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And the Oscar goes to…’12 Years a Slave’

by Craig Detweiler

12 Years a Slave pinned me to my theater seat. I couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. And even a month after I saw it, words seem insufficient to try and describe the totality of this cinematic achievement.

How long can a movie stick with you? Some popcorn flicks are so forgettable; they fade before the credits end. Such temporary respites barely hold boredom at bay. The best films may carry over to Monday morning and become worthy of a water cooler conversation. In the thirty days since I saw 12 Years a Slave, I have thought about it every single day. No particular social cues resurrected the torture, terror, and exploitation of others found in 12 Years. But the extended scenes of suffering are burned into my brain. It is so powerful it almost defies discussion (or at least, a casual conversation). Yet, it depends to be discussed, experienced, and acclaimed.

I recognize that such unqualified praise for a project primes it for a backlash. Reviews laden with words like “harsh,” “brutal,” and “uncompromising” allow viewers to brace themselves for an onslaught. Yet, an unguarded attitude seems essential for getting inside Solomon Northup’s experience. This movie (and the Oscar) belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, a musician prospering as a free man in New York State prior to his kidnapping. He carries the film on his back, moving from incredulity to confusion to terror to despair with equal grace and dignity. Ejiofor will be accompanied on the Academy’s red carpet by Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o for their riveting portrayal of a slave master and victim locked in a decidedly downward spiral.

Audiences may resist producer Brad Pitt’s portrayal of a progressive Amish foreman. He seems so saintly and sane amidst so many contemptible Caucasians in the Old South. But Pitt is to be commended for producing this instant classic and hiring rigorous director Steve McQueen. At a time when we are in deep national crisis over who we are becoming as a nation, 12 Years a Slave reminds us how egregious and barbaric our decision-making has been.

As plantation owner Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender demonstrates how seemingly God-fearing men wrapped their heads around their roles as torturers. We see his wife (Sarah Paulson) sink to equal levels of mania and evil. Yes, they are tortured by their roles as slave owners. And we come to understand the complex emotions of pride and self-contempt that still haunt many white Southerners. History clings to us even when we want to escape or deny it.

Perhaps even tougher to process is the decent slave-owner “Ford” played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He has bought into the slave system, but must admit that his newly purchased property has a remarkable ability to plan and lead. Ford struggles to reconcile his faith and his practices. Yet, he ultimately acts in his own economic self-interest. Ford may be a “nice” master, but he has bills to pay.

While Solomon endures countless indignities, so many other characters are subject to even greater abuse. The heartache that flows from a mother (permanently) separated from her children feels boundless. The physical and psychological torment hoisted upon a talented slave like Patsey explains why suicide seems so attractive. In her first feature, Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong’o holds the screen alongside Alfre Woodard with remarkable aplomb. Patsey’s brains and beauty make her a target of jealous wrath. In an unbroken ten-minute take, we see how rage strips everyone of their humanity.

Director Steve McQueen’s previous features were also torturous. He chronicled Irish Republican Army bomber Bobby Sand’s hunger strike unto death in Hunger. McQueen made sex addiction look as deadly and joyless as possible in Shame. He is fascinated by how much our bodies can endure. His work is precise, bordering on the cold and clinical. Scenes are long, arduous, unadorned. McQueen dissects his subjects, wearing down his characters (and audiences) with relentless precision. So I expected 12 Years a Slave to be rigorous and demanding.

What I didn’t expect was the poetry, the brilliant mix of restraint and minimalism that produces such maximalist results. By allowing the camera to linger, painfully, upon his seemingly helpless characters, we grasp the desperation and despair that kept slavery so ensconced. By keeping the scenes quiet, the suffering almost silent, we so desperately long for relief. The music that provides Solomon’s source of support becomes an afflicter of ironic pain when slaves are made to dance and celebrate after a day’s hard labor. We come to understand how much passion animates the spirituals that accompany a funeral. The ecstatic sounds of gospel and soul music were forged via a high, human price.

The horrors in 12 Years a Slave creep up on us. We feel as lost and disoriented as Solomon. We also can’t believe such atrocities are occurring before us. Such banal indifference and inhumanity in the face of such obvious suffering is almost inconceivable to modern eyes. And yet, what kinds of contemporary atrocities do we tolerate and turn a blind eye towards? Human trafficking? Gun violence?

12 Years a Slave moves us from disbelief to introspection. We are used to seeing heroic gestures bring cinematic relief. But what if the situation just gets progressively worse? What if the suffering doesn’t get redeemed? What if cruelty, inhumanity, and perversion become a way of being?

We understand how a person of such intelligence and resolve as Solomon Northup can gradually lose hope and take on the slave name and mentality of “Platt.”

Following in the wake of a revenge fantasy like Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave feels like a sobering wake up call. Are we ready to revisit the harsh realities awakened by a television event like Roots? That was thirty-five years ago — a generation (or two) removed from our current students. Steven Spielberg attempted to tap into the historic record found in connection with the Amistad. Lee Daniels revisited the Civil Rights era via The Butler.

Are we poised to discuss our national sin in a new way? These earlier efforts seem meek and mild compared to the searing intensity of 12 Years a Slave. Did we need an outsider to pull no punches in depicting our sordid history? Or did we need an insider, a Caribbean born descendent of slaves, to spell out just how bleak and devastating this scar upon human history remains?

Steve McQueen combines an artisan’s craft with the passion of a survivor to forge the most harrowing film of the year. We could never call 12 Years a Slave entertaining, but it is absolutely essential.

Craig Detweiler

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is a filmmaker, author, and director of the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is co-founder of The Windrider Forum, a traveling film fest designed to spark conversation, awaken compassion, and inspire change. Craig's cultural commentary has been featured on ABC’s Nightline, CNN, Fox News, NPR, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Follow Craig on Twitter @craigdetweiler.

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