‘12 Years a Slave’ provides essential lessons for life
The new film “Harriet” helps us imagine moments we will never live.
By inviting us into unfamiliar worlds, and taking us to unrecognizable times, the film challenges how we think and enhances what we understand. And, like the 2013 Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave,” the new film can help shape how we view the world, and ourselves, by sharing situations beyond our immediate reach.
Few of us can imagine what African American slaves endured for hundreds of years. How could people sustain any sense of humanity when treated in such inhuman ways? How could they hope for better tomorrows without owning today? And how could they refrain from judging when so many judged them? Decades of racial tension began with the brutal treatment of people only concerned with monetary gain.
Director Steve McQueen, who created the acclaimed “Shame” in 2011, wanted to learn more about how slavery has defined the Black experience in America. As he shared at the New York Film Festival in October 2013, he hoped to better understand the tensions of today by taking a clear look at the stresses from the past. “I could not remember when I first learned about slavery, but all I could feel was the shame,” the director said following a screening of the film at the festival. “I wanted to create an authentic truth that would help me embrace this issue, master it and make it mine.”
Working from a memoir written by Solomon Northrup in 1853, “12 Years a Slave” reaches beyond a conventional Hollywood treatment to create a fascinating view of a culture, not just a devastating view of atrocity. With the precision of a documentarian, the director avoids repeating the standard movie clichés about slavery to reveal new dimensions of this experience. He shows that, while those who own and trade slaves may view people as possessions, others show surprising moments of humanity; while those in servitude may view conditions as sentences, others insist on discovering opportunities. McQueen refuses to let any characters resort to comfortable cinema portrayals of villains and heroes. The people aren’t that simple.
Solomon is a successful musician, and a free man, who lives in Saratoga, N.Y., with his wife and children in the 1840s. When he accepts an opportunity to tour Virginia for a lucrative fee, he never considers the possible risks. But he is tricked by the men who manage the tour, sold to a Southern slave trader, and enters a world foreign to his instincts and sensibilities. Never could he imagine that people would treat people in this way. How he reacts to the severity of change, and confronts his new conditions, reveals how people can endure. Never does Solomon feel sorry for himself; never does he wallow in self-pity. If he cannot always contain his anger, his sense of inner truth fuels a constructive journey. Solomon inspires us to see the complexities of life as well as reminds us to embrace the potential in our own. As this reluctant hero, the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor draws us behind his eyes to reveal a man trying to resolve his life as he hopes to live each new day. He inhabits the role with a sense of passion and focus that brings an authentic energy to each moment.
While we may never realize how such acts of selfishness have damaged generations, “12 Years a Slave” reminds us of the power of perseverance to confront and survive. This film can bind us today, as we look forward, by helping us understand what journey others were forced to complete.
“12 Years a Slave” is rated R for “violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.” It runs 133 minutes and streams online.