Worth Seeing: The Dramatic Twelve Years a Slave

New York, N.Y.  Twelve Years a Slave is a 2013 British-American historical drama film based on the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. after being lured from Saratoga Springs, New York in 1841 and sold into slavery.  He worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before his release.

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The first scholarly edition of Northup’s memoir, co-edited by Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon in 1968, carefully retraced and validated his account, finding it to be remarkably accurate.  The film is directed by Steve McQueen and written by John RidleyChiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup.  Twelve Years a Slave premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30, 2013. The film is scheduled to be commercially released on October 18, 2013.

When it premiered at the 2013 Tellruride Film Festival and, more significantly, at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival12 Years a Slave was universally acclaimed by critics and audiences, who greatly praised the film for its acting (particularly for Chiwetel EjioforMichael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o), Steve McQueen‘s direction, screenplay, production values, and its extreme faithfulness to Solomon Northup‘s eponymous autobiography. As of September 29, the film holds a 97% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 29 reviews with a average score of 8.9/10, and a 96% normalized “Universal Acclaim” rating on Metacritic.

Richard Corliss of TIME highly heralds the film and its director, Steve McQueen, by stating: “Indeed, McQueen’s film is closer in its storytelling particulars to such 1970s exploitation-exposés of slavery asMandingo and Goodbye, Uncle Tom. Except that McQueen is not a schlockmeister sensationalist but a remorseless artist.” He also reminds everyone the harsh cruelties of discrimination towards African Americans as shown in the film: “McQueen shows that racism, aside from its barbarous inhumanity, is insanely inefficient.

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It can be argued that Nazi Germany lost the war both because it diverted so much manpower to the killing of Jews and because it did not exploit the brilliance of Jewish scientists in building smarter weapons. So the slave owners dilute the energy of their slaves by whipping them for sadistic sport and, as Epps does, waking them at night to dance for his wife’s cruel pleasure. It is the rare white man who will speak racial equality to the plantation owner’s power; in 12 Years a Slave, that voice is Brad Pitt’s.

He tells Epps, “If you don’t treat them as humans, then you will have to answer for it.” Epps can’t even understand the question.”[18] Gregory Ellwood of HitFix gave the film an “A-” rating and stated: “”12 Years” is a powerful drama driven by McQueen’s bold direction and the finest performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s career.” He raved highly of the acting of Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o: “Fassbender is essentially the embodiment of evil as Northup’s last slave owner, Edwin Epps.

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McQueen’s frequent muse (“Hunger,” “Shame”) is relentless in depicting the inhumanity in Epps, but expertly manages to avoid making Epps one note. Instead of pretending there is some good in Epps, Fassbender and (Steve) McQueen provide him a range of combustible madness. As Patsey suffers from Epps’ affections, insecurities and jealousy, Nyong’o eloquently convinces us why her character sees death as her only viable escape. It’s the film’s breakthrough performance and may find Nyong’o making her way to the Dolby Theater next March.”

He also admired the film’s “gorgeous” cinematography and the musical score, as “one of Hans Zimmer‘s more moving scores in some time.”Owen Gleiberman ofEntertainment Weekly praised it as “a new movie landmark of cruelty and transcendence” and as “a movie about a life that gets taken away, and that’s why it lets us touch what life is.” He also commented very positively about Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s performance, while further stating “12 Years a Slave lets us stare at the primal sin of America with open eyes, and at moments it is hard to watch, yet it’s a movie of such humanity and grace that at every moment, you feel you’re seeing something essential.

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It is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s extraordinary performance that holds the movie together, and that allows us to watch it without blinking. He plays Solomon with a powerful inner strength, yet he never soft-pedals the silent nightmare that is Solomon’s daily existence. The ultimate cruelty he’s subjected to isn’t the beatings or the humiliation. It is that he is ripped from his family, blockaded away from all that he is.

Yet such is the force of Ejiofor’s acting that he made me think of Nina Simone’s sublime rendition of “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life,” the two songs from Hair that she transformed into an African-American gospel epiphany. Simone sang about how she, too, had known what it was to lose everything (“Ain’t got no clothes, no country, no friends, no nothing, ain’t got no God”), and because she had lost everything, she had only one thing left: She had life.”

The film’s producers, director McQueen, lead actor Ejiofor, supporting actors Fassbender and Nyong’o, and writer Ridley were widely tipped for award season success. When commenting on the film’s Oscar buzz, Ejiofor said, “I love the film. I think it’s a really strong piece of work. But I also want people to come to it without all the buzz and the hype and this and that. It’s a story of a man going through an extraordinary circumstance. And I do feel it needs to be engaged with in its own quiet, reflective way.”

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The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation (www.lucefoundation.org). There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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