For an industry always on the hunt for new projects, Hollywood has long seemed skittish about delving into the history of slavery in the United States. It’s a central component of American history, if not the central component, but few films ever really take the plunge into giving the subject its due diligence. From Gone with the Wind, to Glory, to Amistad, most major releases have tended to use slavery as a backdrop to tell a broader romantic, war, or political story, all the while skirting the subject’s true brutality. Even last year’s critically acclaimed Lincoln was much more about the legislative and political process required to end slavery than about the abominable realities.
Last year’s Django Unchained, a tribute to spaghetti western films directed by Quentin Tarantino, seemed to signal a bucking of the trend at last. On the face of it, Django was a largely irreverent tale, the story of a slave providing a German bounty hunter with information on targets in exchange for assistance in rescuing his wife from another slave owner. Nothing about that plot synopsis suggests a movie concerned with historical accuracy. But while it did boast a great deal of the unrepentant humor and stylized violence characteristic of Tarantino’ films, the brutality of slavery wasn’t whitewashed in any way; it was in no way a “spoof” of slavery as some asserted after its release.
Now 12 Years a Slave has risen to the occasion, following Django with a serious story dealing with slavery. While both are excellent films, well-crafted by filmmakers and actors alike, the two couldn’t be more different tonally. The unrelenting brutality of 12 Years a Slave has been a long time coming to the silver screen.
The film is a recounting of the true story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South for, as you may have guessed, a dozen years. The film boasts an all-star cast studded with such names as Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, and Benedict Cumberbatch. While they give performances befitting their reputations, they are all outshone by Ejiofor, who attacks the role with an intensity befitting the situation of his character.
But unlike Django Unchained, this movie is not a revenge fantasy, or a film about rebellion and resistance. It’s a film about holding fast to what scraps of your humanity you can in a world insistent on stripping them from you. In the trailer, other slaves advise Northup to keep his head down, but he replies that he wants to live, not merely survive. But despite this line, this film is very much about survival at any cost. And while it ostensibly focuses on only a single character, the experiences of the other slaves with whom Northup interacts during his time of bondage only highlight the suffering inflicted prior to the Civil War. One woman is torn away from her two children when all three are sold to separate slaveholders, while another is repeatedly raped by her master and made to endure increased torture as a result at the hands of his bitterly jealous wife. One slave is stabbed defending another from her lecherous kidnappers, while two others are lynched, presumably for running away. The film isn’t content with the common refrain that slavery was terrible; it is intent on showing the horror in graphic detail. The mechanism for Northup’s servitude coming to an end will remain unspoiled for the prospective viewer, but if the title didn’t inherently give that plot point away, there’s not much that would suggest that the end would ever come for him. For a film called 12 Years a Slave, there’s no sense of the passage of time, as Northup’s drudgery is nearly absolute throughout the entire running time.
Compare such a film to the titular protagonist of Django Unchained. When his enemies question how a mere slave could become a gun-slinging vigilante capable of wreaking such havoc, Django proudly proclaims himself to be “one n*gger in ten thousand.” In so many ways, Tarantino’s film wasn’t as much about slavery as much as it was about a slave. In reality and in fiction, respectively, Solomon Northup and Django were only two very small and incredibly fortunate pieces of a much greater story. And while the end of Django Unchained, perhaps by dint of its genre, feels triumphant and optimistic, the audience has no such impression at the end of 12 Years a Slave. The idea of Northup’s ordeal occurring to anyone alive today would be unfathomable. But the movie makes it unmistakably plain that for the millions trapped in bondage prior to the Civil War, the prospect of freedom after a mere dozen years of servitude would have seemed a blessing.
It’s a lesson that, for all its inimitable entertainment value, neither Django Unchained nor virtually any other feature film about slavery prior has dealt with. It’s also a lesson that, given the lasting effects of the institution and the efforts in some circles to downplay or misrepresent those effects, desperately needs to be taught. 12 Years a Slave is the rare film that is both excellent and yet incredibly uncomfortable to watch. But precisely because of both these things, it is a film that needs to be seen.