12 Years a Slave

Movie Goers and Friends,

It is very seldom that I come across a film in which I struggle to find the proper words to describe it. I know that while I cannot begin to describe the experience of 12 Years a Slave, I couldn’t help but find myself immediately jumping to my computer when I returned to my apartment to try to piece together my thoughts, my feelings, and my emotions in regards to 12 Years a Slave. I want to frame my thoughts and my response around three pieces of this film in hopes that they will help me express my ideas. While I rarely talk about acting, it must be noted and discussed. The use of the long take created the emotional feel of this film. And the momentary spectacle of some of the shots in this film help explain its deeper significance.

            Chiwetel Ejiofor. His portrayal of Solomon Northup was truly a noteworthy performance. While I feel fickle for saying it, but I hope he gets the recognition he deserves from the Academy. I am sure there will be plenty of buzz around stars like Tom Hanks and Robert Redford come Oscar season, but it seems necessary that Ejiofor gets mentioned. His performance was something unusual. Truly stunning. The emotion, the horror, the brutality, and the pain that was experienced by Solomon Northup and his once fellow slaves was best captured in the eyes of Ejiofor. Steve McQueen, the director, knew that it was in the eyes that would best capture these emotions. I think that is what it making me struggle to find the proper words. The human eye holds so much weight. The eye holds fear, pain, stress, happiness, sadness, relief, and so much more. It is in the eye that we lose words. I am never good at remember eye color but I know when I look into someone’s eyes I can sense the feeling and I can remember that feeling. I pay no attention to eye color when I am gazing into someone’s eye. Ejiofor captured the struggles, trials, and pains of slavery in his eyes. And I feel foolish for using the words “struggles, trials, and pains” for those words cannot describe slavery as Ejiofor’s eyes do. They seem inadequate and weak. They carry no weight or meaning when used to discuss a film such as 12 Years a Slave. It is noted in the film by a character that Solomon does not show his emotions. After a slave weeps uncontrollably for her family be split up at a slave auction, she remarks Solomon’s indifference. She questions whether or not he feels for being separated from his wife and his son and daughter. He strikes back with anger and raw emotion that he can never let them go or out of his heart, but he does not show it because he carries all his emotion in his eyes and heart.

            Much can be said about Michael Fassbender’s performance, but we all know his talents and his skill. A rising actor who made his breakthrough performance in Inglorious Basterds and Shame, his role as Epps, a brutal slave owner, is due recognition as well. His portrayal of the drunk, crazed, uncontrollable, evil man, Epps, is truly remarkable.

            Where the emotion of the film was captured in Ejiofor’s eyes, the stunning beauty of nature was captured by the camera. Shots of the sunset over the tree lined streams and creeks leave me wondering if the metaphor is that there is still beauty in this evil slave world. But I feel that this metaphor is inadequate. I feel that these shots rather represent that in the slave ridden South there is no true beauty. These shots represent that there is evil in the beauty of the antebellum South. A horrifying beauty. While the sunset seems peaceful it is only quickly reminded that the sun sets upon an inhuman culture and society.

            12 Years a Slave is sprinkled with biblical verses in its script and features scenes of plantation owners delivering Sunday service to their slaves. As God and evil are brought up in the dialogue and represents a theme throughout the film, the true doses of evil are most felt by the use of the long take. One scene that is most memorable and most disturbing is after Solomon beats his slave master. He is strung up by a noose and hung on a tree with his feet just barely touching the ground. He dangles hanging reaching and holding himself up by his tiptoes in effort to save his life. What follows is a wide shot and long take (long take is when the camera holds on a shot for an extending period of time). As Solomon dangles, the other slaves in the background emerge from their slave quarters and begin their chores. They work in the background of Solomon dangles and the camera holds showing this torture forcing the audience to look and to feel.

            After Solomon talks with Bass (Brad Pitt’s character) there is a seemingly unmotivated and episodic low angle shot of Solomon looking out in the distance. The camera pauses and holds once again on Solomon’s face from a low angle off to the right. Solomon gazes out. Ejiofor’s eyes capture the tension.  The fourth wall is almost broken as Solomon shifts his gaze (if an actor stares directly at the audience and the camera is it known as “breaking the fourth wall”; the fourth wall being the camera). We cannot tell Solomon’s true feelings in this scene. What is he thinking? What is he feeling? Fear? Anxiety? Worry? Pain? Hope? Despair?  It was intended for the audience to not know the exact feeling. It is a motif throughout the entire film which explains my inability to properly describe this film. The audience can never truly understand the experience of slavery. We can never find the true words to describe it. Words like horrible, terrible, gut wrenching, painful, bear absolutely no weight in the discussion of slavery. The only ones that seem to somewhat stick are evil and horrifying. As religion is used in the film, evil can be the true representation of slavery. “Horrifying” bears such fear and pain that it may be able to describe the experience. But to truly understand “horrifying” and “evil” is only to experience it. Ejiofor delivers the closest representation of the “horrifying” and “evil” nature of slavery, but he nor any member of the audience can every understand that feeling. But this film only reminds us of our nation’s greatest sin and the twisted nature of humanity. 


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