I usually look at period movies from a cinematic perspective — justifying and condemning celluloid decisions more with an eye toward aesthetics than accuracy. So it’s rare for me to recommend a film based on its historical content and the manner in which it’s conveyed.
I’m going to do just that, however, with Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave.
This picture — the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man in 19th-century Saratoga, NY, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery — is up there with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as one of the great silver screen documents of human villainy … and therefore should be shown alongside the latter film in schools to give students an idea of what the extent of our species’ cruelty to each other was like. These movies would probably be most suitable for high school; I’m speaking from experience here, as I was given but a cursory education in those days regarding the lives of slaves in Northrup’s era, and my understanding wants as a result.
I hope students today will not go through the same experience that I did.
Central to 12 Years a Slave is the performance of the great Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup; he is absolutely brilliant and provides some of the most moving moments in the entire film, as does Lupita Nyong’o as the terribly abused slave Patsey, who is treated so horribly by slaveowner Edwin Epps (a superb portrayal by Michael Fassbender) that you’ll want to scream in anger at the screen. Editing and cinematography are expert, and there’s a simple, mournful score by Hans Zimmer that’s very effective. Of course, sharp direction that takes its time but never becomes plodding is crucial, and that’s provided by McQueen. It’s a major film, and there are many things to learn from it.
That’s why I suggest it be shown in schools as part of students’ history curricula. This is part of American history; it shouldn’t be glossed over, and it was in my education. Certainly, only a small part of the slavery experience was documented in the film, but when you see the torture inflicted upon Northrup — a harrowing scene in which he is left to hang from a tree for what seems like an eternity is one example of this — you’ll get an idea of the pain people went through … and why it should never happen again. Adding to the power of the film is the fact that it’s masterfully crafted, so there’s really no reason to avoid it.
We need to treat movies responsibly as parts of our culture. They should share accountability for their effects on viewers. And we should be accountable for not showing what’s necessary to people who need to see it.
12 Years a Slave is necessary.