Film: “12 years a slave” (2014)

Whew, where to start with this one? I’m not sure what sort of review I can really write about it, it’s got the air of one of those unimpeachable films that are so solemn in tone that any sort of criticism of it as a film would bring down a firestorm of abuse back. Not that I particularly want to criticise it, the film was exactly what I imagined it to be.

“12 years a slave” is ‘based on’ (a lot of caveats hide behind those two words usually so pardon my eyebrow for raising) the biography of Solomon Northup, a free man with a loving family living in 1840’s New York state. He is tricked, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, and his story traces his path through those 12 years.

It’s harrowing stuff, unflinchingly showing routine abuse of plantation slaves by their masters in graphic detail. It’s looking at Oscar glory so the N-word is used like it’s going out of fashion, and the white ‘gentleman’ cast rinse every second of screentime with top-hatted bluster and long words. Aside from that fairly hammy aspect in the early parts of the film, it’s a solid cast, with Chiwitel Ejiofor’s Solomon as the backbone of the story.

I’m finding it hard to review it objectively because these critically lauded films are usually alien territory to me, whatever they are about. I regularly go to the cinema for light-hearted escapism, or bombastic thrills and explosions, so I can’t really write about this film with the same vocabulary, it’s apples and oranges.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take out of the film, I was already well aware of the era of slavery and the brutality that came with it, so in that respect I already had the message. My knowledge of the period is sketchy at best, so it was interesting to see aspects of it I hadn’t really thought or heard about, like the rare white slaves, or even really the fact that the middle class in the North wasn’t exclusively white – this is where my dates get a bit muddled really.

12-Years-A-SlaveIt was all very good, I want to get that clear – I suppose I find it hard to stop measuring my opinion of a film against my enjoyment of it; it’s not a film to be enjoyed in that sense really. The locations were really spot-on though, lots of great shots – am I just reduced to commenting on the decorations though? Some of the shots I think were a bit lost on me – long, lingering silent moments with people looking blankly into the middle distance – some of it just went over my head, I must be a philistine.

One thing I would say though, it focused almost exclusively on Solomon’s time as a slave with very little bookending it. His family were clearly very important to him, but it felt like we only got very scant details of how they lived before, and only a very short sequence at the end, before the epilogue text tells us about what an interesting life he had afterwards. It feels like they could have shown a bit of that too, but that’s just me.

Anyway, you’ll already know if you want to see this or stay away, you don’t need me to recommend it. So maybe I’ll just go to bed and leave you to it.

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