The Best Picture Winners: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

| February 26, 2018

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

If modern movies have a no-fly zone, it has to be America’s institution of slavery.  Here is an issue no one wants to tackle, chiefly because the aftershocks still reside in our culture even after 153 years.  That’s not to say that recent modern films haven’t edged close to the subject, but it has come in the form of The Birth of a Nation, Amistad and Django Unchained – not exactly a crop of honorable explorations of the greatest blight on America’s history.

12 Years a Slave is the only film I can think of in the 21st century that dared to look slavery square in the face.  It is a staggering experience largely because director Steve McQueen does away with the conceit of making this film a grand epic (or worse, to see it through the eyes of white characters).  Instead of trying to see slavery en masse, he narrows the central focus to a single human being, a real-life New York farmer and professional violinist named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Eijofor), a wrongly convicted man who is cast into the whirling maelstrom of southern plantation owners who have created an environment so cruel and yet so commonplace that, at one moment, workers go about their daily chores while Solomon hangs from a gallows while his feet keep him centimeters from death.

The central fulcrum of the film lies in the performance of Chiwetel Eijofor, a veteran of the British stage whose performance here is largely physical.  He’s an intelligent, successful man who was tricked in a bar one night, then kidnapped and sent down south to be part of the industrial complex of slavery itself.  His body bears the weight and confusion of his plight, of a wrongly convicted man whose pleas for help go largely unheard.  He can say so many things without saying a word, which is effective because Solomon spends much of the story silently screaming for help.  Who can he trust?  Who can he tell?  Who can to turn to for help?  With that, a slight but effective thriller aspect creeps in under the surface.  Who can he turn to that will ultimately help him?

I have attempted to avoid tagging 12 Years a Slave as any kind of thriller, but as Solomon attempts to find any form of help there is a thriller element.  We want this to end; we want to see him reunited with his wife and children.  We’ve seen the inhuman cruelty around him – most achingly in the form of a slave mistress named Patesy (Supporting Actress winner Lupita Nyong’o) whose bearing of mental, physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of her sociopathic master (Michael Fassbender) gives the film, I think, the biggest and most effective punch in the gut.

This is a difficult film to sit through, but then again it is a difficult period to conceive in your mind.  We are forced to come face to face with the most uncomfortable subject in our history and stand squarely in its shoes.  This isn’t a movie that skews the focal point to avoid having us deal with complicated emotions, no, this movie confronts the issue head-on and the effects are devastating.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.