America Film History Review

12 Years A Slave


I was having a bad day. And then I saw 12 Years A Slave and regained some perspective.

Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s incredible memoir was remarkable in its restraint. Though a strange thing to say about a film that has been lauded for depicting the horrors of slavery accurately and harrowingly, it’s not surprising given McQueen’s adeptness in showing versus telling, and capturing a moment’s deeper truth without resorting to platitudes or judgement.

An example (with spoilers): years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Northup meets a white man who is serving as an indentured field hand on the same plantation. Downtrodden after years of humiliation and forced labor, Northup finally works up the courage to ask the white man whether he would be willing to send a letter for Northup without telling his plantation master. The man agrees but quickly betrays Northup, which almost gets him killed by his sadistic, mercurial master if not for Northup’s quick wit and evasion. Nonetheless, McQueen shows Northup burning the letter, focusing on his face as the light from the alit letter — his desperate grasp at liberation — slowly extinguishes, along with his dwindling hope.

It’s a small moment, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that in other directorial hands could have been something lesser, like the protagonist shaking his fists at the sky or angrily monologuing. Instead, it was the perfect image of what slavery’s power did to beat down the slave’s hope and determination for freedom. Northup overcomes this oppression, but he was fortunate compared to his fellow slaves. The film is full of other subtly strong moments like this, driven by a cast of heavy-hitters. It also follows Northup’s memoir very well, though I hope viewers will be compelled to go back to the book to read the details of this story in Northup’s strong literary voice.

Books Film History Review

Twelve Years A Slave

I recently saw the above trailer for Steve McQueen’s upcoming film 12 Years a Slave and immediately got excited to see it on the merits of the trailer, cast, and director alone. But then at the library the following day I happened to see the memoir upon which the film is based and decided to read it.

Twelve Years A Slave is the Solomon Northup’s first-hand account of his kidnapping into the cruel slavery world of the antebellum South and his long-awaited deliverance. Great Scott is his story breathtaking. The book is short yet wonderfully written, so I’d highly encourage you to read it before the movie comes out so you can read for yourself Northup’s concisely poetic narrative.

One particular passage that stood out was his description of Christmas day, one of the few days all year that the slaves didn’t work:

That morning [the slave] need not hurry to the field, with his gourd and cotton-bag. Happiness sparkled in the eyes and overspread the countenances of all. The time of feasting and dancing had come. … There were to be re-unions, and joy and laughter. It was to be a day of liberty among the children of Slavery.

One of the few ebullient passages in what is otherwise a dark and suffering-filled story, I like how it shows the slaves drawing their own joy and tangible meaning out of a holiday that was also celebrated by the very men who unjustly enslaved Solomon and his brethren.

Read the book. (And while you’re at it, check out the director Steve McQueen’s film Hunger, which chronicles the harrowing prison hunger strike of IRA rebel Bobby Sands.)