12 Years a Slave could be the perfect liberal argument against those on the political right who on more than one occasion felt the need to challenge the very status and freedoms of many minorities, including African-Americans. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots) plays Solomon Northup, a black man living in New York who is kidnapped and forced into slavery for over a decade just prior to the American Civil War. When Solomon tells his enslavers that he's a free man, they ask him to prove it by showing his papers, which Solomon can't do because he's in chains, not that they would give him a chance to do so any way.
Yet, this scene echoes the categorization that liberals made about those who wanted to see President Barack Obama's birth certificate, those who wanted stricter voter ID laws during the 2012 election, or those in Arizona that supported the stricter immigration law that allowed police to demand minorities, mainly Hispanics, to prove their residency status by in effect "showing their papers." Most people tried to liken this Arizona law to what Jews experienced in Nazi Germany, and while it's unreasonable to compare those in today's American political right to Nazis, it's not so unreasonable to make that same comparison toward the enslavers here.
The Obama birth certificate, the voter ID debate and the Arizona immigration law don't rise to the level of slavery or the Holocaust, but it pushes the country back toward the idea that there are people who are less than others, particularly less than the white or the wealthy. I wouldn't be surprised if President Obama, those asked for voter ID in the 2012 election or those asked to produce papers to prove their immigration status in Arizona, I wouldn't be surprised if all of them shared the same feeling as Solomon Northup in that scene.
In terms of the film's value and what it contributes to African-American cinematic history, 12 Years a Slave offers no more or not that much different than Lee Daniels' The Butler. Both stand as testimonials of real-life witnesses to the abuses and the horrors of black people in the United States, and both are witnesses who were inside the situation as well as outside of it to a certain degree. Yes, Solomon was a slave, but he always had a window out, unlike those slaves around him.
While having the same value as Lee Daniels' The Butler, director Steve McQueen (Hunger and Shame), however, gets to indulge and revel in the brutal violence and dehumanization that have been staples in so many slave narratives. If you thought the horror of watching slaves on the boat featured in Amistad (1997) was bad, you'll get more of it here. If you thought the whipping and lashing that Denzel Washington's character got in Glory (1989) was painful, you haven't seen anything. The problem is that these indulgences go on for way too long.
It got to a point that I was taken out of the moment and the obvious CGI got distracting. I failed to see the point of it nor the point of its length. If it was to make the audience feel the pain of the whipping, McQueen might truly be sadistic. I suppose one could call Edward Zwick sadistic too, but instead of showing the blood and gore, Zwick focuses on Denzel Washington's face. Here, McQueen doesn't focus on Lupita Nyong'o's face. He instead accentuates the physical damage and the screams of pain.
All of it seems more about showing how evil plantation and slave-owner Epps, played by Michael Fassbender (Prometheus and X-Men: First Class), really is. It's an interesting contrast to see Epps use Holy Scripture to justify his behavior or to rationalize his refusal to shake the idea that the treating of black people should be no different that the treatment of property or no better than the treatment of baboons. In Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Leonardo DiCaprio's character of slave-owner Calvin Candie used a warped phrenology, a type of science, to justify his racism, and somehow, the religious route isn't as interesting as the scientific route, probably because religion is used more often.
Screenwriter John Ridley (Undercover Brother and Red Tails) did introduce an aspect that was rather intriguing. Before Solomon is kidnapped, he walks with his family into a store and passes a slave on the street. It's clear that the slave notices Solomon, but Solomon doesn't notice the slave. Solomon at various points asks other slaves like Eliza, played by Adepero Oduye (Steel Magnolias and Pariah), how could they fall into despair, and it's almost as if he's blind to what's happening. Because Solomon wasn't born into slavery like many others, there is a disconnect for him. Because he hasn't been in it as long as many others, there is a further disconnect for him. Given he was born free and was educated, he always had an out, so he's always separate from the rest. It's supposed to help an audience perhaps relate to Solomon but at the same time it's difficult to see how Solomon relates to the slaves. When Solomon hugs one of the slaves at the end after spending the entire movie maintaining a distance, it felt false or unearned.
If you want to see a better film about a person who is kidnapped and forced into slavery, check out the Oscar-nominated film War Witch by Kim Nguyen.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 14 mins.