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REVIEW - 12 Years a Slave

It has been some time since I have felt the need to steel myself prior to watching a film. Part of this is being a human being who knows that they’re about to encounter something horrific. Part of it is the fact that I get nervous when large groups of white people like a film about black suffering, and “12 Years a Slave” is probably the most lauded film about black suffering since “The Color Purple” (which, honestly, had a lot fewer gaskets to blow than “12 Years” does). I fear why they might find such films “powerful” or “moving.” I wonder if what they find moving will mean something else for me as a black person, will affect me differently, will say something about people I thought I knew, or worse, about me. I fear it will expose me too much, make me feel what I did not come to feel, or what I could not hope to predict.

I wonder how I might have been affected by this film if I didn’t already know the story of Solomon Northup, how I would have looked for that good-old Hollywood sheen on everything but only found more despair and rawness. “12 Years” is, to put it mildly, an affecting film: its story is brutal, the production executed masterfully, and the acting nearly flawless. It is gut-wrenching not only for its violence but its unyielding weight, the way in which things are observed and lingered over. There is little talk of the conditions of slavery; everything is shown, portrayed in such a way that you may not see some of the actors the same way again. It does away with the kind of conflicted, pressure valve decent white characters that traditionally allow white audiences to remain unscathed of their past almost entirely, introducing such tropes only as history says they must in the interest of truth. If I ever see Michael Fassbender in the street, I’m going to need a minute.

Usually with a film this heavy it’s hard to say one “liked it.” You say things like, “It was well done” or “They really committed to that film.” But “12 Years” one can say is good, is well done, is meaningful, and yes, emotionally debilitating. The film does not add any historical or debatable angles to the cinematic discussion of slavery we didn’t already possess. We have seen everything this film presents before, but not this way, not wrought so unapologetically. I pondered if it were the most brutal film about slavery I had ever seen. If it is not, it is very close: it has been many years since I’ve seen “Sankofa”, which was a brutal experience, and I have no desire to revisit it to make this point alone.

Every film about slavery since 1977 has had to compete in the cinematic discussion of slavery with “Roots.” While a contest is totally unnecessary, it would be remiss of me to deny that “12 Years a Slave” is better and at one-eighth the length possesses more resonance than “Roots.” It is more poignant, more ironically American (which, considering its cast, is irony on top of irony), and it is better crafted, which would seem like comparing the value of a 2013 dollar to a 1925 one, but isn’t once one considers “12 Years” uses no more resources than its predecessor. “12 Years” captures slavery in such a way that it feels as if it is the first film of its kind. And while it will not be the last film about slavery that comes out even in the next year or so, whatever comes after it is going to need to find new angles to even begin the conversation. “12 Years” hits the reset button on the subject of slavery in film. More importantly, it is a film every American should see.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 2nd, 2013 02:53 am (UTC)

I planned to see it this weekend.
There are some movies that, had I known a bit beforehand,I would not have
*driven a vehicle* to go see them because the aftermath is so disorienting, or it would have been
helpful to have walked before doing something normal.
Given what I've read so far, I have picked a theater that I can park and then walk to
& it sounds like that will be the right choice.

Thank you for your review.
Nov. 4th, 2013 02:05 am (UTC)
Thank you for the review!

" more ironically American (which, considering its cast, is irony on top of irony)" - I wonder whether you could expand on it, please!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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