I gasped aloud so many times during 12 Years a Slave that I lost count. It’s one of the most cringeworthy movies that I’ve seen in a long time. But it’s also one of the best. Everything you’ve heard so far about this movie is true. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers an incredibly moving performance as Solomon Northrup, a free black man who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years. A man, who despite being educated, must hide his ability to read and write to survive. Supporting cast members like Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson deliver equally impressive performances. It’s truly a shame (no pun intended) that Michael Fassbender doesn’t want to campaign for an Oscar this season, he most definitely deserves a nomination for her portrayal of an alcoholic plantation owner.
However the incredible acting can’t make up for the horrific subject matter. With the exception of a few flashbacks that Solomon has from his life as a free man, every scene is depressing. There’s a feeling of despair that washes over you at the very beginning of the film that sticks with you long after the movie ends. Images of slaves being beaten and tortured and whipped until the skin on their backs is shredded don’t stay in the theater. They come home with and sit with you and make you think about what slavery was really like in this country.
While we can learn about it in school and talk about it in our conversations, we need these kinds of movies to really understand just how horrible it was to be a slave in this country. It’s not so much that the movie was graphic, but that it was honest. Obviously enslaving other human beings is awful, but we forgot just how awful until we see it happen. Until we watch a mother get torn apart from her young children in a New Orleans slave market and until we watch a female slave get raped by her owner, we don’t really get it. And while I think (almost) everyone would agree that’s slavery’s a horrible institution, I don’t think we always remember exactly why. I don’t think we remember that slavery’s not one monolithic “bad” thing that happened in our country, but the combination of several million bad things happening to several million people over a very long period of time.
No one’s going to leave this movie in a good mood and no one’s going to rave about it the way they did with movies like Gravity. But unlike Gravity – a movie that I enjoyed very much — this one has a real story to tell. It’s not an easy story to listen to, nor is it a happy one. But it’s one that’s so important. Because even at the end, when Solomon gets returned to his family, there’s no real feeling of relief. Not only because he fails to get justice for what happened to him, but because you know there are many more people who didn’t ever get the chance to seek justice for the crimes committed against them.