12 Years a Slave: A Problematic Serenity Among Horrifying Chaos

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12 Years a Slave is a brutally honest depiction of slavery and the institution of racism in America. The film, directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley, follows the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who, as a historical figure, was kidnapped in Washington, DC in 1841 then later chronicled his time as an enslaved man in a memoir.

As depicted in the film, he pursues what he believes to be a career opportunity with two white men encountered in his neighborhood. Instead of working together, they sell him into slavery for their own profit, which throws the musician into a raw world of torture, anguish, and longing. He bounces around a number of plantations, never receiving any breaks or empathy from slave owners. Treated like a piece of property and his freedom rejected, he is ignored as his humanity is denied. Solomon Northup stands out due to his educated past and his desire for more, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” McQueen’s use of chaos and serenity together throughout the film not only recreate slavery in America from hundreds of years ago, but it also references the country’s current state by exploring the roots of oppression and institutional racism that persist.

Steve McQueen and John Ridley are fitting storytellers for this narrative as highly skilled artists and men of color. Their perspectives create a truthful and unflinchingly brutal look at slavery, the way that it really was, not a Hollywood fantasy with “pleasant” slave owners or some measure of equality in relationships. The two do an incredible job painting a vivid picture of Solomon’s struggles, making the audience feel his emotions personally as well as cringe with every act of violence he receives. Steve McQueen is also known for directing Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008), both dark-themed art films that reflect a formalistic style. He switches things up for a narrative focused on the story with 12 Years a Slave and does not disappoint.

The movie stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, and he does a fantastic job showing an intelligent and inviting face that reflects the hardships and stress he endures by the end of the film. The production of the film is brilliant and the acting superb, transporting the audience to some of the horrors of a plantation. Ejiofor gives an impeccable, multi-layered performance showing a false visage of “peace” while the paralyzing chaos surges around Solomon. Ejiofor does an impressive job of reenacting the physical and mental terrors of slavery with his performance and is able to recreate this revolting time period on screen.

There is an eerie serenity that exists amid the chaos on the plantation, depending on which point of view you’re looking from. One painful example of this is when Solomon is hanging with a noose around his neck but left on his tippy-toes, a slip of balance would result in death. Dangling for hours, he’s set to the side of the shot while peaceful birds chirp around him, eventually children return to play in the fields, and the land seems still. Like a review in The Telegraph writes, “We watch Solomon hanging from the branch of a cypress tree… Behind him, the other slaves meekly go about their business, but McQueen doesn’t let us join them. He holds the shot, and then holds it for longer.” The sharp contrast between the critical position the enslaved man is in and mundane events of the day shows how easily people turn a blind eye to these serious issues and how life seems to go on for those affected, even hardening them in a sense.

Elements of the film relate to systematic oppression and racism experienced today; between all of our daily chores/work, we barely seem to stop to address these problems. This is seen in the film when a plantation owner’s wife looks at Solomon dangling from a tree and immediately leaves doing nothing to help him. Similarly, the media will focus on police shootings for a few days then quickly leave behind a forgotten name and the same issues with little to no pause in most people’s lives. Racism will exist until it’s eventually focused on and cut down just like when Solomon is finally noticed (even if it takes a painfully long time for both of these matters).

Another key idea this film tackles is the existence of white privilege. An example of this is when Solomon picks 180 pounds of cotton, he is singled out, while a white servant who picks 60 pounds is told that he has time to improve. The extra time, patience, and leniency white people often receive, even when doing less, shows how minorities face scrutiny that others do not. McQueen uses these incredibly well-crafted scenes to help visualize differences and show the lack of equality that exists, making the film not only a quality film that holds nothing back but also an important movie to watch to expand one’s understanding of these problems.

-Sam Cantor

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12 Responses to 12 Years a Slave: A Problematic Serenity Among Horrifying Chaos

  1. mediaphiles says:

    Your review has truly painted a graphic picture for me. The way that describe the noose and another graphic scenes is haunting and makes me want to see for myself what the hype is all about with this movie. I also enjoyed reading the Telegraph’s review that you provided- well done!
    -Courteney Case

  2. mediaphiles says:

    Sam,
    I got chills reading your post about the film! I haven’t seen it before but it sounds incredibly compelling. I love that the film addresses racism and white privilege; I think that more movies need to do so because it is such a pressing issue. Because of your review, I will definitely be watching this soon!
    -Allie Kleinman

  3. mediaphiles says:

    Cool discussion of perspective in your review. I think thats totally what the movies about — yes it graphically depicts a black man’s experience with slavery, but the movie also includes the societal pressures of being white during these times. Super important to note the duality of these concepts — which you did. Overall, great movie and great review

  4. This has got to be one of my favorite films — because of how emotionally charged it is. I am glad you addressed the “eerie serenity” that existed on the plantation. There are so many scenes in this film that offer disturbing juxtapositions between beautiful serenity and sheer misery. It was truly a hell in a setting that looked like heaven. I think this is one of the most important stylistic choices made in creating such an authentic story because it helps emphasize the extreme inequality.

  5. mediaphiles says:

    Your review truly captures the spirit of the film and the truly haunting narrative which is presented. The scene with Solomon hanging from the tree, struggling to live is one of the most chilling scenes in cinematic history. I think this movie was groundbreaking in that it created a way the to talk about the difficult history of slavery in the U.S. which white Americans seem perpetually in denial of. Hopefully more movies that portray African American perspective, not just in the context of slavery will find their way into American cinema.
    -Kayla Pierle

  6. mediaphiles says:

    I love how detailed your review is! I also like how you dealt with such a serious film and also related it to issues still prevalent today. Relating specific scenes in the film with current things happening in America today was a very successful way of writing on this film!
    -Maddie Dickens

  7. mediaphiles says:

    This film is so powerful and impactful. Definitely agree with it’s eerie vibe. It really bugs me how, when Hollywood is clearly RICH with talented actors like Ejiofor and Nyong’o, we do not get more films utilizing them.
    –A.P. Brothers

  8. mediaphiles says:

    I loved this review. You tackled the issue of race head-on, and tied this film on slavery to today’s discussions on institutional racism, which drove home the importance and relevancy of this movie. I also love how you mentioned the significance of the directors’ own experiences as men of color, and how it may have impacted the film and its emotional accuracy. Good job!

    -Meg Schmit

  9. mediaphiles says:

    I think this is one of the most emotionally powerful films in recent years. I think your review does a great job describing the feel of film, and I liked how you connected the themes of racism in the film to issue of racism we face today.

    -Walker Rise

  10. mediaphiles says:

    This film is obviously well known as a diamond of the film industry. The commentary on the world of 200 years ago even has applications in today and this movie finds a way to make us all take a deeper look within. The problems that were faced back then are luckily gone now, but it makes people stop and wonder if there’s other problems going on now that need fixing.

    -Samuel Ederle

  11. marymdalton says:

    Agree! This is one of the best (and most important) films of recent years. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so.

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