2 March 2014 | secondtake
A direct telling of the horrors, but not quite the complexities, of a man kidnapped into slavery
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Who can possibly argue against the power of this kind of movie, and the injustice that it waves as a welcome reminder? Superbly directed and acted (especially leading man Chiwetel Ejofor playing Solomon Northup), and set with high levels of realism in pre-Civil War America, there is little to separate what the filmmakers intended and what they achieved. A work of excellence.
It is not, however, quite the masterpiece it might have been. I don't mean the story or the level of competence here at all. I mean the way the story is told, the choice to simply tell it like it was.
That means that the presentation is quite linear (excepting a few gratuitous flashbacks that seem like a last minute editing decision). And uncomplicated. This is the biggest surprise. I mean, the basics might seem enough—a free black man in Saratoga goes to Washington and is kidnapped and made a slave, and he remains a slave until his recovery 12 years later. But that is actually the entire movie.
Oh, I know, the details are missing in that sentence. But it is these details where the movie succeeds too well. We are shown the horrors of slavery and made to experience them. It isn't that this is ignoble or unimportant. On the contrary, this is an "important" film and should be seen. But in some weirdly surreal way, we already know everything that happens in these details.
Do we need to see a woman, naked and tied to a post, whipped and whipped and whipped, with screaming in our ears? Many will say yes. We need to feel that horror even a little bit (through a movie) to understand how utterly unbelievably horrible slavery was. I would just argue back that I don't really want to be tortured directly to confirm what I already fully agree with. It's just a choice you want to make as a moviegoer. It's similar to watching a kidnapping movie—do you want to experience the inner and outer torments of the kidnapped, or see some larger view of a kidnapping situation and the complexities of that kind of plot?
For me, then the movie was excellent at being literal, but that's not enough. For example, there is absolutely no hint at what the family did when Solomon didn't return home after his trip to Washington. Did they search? Worry? How? Who helped, who ignored them? Etc. That's just one of many complexities the movie avoids for the sake of a direct experience of the protagonist.
I hope that gives a sense of where this unpleasant, terrific movie leaves you, and whether to watch it.