Reviewed by: Brian C. Johnson
the importance of personal freedom
Joseph—an innocent man in the Bible who was sold into slavery
slaves in the Bible
Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer
What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer
Does God feel our pain? Answer
Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer
|Featuring:||Chiwetel Ejiofor … Solomon Northup
Brad Pitt … Bass
Michael Fassbender … Edwin Epps
Benedict Cumberbatch … Ford
Paul Giamatti … Freeman
Paul Dano … Tibeats
Sarah Paulson … Mistress Epps
|Director:||Steve McQueen—“Shame,” “Hunger”|
River Road Entertainment
|Distributor:||Fox Searchlight Pictures|
“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
Every so often a film emerges that requires audiences to dig deep to find the fiber to stay glued to the seats even though what they see is boorish, frightening, sickening, and offensive. “12 Years a Slave” is such a film.
Let me begin by saying that the usual “Christian” response to this film would be to shun it because of the excessive nudity (female full frontal and male and female backsides) and horrific scenes of violence, including rape. That being said, I also need to argue that it is a film that should be seen, as it is a subject that we as Christians, as Americans, as human beings need to confront—the history and lasting legacy of slavery and racism—and more importantly, to examine the responsibility of the Christian church to continue to dismantle systems of oppression while fostering our commitment to racial reconciliation.
At the center of this controversial film is Solomon Northrup, a free Black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga, NY. Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor—“American Gangster, “Inside Man”) enjoys the sweet life of an accomplished violinist and is well respected in his local community. During a trip to Washington, DC, Northrup is kidnapped and marked as a runaway slave named “Platt” and sold into the Deep South where he confronts a life of drudgery and baser humanity. Can his will to live and his desire to gain his freedom sustain the indignities of the barbarism of his masters Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch)?
Northrup at times befriends and is rebuffed by his fellow slaves, especially Master Epps’ unwilling concubine Patsey, masterfully played by little-known actress, Lupita Nyong'o. The cast is rounded out by numerous stars in smaller roles including Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Taran Killam, Paul Dano, and Sarah Paulson as the wicked Mrs. Epps.
“12 Years a Slave” is based upon the memoir of Solomon Northrup who was stolen away from his family at the time when Fugitive Slave Laws were at their height of prominence. His story became a banner of the abolitionist movement until it was overshadowed by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the mid-19th century.
Directed by Steve McQueen (best known for his work on 2011’s “Shame” where he also teamed with Fassbender) and adapted for the screen by John Ridley (“Red Tails” and “U-Turn”), this film does not shy away from showing the brutality of the slave trade. You will wince numerous times! It is difficult to watch!
In recent interviews, McQueen and Ridley have shared how they wanted to stay as true to the book’s descriptions and depictions. Much of the violence and nudity were true to form, which in some ways makes the film a documentary. The “peculiar institution” of slavery is and was a national tragedy that should not be stylistically represented—we need to understand the ugliness of it all in order to continue the healing. Much like we felt as we grimaced our way through “The Passion of the Christ” because it was an important film, I believe we need to watch this film.
The best part (and simultaneously the worst part) of the film is the question of the morality of those good folks who justified the enslavement of Africans and others as “Christian duty” and misused Scriptures to support their trade. This film does a fine job of raising the question, but regrettably, none of the “heroes” of the film profess abolition of slavery as a Christian obligation—that is left for those who view it as an ethical question (for instance, Brad Pitt’s character, Bass, who ultimately champions for Northrup.
Cinematically, the film is beautiful! At times, I felt like I was watching a theatrical dramatic performance live on stage, and the sound editing overlapped in several key areas that properly underscored the tensions of the action. You will come face-to-face with the Northrup’s emotional and mental pain as he wrestles with his condition. You will feel the torment of Nyongo’s “Patsey” as she cries out for death.
This is an important film (read, Oscar-worthy). I believe viewers should see it. I do urge caution because of the subject matter. Parents, go see it first to determine if your mature teens would be able to handle it. Regrettably, the film has only started in limited markets. I had to drive nearly 3 hours to see it, so I am hoping it opens soon to the smaller venues.
Violence: Extreme / Profanity: Moderate to heavy—“G*d-d*mn” (4), “for G*d’s sakes,” “damn” (10), “hell” (3) / Sex: Moderate to heavy / Nudity: Heavy to extreme
Editor’s Note: Because of this film's brutal violence, nudity, and profanity, we urge caution. A better film about slavery from a Christian point of view is the award-winning “Amazing Grace” (2007) which we do recommend for teens and family.
Other films about slavery include: “Runaway Slave” / “Amistad” / “Beloved”
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.
…A strong, involving, at times overstated telling of an extraordinary life story. …
—Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
…an agonizingly magnificent movie: the first great big-screen dramatization of slavery. … It’s Ejiofor's extraordinary performance that holds “12 Years a Slave” together. … [A]
—Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
…This epic account of an unbreakable soul makes even Scarlett O’Hara’s struggles seem petty by comparison. …
—Peter Debruge, Variety
…A masterpiece of form, content, emotion and performance. … Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging… 
—Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
…An essential story, well told at last… 
—Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
…“12 Years a Slave” paints haunting portrait of endurance… a deeply evocative, and brilliantly acted drama, that graphically and poetically depicts the wide-ranging evils of slavery. …
—Claudia Puig, USA Today
…visceral intensity and exceptional filmmaking… Far from the push-button catharsis offered by most Hollywood redemption tales, the work is sober and deliberate, a mix of visceral intensity and artful design. …
—Liam Lacey, The Globe and Mail
…Holds nothing back in show of suffering… Mr. McQueen has largely dispensed with the conventions of art cinema to make something close to a classical narrative; in this movie, the emphasis isn’t on visual style but on Solomon and his unmistakable desire for freedom. …
—Manohla Dargis, The New York Times