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March 6, 2021

12 Years A Slave

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Slavery was (and still is) a crime against humanity, heinous in concept and callous in practice. We all know that, don’t we? Or, at a time when our own government is shunting people off to out-of-sight, out-of-mind hellholes for the ‘crime’ of being desperate and not white, do we regularly need to be reminded that we are all in the same boat?

Based on actual events, 12 Years A Slave is the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated, musically accomplished, free black man living in New York with his wife and two kids in 1841. He is lured to Washington, kidnapped and sold to a slave-trader in New Orleans.

Thereafter, director Steve McQueen’s focus is primarily on the cruelties inflicted on Solomon and his fellow slaves.

Paul Dano, lately making a profitable niche for himself on screen as a slack-jawed psychopath, is the first in a string of plantation thugs that Solomon encounters and, lacking a strong narrative (as in The Butler), the film evolves as just one rotten thing after another being inflicted by horrible owners and overseers. Is it truculent to suggest that it is meant to work as a salve on middle-class white audiences? That it banks too heavily on stirring moral indignation to win its kudos?

Master Bass, a Canadian, turns up to provide enlightened debate and he’s played by Brad Pitt, because there is no way Brad could be a whip-brandishing oppressor.

There is also a worrying undercurrent that, because he was a literate northerner, Solomon’s plight was somehow even more unjust than that of the ‘real’ slaves.

The bookish dialogue sounds as though it were written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, its archness putting a barrier between viewer and characters, and there are too many quiet close-ups that are less insightful than plain dull.

Twelve years of brutal hardship and privation would be an ordeal for anybody, so I was relieved that Solomon’s trials didn’t last any longer, for I thought the movie would never end.

~ John Campbell

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