I have no words. No words to describe a man’s violent struggle against putrid spectacles of oppression. No words to explain a young woman’s tenacity after years of deep gashes and sore genitals. For the first time in my life, I have no words to describe what I saw.
I have only moving pictures ingrained in my memory. I see images of captivity, engrossing sadness, wailing loss and snapping whips. I see drooping eyes with only smidgens of hope lighting dark pupils. I see “12 Years a Slave.” These images evoke some of the strongest emotions I’ve felt in a long time — emotions that I will do my best to put into words.
Part of me wishes I hadn’t walked into Regal Cinema Saturday night and, yet, part of me will always be grateful I did.
As I watched this adaption of a real life story play out on screen, my stomach was doing rollercoaster loops — I thought I might have to leave the theater to be sick. The same pit in my stomach returns as I write this article. “12 Years a Slave” touched me as no other film has before, and I know I’m not alone.
The story of a free, African-American man living in New York prior to the Civil War is one that is very rarely told. The story of a free, African-American man who was kidnapped and sold in Louisiana is one that doesn’t typically grace the big screen. And the worst part is that even as the narrative unfolded, we are aware that it is more than just a story. It really happened.
Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a skilled and respected violinist with a wife and two children, a man who could read and write, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. After escaping many years later, he wrote the “12 Years a Slave” novel the film was based on.
Before I delve into the cinematic value of “12 Years a Slave,” I want to first question what it was that caused this film to strike such a chord with me. Was it because I watched a man who acted like me, someone I could really relate to, go through this terrifying ordeal? Was it the intense graphics, including the daylong scene in which Solomon stood on his tiptoes, strung up on a tree branch in muddy grass as he tried not to asphyxiate? Was it maybe the slave owners’ malicious, foul mouths shouting and cursing?
I conjecture that it was all of the above.
“12 Years a Slave” does not sugarcoat or leave any horrid detail left to the imagination. You see everything from naked men and women being inspected during a “sale,” to racial slurs strung into a piercing song, to a woman beaten for requesting a bar of soap. That all this happened in the presence of a man who just months prior could have been my admired next-door neighbor — should I have lived in 19th century New York — is mind blowing.
Watching this film made me, and everyone else in that theater, confront head-on the horrors of American slavery, both psychological and physical. There are very few mediums that can evoke the same emotions Steve McQueen drove home in what is assured to be a critical favorite this year.
Many films have made me cry. My eyes watered during “The Notebook,” tears fell at the end of “Titanic” and my salty lips quivered during “The Color Purple.” But none of these classic films compare to the full body quake I experienced during “12 Years a Slave.”
I was angry. I was sad. I was ashamed. I was under the actors’ spell and, no matter how much I wanted to walk out, to pretend I’d never been there, I couldn’t. I felt I had to finish watching out of respect for the men and women who endured the trauma of slavery. I felt I had to watch the rest to honor the man that had the courage and bravery to not only survive, but then write the book and advocate as an abolitionist.
Some say capitalizing off of the horrors of slavery is in some way disrespectful. But one could say similar sentiments about “Schindler’s List” or “Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” But all of these films manage to open the audience’s eyes in some way. Nobody is hearing about these horrors for the first time, but to see them personalized so effectively still brings about a fresh perspective, a rediscovered empathy and understanding of a shameful time in American history often only briefly mentioned in Social Studies classes.
Cinematically, the film is flawless. The acting, especially by recent college graduate Lupita Nyong’o (playing Patsey), goes beyond that of even the most experienced actors. The music and the perfectly placed silences leave the audience’s eye focused on the story at hand. If the filmography was poorly done, I would argue that a story of this magnitude was not given justice — luckily, McQueen knows what he is doing.
“12 Years A Slave” is not for the weak of heart or mind. It is a work of poetry woven together with expertise that will not fade through the years. I don’t think I was ready for this gargantuan film last Saturday night, but I doubt anyone is.