“12 Years a Slave” Deserves Awards Praise
Caelin Miltko | Sunday, February 23, 2014
Nominated for nine Academy Awards, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” has been taking the award season by storm, along with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” and David O’Russell’s “American Hustle.” The drama won three Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture-Drama.
The film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free man living in Saratoga, N.Y. Based on the memoir of the real Solomon Northup of the same title, the film follows his time as an enslaved man after he is kidnapped on a trip to Washington. The film emphasizes, in graphic detail, the violence of slavery as Northup struggles to survive his trials without losing his personal identity.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup and is nominated for the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. He is compelling in his character, leading the audience through Northup’s tragic struggles convincingly.
Providing a foil for Ejiofor’s character is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Northup’s exceedingly cruel master who buys him after he gets into trouble on the plantation of the much more sympathetic, though still incredibly troubling, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Fassbender is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
Epps personifies the cruelty of the slave institution and Northup’s escape from this man is bittersweet in his inability to remove the rest of comrades from his control.
“12 Years a Slave” is graphic in its depiction of slavery and from the time Northup wakes up in chains in a slave bunker in Washington to the very end of the film, the audience is entirely unable to forget the inexplicable cruelties he is experiencing. Flashbacks to happier times are intercalated with scenes of physical and psychological torture and moments of respite are overlaid with the sounds of more obviously cruel scenes.
Director Steve McQueen started as a visual artist, a fact that may explain many of the graphic scenes of violence that fill the movie. Each of Northup’s struggles are emphasized with a strong visual reminder of what has happened, ranging from the physical scars of his beatings to the destruction of his violin, the last tie to his life before enslavement.
These scenes stick with the audience, asking them to question “the peculiar institution” even after Northup’s story has been resolved. The signs and consequences of slavery are very visual in this movie — even in scenes where no one speaks, it is impossible for the audience to forget the horrors of enslavement.
From the beginning, Northup makes a point to differentiate between surviving and living. On the boat down to the South, while debating with two other captured men whether they should fight the crew for their freedom or keep their heads down and survive, he says “I want to live.” Merely surviving within the institution of slavery cannot be enough.
He finds his salvation in a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) and eventually makes his way back to his family. For all this, his 12-year enslavement cannot be forgotten.
In theory, the movie has a happy ending for Northup but McQueen does not give the audience the ability to rest easy in his escape from the cruelty of Epps and the institution. The audience is asked to question the fullness of his escape, after seeing that he is forced to leave others behind and to grapple with the violence of the ordeal. After all that Northup experiences, there is no way for him to live the life he had before.
The film asks Americans to once again consider the lasting consequences of slavery. Such cruelty is not easily forgotten and McQueen offers no respite from the troubling aspects of slavery. There is no final resolution that makes what has happened all right in the end — and that is perhaps why this movie deserves all the critical acclaim it has received.