I don’t normally write film reviews. Never have actually… but this film was just exceptional enough to inspire me to want to write something. As anyone will say, this was not the easiest movie to watch, not in the least bit. However, I’ll begin discussing it by stating that it is one of the best movies of the year and one of the greatest stories ever told on screen.
Again, the movie isn’t easy to watch, and it shouldn’t be; because it’s one man’s immense tragedy, and it’s also the tragedy of countless thousands of other souls beaten down, literally and metaphorically. The film, which is based on a memoir written by Solomon Northup after his 12-year ordeal, begins with a glimpse of the Northup family’s happy life in New York, where he was a musician, craftsman, and a free man. Those beautiful moments with his family are over quickly, as a pair of low-life scam artists pull off the wicked guise of hiring Northup to play for a party out of town, the pair of crooks drug him, kidnap him, and then turn him over to a slave trader (played by Paul Giamatti). Soon after that Northup, along with other would-be slaves stand naked in a grandiose home’s parlor, as customers are invited to inspect the “property for sale” at their leisure.
12 Years a Slave wouldn’t be as effective in its delivery on the big screen if it weren’t perfectly cast (with Chiwetel Elijofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o) performed with searing honesty, smoothly written (by John Ridley, from Northup’s own memoir), and unflinchingly filmed without holding back the disgusting depravity of the era; you’ll want to look away, particularly during a sequence involving Patsey near the end, but you won’t. You will painfully watch and feel your heart being broken for these men and women. It’s a chapter in American history that’s still seen too little screen time, too little honesty, and it will haunt you long afterward.
“I don’t want to survive,” says Solomon Northup early on, refusing to accept his horrific change in circumstances after he has been tricked and sold into slavery. “I want to live!”
Some critics seemed to have gotten too caught up in the character of Samuel Bass having come into the picture abruptly (and even more distracted by Brad Pitt starring in the role), that they seem to neglect taking the time to reflect on all the truth that was spoken during the scenes involving Bass. Truth is truth, no matter who is saying it. The Bible even tells us that God once spoke through a donkey (Numbers 22:22-41)… so we should probably still reflect on the profound truth being uttered by Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass.
One comes away from watching 12 Years a Slave, which ends with Northup restored to happiness and liberty, filled with some joy for his eventual return to his family, but also with a surpassing sorrow for all that he had to endure. It seems simply incredible that any man could endure even one day a slave, much less that the human mind could pass through such an ordeal for 12 years and emerge not only intact but capable of generous, lucid, and occasionally artful prose. Though the film adaptation ends at the same place the book memoir does (with Northup reunited with his family in New York) the film strikes a decidedly different note. When Ejiofor’s Northup, now dressed in a freeman’s clothes as he had been before his ordeal, walks through the door of his home and is greeted by his family dressed in their Sunday best, his face appears similar to what Job’s must have looked like when he was presented with his new, replacement family. The sensation is no longer one of amazement that a man’s mind could survive such an ordeal intact, but the hard realization that in some ways it cannot.
It should be noted that I viewed this movie through the lens of a particular worldview and left the theater deeply moved. In the end, we must cling to the promises of God, and the hope that for those who love God all things really do work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.** Because some day, things that look like broken glass to us here will make sense… as small parts of a beautiful stained glass picture of God’s redemptive work throughout history.
Movie Trailer for 12 Years a Slave.