Based on the true story of Solomon Northup.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Director: Steve McQueen
I haven't seen a movie this heavy since Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. Accompanied by top of the line acting with explicit scenarios, McQueen directs an epic that will make you rethink slavery. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a huge fan of civil rights movies. It's not that don't care about equality for all people, I just feel that the media has almost fully exploited slavery to the point that we are used to it, bored of it. I fully expect the same mediocre visuals of how bad slavery is, in every movie (with exceptions of a few films that capture it well). This usually keeps me away from civil rights movies. However, I feel like 12 years a Slave changed my perspective drastically. It put visuals and scenarios in my head that aren't easy to forget. I will say this: it was a masterpiece.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man from New York who is kidnapped, taken away from his family, and sold as a slave in the South. He struggles for survival in this harsh world and goes through many hardships. He is owned by one malicious slave owner (Michael Fassbender), but still meets some other white men along the way who offer him kindness. With every year Solomon works for his wicked master, he begins to feel like he will never be a free man again. He misses his family, and all hope seems lost until he randomly meets a Canadian abolitionist who may be to key to gaining his freedom back. I don’t want to give away the whole movie in a detailed synopsis, but I will say that this movie made me visualize slavery like I never have before.
ACTING: I’ve never noticed this guy before this movie, but Chiwetel Ejiofor (who played Solomon Northup) brought a superb believability to his character. A story like this called for a strong male lead, and I though that Ejiofor knocked it out of the park. He arrests every shot with his deep felt performance.
Any movie about slavery needs a ruthless master, and Michael Fassbender was very convincing. Let’s just say that I hated his character, which I know is exactly what he intended the audience to feel. Fassbender has always brought top of the line acting to the big screen with movies like Centurion, X-Men: First Class, and Prometheus. If he keeps doing what he’s been doing these past 5 years, I smell an Oscar close in his future.
The film has a large cast with other big names like Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pit, Benedict Cumberbatch, & Quvenzhané Wallis. No need to talk about each one in detail, so all I’ll say is that everyone worked wonderfully together.
DIRECTING: Every shot, every scene, every angle will seize your attention. It perfectly conveys this appalling time in American history. McQueen didn’t really hold back anything visually. He shows the truly dark and explicit nature of slavery, that I found it difficult to watch at times. In 134 minutes, you will find yourself feeling the 12 years of captivity along with Solomon. There is one scene (spoiler alert) where Solomon is strung up in a tree by his neck, feet barely touching the floor, and he was left there silently hanging. In the theater you can hear the uncomfortable movement of people during this silent shot, clearly unnerved by the inhumane events before them. This was just one of many parts where you will not only see the audience effected emotionally, but physically too. I found it difficult to hold still at certain parts, and I assume (if you choose to see it) that you will too.
A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
This is a rated R film about slavery, so content wise you can expect not only violent, but sexual material. Viewer discretion is recommended.
VIOLENCE: There is a lot of brutal whipping and beating, although the camera angles don’t necessarily show the whip contact, it does show the actor’s pain-stricken face and the whip effects. It’s not exactly easy to watch. We see some hanging, once scene of stabbing, and other forms of physical beating. We also see rape (no nudity, but highly uncomfortable). I would argue that this is an unnecessary scene. (It is rather long). I think elements like these could just be implied, and still retain the emotional weight and power of the event. (That’s just my opinion.) Other than that, I feel that the movie hits all the right marks.
Although the content is explicit, it’s shown in the right light. By that statement, I don’t mean to condone the explicit nature of the film, but I am saying that it’s presented in the negative manner in which it happened. There is no unnecessary violence, unlike most rated R movies. It is all there for a point; to show the audience what slavery was really like. To show the unequivocal essence of slavery, violence is necessary. If you are choosing to not see the film because of violent texture, I don’t blame you. I won’t spend my time trying to convince you to watch it if you feel it’s wrong.
LANGUAGE: For a rated R movie, the language is very mild. A few uses of b***h, and many more uses of n****r. Most of this language is directed towards slaves, and it’s very degrading. Slaves are referred to as property and are heavily mocked throughout the film. Not exactly pleasant to hear.
SEXUAL IMMORALITY: (I am going to include nudity, although all of it is non-sexual.) I’ll start with the things that are actually sexual. There is rape, see violence section for more details. There is another scene where the pursuit of sex is heavily implied when a man leads a woman away, but this is immediately stopped before anything happens. There is inappropriate touching initiated by a woman. The scene is made to look sad. Although no nudity is involved, the scene lasts for a while. I would also argue that this scene is unneeded. Although I have no doubt that events like these did happen, I still find that putting it in a film was too much and maybe shouldn’t of been implied. We can all agree, that from a Biblical perspective, these events are all sexually immoral. It’s sad to see how heavily the world leans on sex as satisfaction amidst dark times. Watching the movie reminds me of the perverse nature of unsaved men, and how far they are willing to go in their sin.
Lengthily scenes of full nudity can be seen, although it’s often from a distance. Bodies are stripped for selling, bathing, and beating. Even though nudity isn’t illuminated in the sexual light, that doesn’t mean that it can’t inspire inappropriate thoughts. As Christians, we need to think this through. I don’t care if the director means to show it in the “right” light. Scenes like these could still raise questionable speculation from some people. Personally, I found the scenes with this “questionable” content sad and heartbreaking to watch, but it’s still wise to think things through before watching.
OTHER NEGATIVE ELEMENTS: There is a slave owner who hosts a church service for his slaves and quotes scripture, and treats his slaves with respect (even though he still own them). Another one of the salve owners uses scripture as a front to rationalize what he is doing. He quotes Luke 12 out of context to “motivate” his slaves by saying, they will “be beaten by many stripes” if they do not follow the master’s will. This particular slave owner treats scripture more superstitiously than religiously. He later goes on to say the slaves are brining biblical plagues on his plantation. Safe to say that he doesn’t exactly make Christianity look good.
Human nature, at its core, is dirty and wicked. This film is a sobering reminder of its abasement. It shows the lows that mankind is willing to go. Everyone knows slavery is wrong, so I can’t really call the film a necessary watch. I will say, however, that I found it helpful in increasing my understanding of slavery. We know it’s wrong, but to what extent do you know its darkness? It may not interest you, it may not be worth watching at all, but if you want a whole new deeper perspective for this dark chapter in American history, you may find it helpful. Again, viewer discretion is recommended.