Saturday, March 21, 2015

2013: 12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup is a free black man living in New York with his wife and children, until he is abducted and sold into slavery. The film chronicles the horrors he faces as he desperately struggles to regain his freedom.

I first watched this movie several months ago, but I didn't blog about it then, and it had been long enough that I decided to watch it again before doing so. I'm very glad I did, because I thought it was much better the second time. Part of the reason I didn't want to blog about it right away was because I had heard so much praise for it, heard it called the definitive movie about slavery so often, that I didn't want to admit I didn't think it was that great. The beginning is really confusing. I still don't understand why it starts with scenes from the middle of the story, or what the point of that one sex scene is. The story also drags a lot, with a few too many scenes of nothing but Solomon staring into space contemplatively. But beyond those complaints, overall I think it's a very good film that effectively conveys the evils of slavery.

I'm pretty sure most people already know that slavery is evil without watching this movie, but there were aspects of it that I hadn't thought about, or at least had never seen portrayed before. The way the one plantation owner kept waking his slaves in the middle of the night to make them dance, just because he could. The way other slaves were expected to just go on with their work while one was being brutally beaten or almost hanged in the background. The way the plantation owner's wife was so jealous that her husband was sleeping with his slave that she wouldn't even let that slave have soap. The way that even the "nice" white people still unquestioningly accepted the privileges they received from such a messed-up system, taking for granted that they were somehow superior. The way that Solomon and the other slaves who knew who he was kept saying that he didn't deserve to be there, as if those who were born into slavery did. This film presents all these and many other sad truths without any ceremony or fluff; this is just how it was. All this comes together under the expert direction of Steve McQueen, with fabulous performances by the entire cast, particularly Chiwetel Enjiofor as Solomon. And then there's Lupita Nyong'o, whose incredible, haunting performance earned her a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The first time I watched this movie, I couldn't really get past the odd beginning, but this time I was able to fully appreciate just how well put together the rest of it is.

This is based on a true story that I'm not familiar with, so I don't know exactly how accurate the film is, but despite any factual inaccuracies it may have, it still seems brutally honest. Not that I actually witnessed that part of history, obviously, but I am aware that centuries later, our country still hasn't fully recovered from the side effects of slavery, particularly racism and fear of those who look different from us. I'm also aware that slavery still exists, though it seems like people are far less accepting of it now, as long as they know about it, which I guess is something.

I think it's interesting that of all the Best Picture Winners that dealt with historical issues, this is the first one to deal with slavery directly. The only other one I can think of that really talks about it at all is Gone with the Wind, which, while mostly a very good film, does a really terrible job of portraying slavery, implying that people were somehow happy to be enslaved and were only freed because of the meddlesome Yankees who didn't understand the benefits of the system. And somehow, though it's awful and many of us would prefer to forget about it, and though the effects of racism still tear this country apart, the fact that we're talking about slavery in this way at all seems like a step forward, albeit a tiny one.

Next Best Picture Winner: Birdman

I'm also planning to watch all the films that won Best Actress in order and blog about them on this account, kind of like this blog but focusing on the actresses' performances rather than the movie as a whole, so look out for that. Also in 2013 I wrote about all the movies I'd watched at least 10 times in the previous 10 years here in case you're interested in reading more of my movie thoughts. Also thanks for being one of the approximately 5 people who actually read this. You're awesome!

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