ReThink Review: 12 Years a Slave - Can We Face America's Holocaust?

The doldrums after the summer blockbuster season are over, placing us in the Oscar/early holiday season. And an early frontrunner for awards is 12 Years A Slave, a film based on the true story of a free black man living in New York State in 1841 who was kidnapped, stripped of his identity, and taken to the south as an escaped slave. It's a harrowing, often brutal tale that pulls few punches when it comes to the cruelty slaves endured, to the point that some may feel director Steve McQueen went too far in unflinchingly depicting slaves' torture and suffering, which obviously pales in comparison to what slaves actually went through. Though perhaps that's the point. While the suffering of slaves has been duly noted in countless books, we haven't seen it as much in more popular mediums like TV and film where it's sure to reach more people. And with America's racist conservative fringe (a.k.a. the tea party) seemingly in its spasmodic death throws, maybe it's time to take a good, hard, painful look at what I consider America's holocaust -- that terrible thing in our recent past that must be confronted if we are to fully grasp and accept our own history. Watch my ReThink Review of 12 Years A Slave below (transcript following).


Sometimes I wonder what it's like for a German citizen to watch a Holocaust movie like Schindler's List. While most Germans living today weren't Nazis or were even alive during World War II, it still must be weird knowing that a previous generation of your countrymen committed such horrific acts in just the recent past. But after watching 12 Years A Slave -- based on the true story of a free black man in 1841 who was kidnapped, brought to the south, and made a slave -- I imagine Germans feel about the Holocaust like a lot of Americans do, or at least should, feel about slavery and the role racism has played in this country's history. And films like 12 Years A Slave, while often hard to watch, may be a part of finally coming to grips with it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a well-regarded fiddle player who lived with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. While traveling on a freelance gig, his employers drugged and kidnapped him and sold him to a slave trader, who then claimed that Solomon was a runaway slave from Georgia and brought him to New Orleans, where he had his name changed to Platt before being sold to the first of two owners.

Thus begins twelve literally torturous years of hard labor, pain, humiliation, and terror, made worse by the fact that Solomon had known the virtues of freedom, painfully evoked through flashbacks of his idyllic life back in Saratoga Springs. It made me think that real horror isn't some masked serial killer like we see in scary movies, but something like what Solomon endured, where you spend years with no rights or freedoms under the constant threat of death -- with all that abuse protected by the law.

The film mostly plays out episodically, often in impressively long, unbroken shots, as Solomon attempts to navigate his horrifying situation, hoping to get word to friends in the north and see his family again. During his twelve years, Solomon meets all manner of white people with varying levels of awfulness, like a slave trader who sees black people as livestock (played by Paul Giamatti), a seemingly compassionate master who can't bring himself to do the right thing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a slave driver with an inferiority complex (played by Paul Dano), an owner named Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) whose cruelty and lust turns him into a more unstable version of Ralph Fiennes character in Schindler's List, Epps' wife (played by Sarah Paulson) who takes her marital unhappiness out on her slaves, and, thankfully, a Canadian (played by Brad Pitt) who knows unequivocally that slavery is wrong and is willing to do something about it.

Solomon also meets fellow slaves, like another kidnapping victim separated from her children (played by Adepero Aduye), and a heartbreaking young woman named Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong'o) caught between her master and his wife. One of the film's most interesting characters is played by Alfre Woodard as a former slave who has become her owner's wife and believes that any suffering endured by slaves is tolerable since God will eventually even the score. I appreciated the film's emphasis on the alleged piety of the slave owners and how they felt that being a righteous Christian was consistent with owning and torturing slaves. However, a problem I had with the film, in addition to its sometimes overbearing score, was how those who were the worst to their slaves were also portrayed as the worst people, instead of showing how brutal, dehumanizing racism was simply the unquestioned norm in the South and practiced routinely by nearly everyone, not just monsters.

But 12 Years A Slave is a tour de force in almost every respect, with a sure Oscar nomination for Ejiofor and maybe even ones for Fassbender, Nyong'o, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. But be warned: this movie, at 2 hours and 13 minutes, feels longer because it can be so difficult to watch as slaves are beaten, whipped, raped, and lynched, to the point where some may feel director Steve McQueen went too far, as many (including myself) said about Mel Gibson with The Passion of the Christ. But, with America's racist ultra-conservative movement in its death throes, I think it may be time for us to really confront America's holocaust in all its horrors in a mainstream format, just as Germany has, precisely because they're hard to watch, knowing that the reality was far worse. Because if you think you don't have the stomach or see the point of a movie like 12 Years A Slave, then maybe you aren't willing to accept the truth about the country you love so dearly.

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