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Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

RIver Road Productions

David Ives - published on 10/25/13 - updated on 06/08/17

Not just a film about slavery, but an insight into the complexities of human nature and how society comes to accept certain horrors as a part of life.

As the scene unfolding on the big screen depicted an elderly slave raising a gun and filling his cruel master full of buckshot, the middle-aged white movie reviewer jumped from his seat in the theater screaming,"Yes, yes! Now kill the young one too! I'm convinced – white people stink! Kill all them lousy whites!"

So ended Crazy Magazine's parody of the 1975 film Mandingo. Now some of you reading this probably aren't beginning to show grey around the temples like I am, so there's a good chance you've never even heard of Crazy Magazine or Mandingo. The former was Marvel Comic's relatively short lived attempt at a Mad Magazine style humor publication complete with monthly movie parodies drawn by the company's stable of cartoonists. The latter was a film released by Paramount Pictures onto an unsuspecting public during the summer of '75 which purported to show the unexpurgated truth about what life was really like for slaves on the plantations of the antebellum South. What it was in reality was a unrepentant piece of exploitation film making, full of bloody violence and degrading sex. Roger Ebert called Mandingo, among other things, a "wretched potboiler", a "piece of manure", and "racist trash, obscene in its manipulation of human beings and feelings." Of course, as Crazy Magazine so deftly pointed out, that last bit was the whole point. If there was any purpose at all to Mandingo, it was to engage viewers on a gut level with images so outrageous (one slave is actually forced to boil himself alive) that even the whitest of white people would leave the theater loathing their race.

But that was a long time ago, and about the only people who remember Mandingo these days are Quentin Tarantino, older film buffs, and aficionados of camp cinema. As I'm guilty of being two of those things, I couldn't help but think of Mandingo when the early buzz from festival showings of 12 Years A Slave touted the movie as a brutal and traumatic experience due to its unflinching look at life on a plantation. Great, I thought, just what we need, another Mandingo full of scenes of graphic rape and murder designed to foster animosity amongst the races. Fortunately, now having actually seen 12 Years A Slave, I can say with some relief that it's nothing like the 'slavesploitation' films of old. In fact, for most of its running time, 12 Years A Slave is actually a very quiet movie. And yet somehow that makes what we do see on screen all the more horrifying.

Based on an autobiographical memoir published in 1863, 12 Years A Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free born citizen of the United States who at the age of 33 was lured to Washington D.C. under false pretenses, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Beaten until he no longer protested his situation, Northup was eventually shipped with other slaves to Louisiana where he was purchased by William Ford, a Baptist preacher and lumber magnate known for treating his slaves with some modicum of compassion. After some time had passed, however, circumstances required Ford to transfer ownership of Northup to Edwin Epps, a plantation owner infamous for his brutally abusive ways. Finally, after a dozen years under the yoke of slavery, Northup managed to convince a sympathetic carpenter by the name of Samuel Bass to deliver a letter to Northup's family in the north. His location revealed, Northup was subsequently freed and returned to his family.

Even to those with a passing familiarity with the history of slavery in the United States, either through study or through fictional works such as Alex Haley's Roots, the scenes depicting Northup's ordeal are still harrowing. But unlike many of its cinematic predecessors, 12 Years A Slave doesn't linger on the physical cruelty. It's not that the film shies away from violence. Indeed, the bloody effects of lashings and beatings are clearly shown and a rape is depicted. But rather than basking in the more exploitative elements on hand, the camera instead focuses most often on the faces of those involved, victims and perpetrators alike. 12 Years A Slave plays out this way from the very first scene in which a line of slaves stares unblinking and unmoving directly into the camera. You see, this is a movie that doesn't want you to just concentrate on the unpleasant events. It wants you to look at these people, wants you to really see them. And it wants you to know that they are also looking back at you, and see you as well.

That's because, ultimately, 12 Years A Slave isn't just a film about slavery, it's a film about all of us, and how we as a society come to accept certain horrors as a part of life. Northup's first "master", for example, is a relatively decent man when compared to some of the other slave owners whom Northup will eventually meet, but as Northup has it bluntly explained to him, such men's sentimentality extend only the length of a coin. We see this clearly after Northup devises a means to increase the productivity in Ford's lumber operation, inspiring Ford to heap praise on Northup for his remarkable intelligence. But when Northup sees this moment as an opportunity to explain to Ford the circumstances of his captivity, Ford can only gape back in incredulity that Northup would even think to seek to escape his situation. Ford has, after all, followed the law and paid his money for a slave. He values Northup, yes, but as an investment, not as a person. It's simply the way the system works.

But as distressing as that realization is, it's the begrudging acceptance of the situation on the part of many of the slaves that is even more so. In what is perhaps the film's most excruciating scene, Northup is strung up by his neck after daring to strike a particularly loathsome taskmaster. With his hands tied behind his back and his toes barely touching the ground, Northup can do little but hang there, choking and gasping for breath. The camera sits stationary for minutes, forcing us to watch as the man struggles to maintain his balance. Finally, one by one, Nothup's fellow slaves begin to emerge from their cabins. But not to offer any help. One goes back to her chores, one sits on his porch for a brief respite, children begin to play. All the while Northup continues to dangle, one misstep away from hanging himself. And it just keeps going for what feels like an eternity.

Now obviously, since the movie has already established by this point that disobedience often leads to death, the slaves can't fully be blamed for not rushing to help Northup out of his predicament. They would probably just end up hanging next to him after all. But the nonchalantness with which they return to their routine while Northup suffers only a few feet away is still chilling. It shows that on some level they have accepted such things as a normal part of their existence. And that's the main takeaway from 12 Years A Slave. It's not just that a bunch of lousy white people did some bad things and we should hate them for it. It's that these things were allowed to happen because some people benefited, some looked the other way (Northup himself didn't join the abolition movement until after he spent 12 years in captivity), and some simply accepted it as part of life.

You know, although slavery is no longer a problem in most areas of the world, a movie like this does make you wonder what other evils are still around that we may have grown complacent about. The Church obviously has some ideas on some issues we should be keeping in mind, things such as religious persecution, the holocaust of abortion, and even unhealthy economic systems, all things which foster a malignancy in the human spirit similar to that of slavery. As unsettling as 12 Years A Slave is, maybe it's not a bad idea to have a movie like it come around every now and then just to help keep us on our toes.

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