“12 Years a Slave” (2013) is a film based on the 1853 book of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free Black American man sold into slavery in the South. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. Alfre Woodard appears, briefly, as great as ever. Steve McQueen directs.
It won three Oscars:
- Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o),
- Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley) and
- Best Picture, the first black-made film to win that award.
I have already done a post on Solomon Northup, based on the book, so this post will be about the film only.
The last 20 minutes of the film, from the soap scene to when Northup is reunited with his family, is one of the best things I have seen in years:
- Lupita Nyong’o was amazing. She has the power to make you feel what her character feels. A great new talent.
- The moment Northup discovers he is free was better in the book, but McQueen made up for it with the farewell scene between Northup and Patsey and the way he had Northup ride away.
The rest of the film, though, was not so good. It is arguably the best film on slavery since “Roots” (1976). It makes “Django Unchained” (2012) look like a joke. But that is not saying much.
While Northup’s books presents an unsparing, historically accurate picture of slavery, McQueen presents a sanitized picture.
McQueen’s slaves have furniture, like it was no big deal. They get off work before sundown. They get meal breaks. There are no worms in their food. They do not talk about freedom, try to run away or plot against their masters. Even evil masters are handsome and charming and only go overboard because of mean wives, too much drink or backward moral notions. Poor things!
In the book Northup runs away twice. In the film he never makes a serious attempt – despite what the movie poster would lead you to believe.
Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a slave woman whose cries endlessly over her children who have been sold away, one of them to become a sex slave, is seen as – annoying! We never find out that she died of a broken heart.
We do not know about Uncle Abram – till he falls over dead in the fields. All his lines in the book are cut out.
Most Black characters are just sort of there and say nothing, like they were animals, though on occasion they sing. Only 15% of the dialogue is between Black characters.
If you want to know what slavery was like, read the book. The film is next to worthless for that. John Ridley, by the way, helped to write “Red Tails” (2012), also sanitized.
On the other hand, the film was good at showing the casual dehumanization of Blacks, like they were things, not people. It also makes you wonder how White people could practise slavery for hundreds of years and not have their culture seriously warped by it.
- Solomon Northup
- Django Unchained
- Red Tails
- American slavery
- The most gorgeous black men in the world – Chiwetel Ejiofor is #3