Nerd.Vomit: 12 Years a Slave

[WARNING: This review features minor plot spoilers]

12 Years a Slave, 2013

Writer: Solomon Northup

Director: Steve McQueen

“12 Years a Slave” movie poster.

The critically-acclaimed bio-epic “12 Years a Slave,” hit theatres early October.

If the title doesn’t clue you in, here’s the premise: Solomon Northup, a carpenter and musician in New York, is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years.

The film stars British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, and is based on the memoir of the same name.

“12 Years a Slave” is a good movie, but just like any work of art, it has faults when placed up against the shiny light that is reality.

I saw the movie with a friend who was briefly traumatized by the movie’s depiction of violence. I however, was not. And quite frankly, the movie sugar coats the violence slaves faced everyday.

In four scenes throughout the movies, slaves are whipped. There a few dust sprays of blood and whipped backs. Slaves were faced anywhere from 50 to 100 lashes to the point where their skin on their backs would literally be whipped to shreds.

One of the main story lines in the film is the the relationship between the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and their slave master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The film conveys Epps’ twisted love toward Patsey, in which she is repeatedly raped and faces brutality at hands of his jealous wife.

Female slaves who were favorited by their master were property, and just like any property, it can be shared. If and when the women became pregnant, the children would either be killed, raised in the house or put on postcards to raise money after the emancipation.

Some scenes feature slaves eating off of plates, which is not to say that this didn’t happen, because there were slave masters who were more humane than others, but it was just weird to see. Even Fredrick Douglas recalled having to eat food out a tub like pigs.

And perhaps the audience McQueen was trying to reach out to couldn’t handle this story. Perhaps a much truthful story, would’ve been too much. And if it is too much, what does that say about the stories worth telling, especially for minorities and women?

What does it say about us as Americans?

The story’s success is based on the hero’s story, and a recent review by Slate talks about this. What we love so much about Solomon is that he survived–he prevails against the system despite the odds never being in his favor. He talks back, fights, is friendly and most importantly, is honorable in world of dishonorable people–and he survives.

This is also a common story line in Holocaust films, too. We are ultimately a culture that sensationalizes outliers.

The Slate article quotes journalist David Simon:

“The thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution. … That’s the story we want to be told over and over again. And you know why? Because in our heart of hearts what we know about the 21st century is that every day we’re going to be worth less and less, not more and more.”

The film has been held as exposing a legacy, but what about the legacy of the slaves who didn’t survive? The slaves who were too afraid to leave the fields or the house? Are those stories not worth being told?

Center, clockwise: British Director Steve McQueen with stars of his critically-acclaimed film, “12 Years a Slave.” Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupida Nyong’o and Brad Pitt. Photo from Hollywood Reporter.

There are already talks for the actors winning Oscars, and rightly so.

It was nice and refreshing to see this story of my culture being told again. I was captivated by the spirituals, the humour and the necessary and the bittersweet reality the film gets right.

I recommend it.

“12 Years a Slave” is a film worth seeing.

It’s a film worth discussing.

If you want to see how the film compares the memoir, check out this fact-checking by Time.

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