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 12 Years a Slave - film review

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PostSubject: 12 Years a Slave - film review   Fri Feb 14, 2014 2:56 pm

Based upon an autobiography written by Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave is a pretty uncompromising film.  After a montage styled opening sequence which identifies Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a slave, the film takes us to a point where Solomon is clearly accorded respect by the white members of the community he resides in.  Born free, he is their equal and the dialogue serves to signify this.  Solomon’s situation changes dramatically when he is drugged and kidnapped by two men who have employed him as a musician.  When Solomon awakens, he is in chains and his 12 years of slavery begin.

So what does this film do to set it apart from other narratives concerning slavery?  Historically, one of the most important aspects of enslaving Negros was the dislocation of them from their ‘Mother tongue’ the language by which they would communicate to each other.  When aboard slave ships this process would begin by punishing those who spoke in their native tongue, the idea being to divide and isolate, to break the community spirit.  12 Years a Slave demonstrates some of the methods used, including the clamp or bit in the mouth, the beatings, the language used by the slave traders and crew.  In addition, the whipping, the stripping, the lack of privacy when washing, the manner in which Solomon and those with him are packed into the base of the ship, also the scene where they are sold, all signify the Negro as a commodity, as chattel, as an animal below man in the pecking order.  These aspects of the inhumanity of slavery are demonstrated relentlessly throughout the film.  Lynching and rape are also shown, but I found the scene where rape was highlighted incredibly sad due to how the female perspective had been explored prior to the event.  

The manner in which these scenes are filmed is unflinching.  The damage from Solomon’s first beating is referenced through a bloody shirt, but as the film progresses the camera dwells on the sufferer’s faces, their wounds and finally a beating so severe, the spectator has the sense of watching someone being flayed.  I felt the cinematography surrounding these events, the way in which the spectator is gradually brought round to the handle of the whip, draws the audience in until they feel as if they are the perpetrators.   For me, this meant the horror was also a humbling experience.

However, there were two incidences that didn’t feel as authentic as the rest.  The first was the stabbing on the boat – I felt that was an unlikely occurrence due to the fact that the slaves were a commodity.  The other was when the clamp was removed from the slave’s mouth.  His skin was unblemished and I felt it should have been marked or reddened.  These are small points though when you examine what 12 Years a Slave is expressing regarding slavery in its entirety.

There were a number of aspects I found excellent.  One was the music by Hans Zimmer, where the use of discordant percussion really added to the mood of a scene.  The editing by Joe Walker was just superb.  From the opening sequence, where the film switched back and forth between aspects of Solomon’s life, to the changes in perspective when Solomon and his wife cross the street and enter a shop, to the overall flow of the film, 12 Years a Slave is seamless.  Performances were believable throughout, but those of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’s (Patsey) were outstanding.   Ejiofor’s portrayal of Solomon clearly illustrated how he struggled to identify with the other slaves; Nyong’s depiction of Patsey’s position was incredibly emotive.  Finally, McQueen has been brave enough to use silence as an emphasis; to use prolonged shots and linger on emotion ; to draw his audience into the horror that is slavery.  How many people found the only way they could drop the whip’s handle was to turn away or shut their eyes?  12 Years a Slave is a masterful piece of filmmaking and I look forward to McQueens next film.
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