he finds himself at a funeral ("finds himself" being intentionally chosen - he lacks any motivation or will to live), apparently forsaken by all earthly help. In the midst of the funeral, the other slaves take up a Gospel hymn. He slowly realizes, in the midst of the singing, his hope can only lie in God's justice, and so he joins in the song. As it continues, Solomon is more moved and more engaged, until it is obvious he sings with all his heart. The message is clear - his trust in divine Providence is what, ultimately, gave him the will to persevere, as it did to the other slaves. The God of Moses cannot allow evil to go unpunished, or injustice to continue forever. It is this faith, born in the midst of despair, that sustained Solomon and ultimately led to his vindication.
And the subtext? It was this God, too, who brought an end to the ownership of human chattel in America.
It is, in the end, a true story.
My Rating: 10 out of 10.