12 Years a Slave is a mesmerizing, honest look at a dark time in our nation’s history. The movie examines themes that prove that man has the capability to be extremely inhumane to man. It also illustrates the caring nature of man and the role of fate in determining one’s course in life. The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the Best Picture of the Year in 2013. The historical truth portrayed by this film is one that has never been captured in quite this visceral manner on celluloid prior to this filming. The audience’s reaction to this film is gut wrenching, and one may even feel like he has experienced slavery after watching this film. It is an historically accurate film that is, at times, difficult to watch; however, it must be watched so that we, as Americans and members of the human race, can fully known and understand the ramifications of human bondage.
Steve McQueen did a stellar job in getting the audience to connect with the main character, Solomon Northup and his descent from revered professional musician to the hellish madness of deep South slavery. The movie opens with a statement that this movie is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, but the viewer doe not even need that piece of information as the movie has the look and feel of the authentic historical piece. Furthermore, McQueen made the characters and the scenes so believable that the viewer became emotionally invested in Northup’s life. Viewers could almost see themselves in this situation if they were sold into slavery. Northup is a man who is married with two children, owns a home, and is respected by his fellow townspeople for his musical abilities. When two men are introduced to Northup and invite him to Washington to play with them, the viewer immediately goes on high alert with anticipation that something is getting ready to go horribly awry. As predicted, Northup is sold by these two gentlemen into slavery, and thus begins his physical, emotional, and spiritual journey into hell before fate intervenes, saves him and reunites him with his family after the interminably long time of twelve years.
Some people may think that the sheer brutality portrayed in this movie is simply Hollywood’s way of overshowing it which indicates a sense of a basic untruth. However, this movie is solely based on Northup’s narrative of what happened to him. This, in and of itself, makes it one man’s truth-violent or not. The physical brutality is very hard to watch, and the viewer has to resist the urge to look away. For example, in one scene, the brutally deranged master, Edwin Epps, whips his slave, Patsey, for an infraction that is minor or at least seems to be made up in his sick, twisted mind. He does not merely whip her though, he literally strips the skin from her back with a bull whip. This is not the only instance of graphic brutality. The movie is peppered with the physical and psychological brutality of slavery.
This movie is very unique in its portrayal of slavery because it does not take the usual path of showing the life of slave who escapes from his master to freedom. Instead, this is a story about a man who was free before descending into slavery. Moreover, Solomon Northup connects to the audience because at the beginning of the movie he is shown as a family man who works as a musician to support his family. He and his family reside in a modest home which parallels the life that most middle class Americans lead today.
The popularity of this movie shows that Americans are intensely curious about this time period in history, and they appreciate a truthful telling of the time period. It shows that we are, perhaps, at a time of healing in our country. The box office appeal of this movie lies in the fact that viewers are willing to confront the harshness of our nation’s past so that we may understand the legacy that it leaves and work to overcome the stigma associated with slavery. Perhaps, this movie will help in healing the racial divide that still haunts our country over a hundred years after the Civil War.