Critics and audiences are buzzing about Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave,” which opens October 18th. Here are five reasons why you should see it.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood,” Dr. Martin Luther King expounded on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
King’s iconic speech has become the cultural cornerstone for racial equality in the United States. But are we there yet? It’s what we aim towards, but at times seems like nothing more than an inspirational dream. After the 2008 election of the nation’s first African-American president, it seemed like you could sail away on the optimistic stream of hope about a colorless society.
“The post-racial era, as embodied by Obama, is the era where civil rights veterans of the past century are consigned to history and Americans begin to make race-free judgments on who should lead them,” Daniel Schorr of NPR wrote in 2008. But then Schorr cautioned that “the nation may have a way to go yet to reach colorblindness.”
Five years later, I’m sure Trayvon Martin’s family would agree.
The United States is currently in a crisis of confidence when it comes to race. King’s dream seems just over the horizon, but still frustratingly out of reach. Why? The reasons make up a multitude of arguments and are endlessly debatable. But we can do without contest is to look backwards to examine the earliest origins of race in this country.
By understand where we’ve been, it is possible to see where we are going—and to maintain the growth towards King’s vision of an egalitarian world where people aren’t judged by race. If we face the most terrible parts of our history, we can begin to understand where we are today. And this way, perhaps we can steer the course to where we need to go and where so many of us deeply want to be.
“12 Years a Slave” is the movie to help us do that.
This movie is why cinema matters. It’s the true story of the life of Solomon Northup, a 19th-century free black man and musician from upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. From acclaimed director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley, “12 Years a Slave” conveys an eloquence and horror which has critics in a frenzy, calling it “extraordinary” and “surreal in its evil.”
Why, specifically, should we invest our time and money into it?
1. Because “there hasn’t been a filmed project that engages with the subject of slavery this deeply since the television miniseries Roots.”
Or so writes Kyle Buchanan over at Vulture, who believe the film will win Best Picture. This film offers us a time portal into the brutality of living as an enslaved African American like few have ever done before.
Peter Howell of the Toronto Star gushes “Believe the Oscar buzz. Britain’s Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) nails the horror of America’s slavery shame but also finds humanity in one man’s determination to free himself and return to his family.”
William Goss of Film.com rhapsodizes “Northup’s story was a true, terrible thing, and by virtue of telling it, the burdens of all American slaves are unflinchingly realized by Ejiofor and McQueen alike.”
2. Because director Steve McQueen is brilliant.
Coming off his win at of the People’s Choice award at the recent Toronto Film Festival for “12 Years a Slave,” Steve McQueen is said to be “deeply grateful” for the accolades his film is receiving. But this is not the first time the British director has wowed audiences.
In 2008, he received the first-time director, or Caméra d’Or Award at Cannes for “Hunger,” his depiction of the 1981 Irish hunger strike. His second major theatrical release, “Shame,” featuring “12 Years” star Michael Fassbender as a sex addict, also received likewise high praise in 2011 and 2012.
3. Because the performances will become iconic.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave,” gives a career-defining performance. As he told CBS News, “It sort of drifts away from being this complicated tale of these terrible times into really a story about the human spirit and I think everybody can connect to it.”
Brad Pitt, who also produced the film, plays a Canadian abolitionist. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson are haunting as the Epps, a couple of impossibly cruel slave owners. Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alfre Woodard and Paul Dano also have key roles.
Lupita Nyong’o, who plays horrifically-abused slave Patsey on the Epps plantation, has been called the break-out star of the film. As the native Kenyan actress told CTV News, “At the end of the day, Patsey was my reward and everything else is welcome and overwhelming and beautiful.”
4. Because it continues the dialogue on race in our society.
“12 Years a Slave” offers up an unflinching view of the atrocities committed in the name of commerce and culture from the African-American perspective. But acknowledging this horror bridges our understanding from all angles.
So where to go from here?
A national best-seller and winner of the National Book Award, Edward Ball’s “Slaves in the Family” continues the vital conversation. Written by the descendant of slave owners and traders in South Carolina, Edward Ball embarked on a quest to understand the intertwined history of his family and the black people they enslaved. What emerges is an incredibly insightful look at how race has shaped one family—and in turn, our country at large. This book is a fantastic companion piece to McQueen’s film.
5. Because it’s a true story.
“Twelve Years a Slave,” Northup’s real-life narrative detailing his abduction and life while enslaved, was published in 1853 in the United States to wide acclaim. Abolitionists and sympathizers rallied to the book, which sold 30,000 copies throughout the north on the eve of the Civil War.
Considered one of the best accounts of American slavery ever written by a slave, it was Northup’s “shrewd observations” which catapulted the narrative into the consciousness of the American public. It described the day-to-day life of a slave as never before seen, which helped fuel the atmosphere which eventually led to the destruction of this American institution.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” had this to say of the memoir: “It is a singular coincidence, that Solomon Northup was carried to a plantation in the Red River country—that same region where the scene of Uncle Tom’s captivity was laid—and his account of this plantation, and the mode of life there, and some incidents which he describes, form a striking parallel to that history.”
“12 Years a Slave” will be commercially released by Fox Searchlight in the United States on October 18th.
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Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight