What is true and right is true and right for all.

What is true and right is true and right for all.

There are many words that have already been lobbed around about Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Raw, unflinching, brutal, unrelenting, harrowing, shattering, blistering, savage, and gruesome to name a few. However, I believe those sorts of adjectives do the film a disservice. They make it sound unpalatable; like the sort of thing one believes they should see even if they don’t necessarily want to see it. That’s why I believe it’s important to underline that while this film is every one of those things (and more) it is also tremendously moving, surprisingly intricate, and – strange as this is to say – spectacularly beautiful.

12 YEARS A SLAVE is the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A free black man living in New York State, he is lured to the American Beltway with a job offering. Once there, he is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Trying to explain that he is a free man does him no good, and thoughts of fighting back do even less.

As a desperate act of self-preservation, he goes along with his capture, hoping that at some stage, the key to his freedom might eventually present itself.

He is first sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Louisiana plantation owner. While working Ford’s fields, Northup is a fast study who even sees ways to increase production. One would think this would help his cause, but one would be wrong. All it does is fly in the face of Tibbets (Paul Dano); the slave foreman who believes that his way is the only way. When an altercation between Tibbets and Northup finally arises, Ford sells Northup to another plantation for Northup’s own protection.

This is where things go from bad to worse.

Northup is sold to cotton plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps quotes scripture that says that a servant defiant of his master shall be beaten (Luke 12:47 fyi). He fancies himself a breaker of wills, and a man solely out for himself. This selfishness is underlined in many ways. Not only is he wary of his new purchase, but he is deeply enraptured by his prized worker Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o). Not only do Patsey’s nimble fingers allow her to bring in double the yield of her average male counterpart, but her beauty isn’t lost on Epps. To Epps, she is a prize – one that makes him money, and one he’ll happily fuck. She’s not a person though – not a woman he could love, nor one he could marry.

That role belongs to Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson). She must stand idly by and watch as her husband lusts after someone she believes is beneath her. However, like many others on the Epps Plantation, to raise quarrel with Edwin would cost dearly. So she doesn’t. Instead, she keeps a close eye on Northup, seeing him as more than he seems but still not as an equal.

It’s here at The Epps Plantation that Northup stays for a long time…slowly getting the life ground out of him, but never enough that he stops thinking about getting out and getting home.

Alfre Woodard in 12 YEARS A SLAVEWe need 12 YEARS A SLAVE right now.

At this precise moment in time, we have found ourselves in a dangerous place…a place where we forget. History is beginning to get glossed over, or just accepted as common knowledge. The problem with that is the knowledge isn’t “common”. Besides the fact that the details and atrocities captured in 12 YEARS A SLAVE are beginning to fall out of the collective consciousness, they are the very opposite of common. What happened in North America was a grand failing of morals, a lack of humanity at the highest order. It wasn’t just permitted, it was accepted. We on this continent want to believe we have evolved, and that this is strictly our past. Yet the same year that we celebrate an anniversary of The March on Washington, we weep at an American Justice System that allows a young black man to be killed for his unfortunate choice of clothing.

I put it to you that we are forgetting, and because of that, we need to be reminded. But how? Well, if you’re Steve McQueen, you remind your audience with raw emotion, with visceral brutality, and with stunning elegance.

It should come as no surprise that Steve McQueen is a visual artist by trade, because so many of the images we see in 12 YEARS A SLAVE feel as though they were oil paintings come to life. Whether we are looking at huddled captives lit by moonlight in the galley of a ship, or the churning wake in The Mississippi River, McQueen treats his camera like a paintbrush. With that brush, he turns out canvas after canvas that move us on a purely visual level. Sometimes they move us with pure beauty, sometimes with abject horror. Amazingly, more than once, he achieves both at once.

McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley also know well enough not to stand up and say “Slavery was bad” for two hours. Instead, they create a complicated story where a man is first given a new identity, and then must shed much of his old one to survive. They tell a tale of a system so rife, that even an act of mercy can lead to great  inhumanity. Perhaps most interestingly, they tell a tale where three women find themselves on the same plantation, and all three have incredibly complex roles. None are granted full purview, none are treated as equals. All hold sway over the man who owns the plantation, all understand how to work the system to their advantage. Together they will illustrate the great contradiction that serves as the staging ground for this film’s second act…and really, the great contradiction that was North American slavery.

In perhaps its most unforgettable moment, 12 YEARS A SLAVE takes dead aim at those of us that decide to mind our business. Around halfway through the film, something terrible takes place…something you would think would stop all around it in their tracks. However, that’s just not the case. Chores are carried out, conversations are had, games are even played. All of it happens in full view of a disturbing action. Yet, to stray from routine would be putting oneself at risk, so most do not. This moment makes us feel awful, and it is supposed to. It is a stunning and horrifying reminder that to mind our own business is to placate injustice. To mind our own business is downright vicious.

Keeping to ourselves leads us to forget; and we have already forgotten far too much.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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