The word slavery has an all too familiar meaning in the minds of many African-Americans. For a majority of people who came into contact with slavery, their encounters will always remain a scar which, though healed, is a painful reminder of a dark past which cannot be simply wished away. It is because of this relevance that the published slave memoirs of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave, was adapted into a major motion picture in 2013.
The film, 12 Years a Slave is based on the real life of Solomon Northup, who was a free man but who was sold into slavery through the machinations of two “gentlemen” he advently met, or so he thought. He is captured while going about his daily activities, working out contracts for people and playing his violin so as to keep body and soul together, for himself and his entire family. Released by Quality over Quantity (QoQ) in 2013, the film tells the story of the trials and tribulations which Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his fellow slaves went through at the hands of different slave owners. Solomon presents us with events that he observed and experienced and challenge us –the audience—to judge. Through Solomon’s eyes, we observe that there are slaves who have never felt what it is like to be free and as a result, they are alienated from reality. Lack of identity is another of the problems faced by these slaves. Upon his enslavement, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt according to the wishes of his slave owners, a fact that greatly infuriates Solomon.
Based on the events that happened from January 1841 up to 1853 when Solomon Northup is released from bondage, the film director, producer and costume designer captured this reality in a very convincing way. The type of costumes the actors wore, the choice of music and the soundtrack, the type of buildings in which different scenes take place, the kind of parties the people of that time engages in and the general flow of life in the movie capture all these aspects well.
Stylistically, the film employs a lot of flashbacks which serve the film well especially at times such as when Solomon has just realized that he has been enslaved. This flashback is very strategic showing the audience the transition from the almost action-less dungeon in which Solomon is confined to his relatively colorful past before he became a slave. What this also brings is a sharp contrast between his present and his past, something that enhances our critical viewing of the film.
I will fail as a reviewer if I don’t point out that nudity in my understanding is not a mark of excellent creativity. The film may have wanted to reflect the reality of the book to its very fine details but I still find the nudity a bit disconcerting. There must have been a way that this story could have been told effectively without necessarily showing naked human beings. An example is by creating the impression of people without clothes in the same way artists create the impression of death on stage while at the same time sparing their audiences all the gruesome details.
Otherwise, 12 Years a Slave is a major motion picture which will resonate with humans far into the past and widely into the future.
One can argue that such tales should be a reserve of interested historians and scholars with no place at all in mainstream entertainment industry especially considering the painful memories the film re-awakens. But the truth is that such stories have to be brought to the people – through cinema, television and books—in order to remind us of the inhumanity of man against man and caution us. The reason why we record history, after all, is not to revenge but to make us cautious in our future endeavors. Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says that if we sweep history under the carpet, then we risk being myopic about our future.