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.