12 Years a Slave, and Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013 and only two others, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay; Gravity got seven Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street. I have seen none of them, though Gravity is next on my list as it won both the Hugo and the SFWA Ray Bradbury Awards.

I have seen very few other films from that year. The only one I sat through with my full attention was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I have been in the same room as small children watching Frozen. And I got halfway through Saving Mr Banks before something distracted me and I never got around to finishing it. IMDB users rank 12 Years a Slave 6th best film of the year on one ranking, but only 30th on the other. The Wolf of Wall Street tops both rankings, and Prisoners and The Man of Steel are both ahead of 12 Years a Slave on both. Of my limited sample of the year, I like 12 Years a Slave best.

Here’s a trailer.

A number of actors who appeared in previous award-winning films, starting with the star himself, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who in Solomon Northrup here and was the Operative in Serenity.

Not as high up the list, but Sarah Paulson is the gruesome wife of plantation owner Epps here, and was also in Serenity as Dr Caron, who gets gruesomely killed by the Reavers.

Dwight Henry, as Uncle Abram, and Quvenzhané Wallis, as Solomon’s daughter Margaret, return from last year’s Bradbury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, where they played the key protagonists, father and daughter. Both films of course are mostly set in Louisiana. Unlike last year, they don’t share any scenes together this time.

Going further down the list, Scoot McNairy is Brown, one of Solomon’s captors, here; last year, with less facial hair, he was Joe Stafford, one of the fugitive diplomats in Argo.

And finally Garret Dillahunt, the treacherous Armsby here, was deputy sheriff Wendell in No Country for Old Men, again with much less facial hair but with a similar hat.

Apart from the above, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt also play significant roles, Cumberbatch and Fassbender as bad guy slaveholders and Pitt as the good guy who eventually gets Solomon freed. This was also Lupita Nyong’o’s first significant role as Patsy.

After many many entries in which I have castigated Oscar winners for their racism, including as recently as last year’s winner, Argo, this is a film entirely about the African American experience of slavery, which goes a little way towards expiating the Academy’s past faults. Closely based on an autobiographical account, it is the story of a free African-American from New York state who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, and endures twelve years of horrible treatment on cotton and sugar plantations in Louisiana before finally regaining his freedom by getting a message to friends back north. It is gripping stuff.

As usual, however, I’m going to start with the elements of the film that I did not like as much, before going on to its virtues. The thing I liked least about the film was unfortunately at its very core, and the film could not have been the same without it. The violence is graphic and disturbing. I had to fast-forward through the scene where Solomon is forced to flog Patsey (I had already read the book, so I knew what was coming; it’s 4 minutes and 46 seconds in a single take). It’s not possible to make an honest film about slavery without depicting grim, horrible and repeated violence, but it is not something I enjoy watching. Accounts from the set indicate that the actors were psychologically affected by it too.

My other (much less serious) case of side-eye is the casting of actors playing antebellum Americans. Benedict Cumberbatch is English. Michael Fassbender is Irish. Lupita Nyong’o’s family is from Kenya (the other side of Africa), though she also has Mexican citizenship and was educated in Massachusetts so perhaps it’s a less clear case (she still isn’t Southern, though). The star of the film, Chiwetel Ojiofor, is English and sounds totally London when not acting:

Maybe it’s not such a big deal, but I do think it is unfortunate that none of the lead Southern parts is played by a Southern actor. (And Chiwetel Ojiofor is playing a Northerner.)

Apart from that, the film has a good and important story to tell, and tells it very well. There is no sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, or its shameful endorsement by the forces of the state and the church. (Christianity does not come out well in this film.) There is little Hollywoodisation of the facts – the film has stuck pretty closely to the book it is based on (rare enough), and is probably a better film as a result (even rarer). Although Solomon is freed in the end because he was born a freeman, we are left in no doubt that the continuing enslavement of his fellow workers is an appalling injustice. It skips a little over the formalities of how he was freed, but we know what has happened.

I thought the cinematography and film editing were very good, and look forward to seeing Gravity which won the Oscars in those categories that year. And I don’t usually comment on this, because I am rather fashion-unconscious, but I thought the costuming was superb. I did scratch my head at first at how clean everyone’s clothes generally are, but goin back to the source material, I realised how important cleanliness is to people who have otherwise lost most of their dignity, and indeed how important it was for slave owners to put on a good show.

Unusually, the music is a mixture of diegetic and incidental. Solomon Northrup is a talented violinist, both free and enslaved. One of the most memorable scenes is the singing of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan Roll” by the slaves picking cotton.

The acting is top-notch. I grumbled a bit about the casting of Ojiofor, Nyong’o, Cumberbatch and Fassbender earlier. I have no grumbles about their performances, or about anyone else’s. The slaveholders are flawed human beings rather than caricatures. The slaves are individuals who have been placed in awful circumstances. It is of course a didactic story, but it’s at least as much a story about people.

I would have liked to place this higher in my rankings, but the violence really did squick me, so I’m putting it just over a third of the way down my list, in 26th place, just below Oliver! and above Unforgiven.

Next up in the list of Oscar winners is Birdman, but I’ll watch Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy first.

I also read the original book on which the film is based, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup but edited by David Wilson. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

I have previously read a number of slavery narratives – Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Ann Jacobs, the research of Rebecca Hall and the close observations of Fanny Kemble – and they are all interesting in different ways. Douglass and Jacobs were born into slavery, and Equiano born in Africa, so Northrup’s account is unusual in being that of a man born free in the USA but then enslaved. It’s also unusual in the relatively neutral presentation of the means and motivation of the slave owners – these are evil people, sure, but their evil is an inevitable consequence of the system.

I also found it really interesting in the precision of the geography where everything happened – I found myself googling the Williams slave pen in Washington DC, and Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana. Northrup is also very detailed and convincing about the precise techniques of employing slave labour for both cotton and sugar cane farming. And of course he is crystal clear about the brutality of the slavery system.

Not surprisingly, there have been Northrup denialists since 1853, just as there have been Anne Frank denialists since a century later. But the level of verifiable detail about named individuals and places is tremendously convincing. It’s also fairly short, and well-written (as is normal for any mid-nineteenth-century writer). You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)