Tuesday, 25 February 2014

12 Years a Slave

What can one say about 12 Years A Slave, that the title and reviews have not already said? This is a disturbing representation of twelve years in the life of Solomon Northup, a free African American ripped from his comfortable life by slavers, and sold into bondage in the deep south.

Of course, it's a film everyone should see, but it's not a pleasant experience, perhaps because it is so utterly raw. As depicted here, Solomon is not a hero. It's possible he became one, later, in the years he spent campaigning for the abolition of slavery, involved in the underground railroad, and authoring the book which became the basis of the film - but in these twelve years, he's at first attempting to explain, and then merely to survive. Of course he is, otherwise he would have been killed, and his story would never have been told.

The most powerful force in the film is the utter helplessness of Solomon's situation. He's a strong, independent man, used to the friendship of his neighbours and the ability to make his own decisions. He's not meant to be there - but no one will hear him, and even if they did, how can he justify his identity making him more deserving than his fellow slaves? His moral quandaries and natural spirit result in an horrific sequence which neatly juxtaposes daily atrocities with daily life.

Finally, an end comes - again made more powerful by how extremely pared back it is: there's no outcry, no procession, and as we find out in the end titles, no prosecution - a conclusion which jarrs with our notion of what is due to Solomon, and a brave choice, in keeping with the difficult tone of the film.

Praise has been heaped on 12 Years a Slave, and its many wins during awards season have attested to the reaction it provokes, but it's almost impossible to deconstruct whether that's due to the artistry of the film, or the issues it so well presents. Inflamed opinions make it somewhat dangerous even to try, but I do agree it is essential viewing.

Everyone should feel guilty, watching this film. Not for collusion in the oppression of Solomon Northup in Louisiana nearly two hundred years ago, but because this still happens. There are human beings being exploited around the world today, their lives made a misery for profit they will never share in: and all of us are still walking past, with our heads down, to avoid becoming targets ourselves.

I can't think of another film like 12 Years A Slave. There simply isn't one - this is no Lincoln, or Django Unchained. I am sure the reasons there are not more American films about slavery are myriad, and all of them contentious. However, should you wish something to compare with 12 Years A Slave, try The Pianist, which delves in to the dire situation of a young Polish musician caught in the Holocaust, and provides a bleak examination of what it means to beat the odds, and what it costs to survive.

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