Classic Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter X

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

As is my practice in the A to Z Challenge, I interpret “X” algebraically, and use it to represent a number.  In this case it is the number “12” from a Best Picture award winning historical drama that is not on these classic movie lists, but probably will be in the future.

Title: 12 Years A Slave 
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Production Company: Regency Enterprises | River Road Entertainment | Plan B Entertainment | New Regency Productions | Film4 Productions

This film is an historical drama based on the real life experiences of Solomon Northrup who wrote a memoir of his life as an enslaved person that was published in 1853.  Northrup’s narrative and the film capture an aspect of slavery not often discussed in popular history. While most people know that Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Americas to be enslaved and that their descendants were born into slavery, they are less likely to know that free Black people in the United States like Northrup were kidnapped into slavery as well.

In the film we meet Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a freeborn Black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children who is a talented performer on the fiddle.  Two con men lure him to Washington on the promise of a job performing music for a circus, but instead they drug him and deliver him to a slave trader. He is then transferred to Louisiana and sold to a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is depicted as an enslaver who attempts to be kind but is too weak to do anything that would upend the system.

Later, Northrup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and abusive man.  On Epps plantation, Northrup befriends Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an young enslaved women who Epps praises for picking the largest amount of cotton. Epps routinely rapes Patsey while his equally disturbed wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) abuses and humiliates her. Nyong’o deservedly won an Best Actress award for this role, but I nonetheless can’t imagine how harrowing it was for her to play this part.

The film dodges some conventions of historical drama by dropping the audience right in the narrative with no narration or titles introducing the situation. The film also makes effective use of flashbacks to Northrup’s  life in New York and earlier days in slavery as he remembers them.  It is also an oddly beautiful film as if to contrast the grim violence of slavery against the natural beauty of a Louisiana plantation.  One scene that is seared in my mind shows Northrup hanging from a noose, just barely able to get his toews on the ground, while in the background other enslaved people go about their work and children play.

The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of violence against Northrup and the other enslaved people depicted in the film.  I’m of two minds on this.  On one hand, no film can even approach the horrors of slavery, and as brutal as this film is, it is only a small approximation of reality.  On the other hand, is there not already enough historical depictions of the torture, rape, and murder of Black people that we don’t need to add to them in 21st Century?  Ultimately, I believe this is a necessary film, but I can understand if some people would not want to view it.

Rating: ****