Watch: 12 Years A Slave

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Article Reviews

Directed by Steve McQueen (Fox Searchlight, 2013)

Idyllic sunsets, moss-covered trees, chirping birds—in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, this backdrop is not a portrait of carefree Southern living, but rather the setting for an honest glimpse at the lifestyle that supported keeping human beings as property.

The film is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Apart from a few gray hairs that appear on Northup, there is little indication throughout of exactly how much of the titular block of time has passed, impressing upon viewers the ceaseless bondage of slavery.

While lashings and beatings do appear on screen, one of the most excruciating scenes in the movie unfolds without such violence. Instead, the camera lingers for an unbearable amount of time on Northup, who has barely escaped a lynching, hanging from a tree with his feet barely scraping the ground, literally an inch from death. As Northup dangles there, people—both slave and free—casually go about their business, while some children even play and laugh nearby.

Though sure to be a big winner come Oscar time, the film does suffer a bit from its star-studded supporting cast, which features Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Taran Killam, Bryan Batt, and Paul Dano. Cumberbatch successfully sells his character as a somewhat kindly slave owner, but some of the other appearances distract from the film. None is more jarring than when Brad Pitt, also one of the film’s producers, appears in a small but important role near the end of the movie.

12 Years A Slave is ultimately the story of one individual. As themes of sin, mercy, and justice float through the film, only one man is redeemed. Northup is able to leave slavery behind, but for the rest of the people he suffered with, the story just went on.

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 1, page 42).