Slavery is bad. Everybody knows that. Everybody agrees with that.
So there’s no point of making a simple anti-slavery movie. That would be as pointless as making an anti-Osama Bin Laden movie. Everybody agrees that Bin Laden was awful. And he’s gone forever, anyway.
To make a great film about slavery, you need to give us more than just a good vs. evil story with slaveholders as the villains and slaves as the heroes. You need to have the guts to show that some slaveholders were less terrible than others. And you need to show that some slaves went along with slavery and helped keep the institution going.
In order to make a great film about slavery, you need to be seriously brave.
British director Steve McQueen is seriously brave. And “12 Years A Slave” is an amazing movie.
The story begins in Saratoga, N.Y. in the early 1840s. Solomon Northup was a respectable, educated, successful gentleman with a comfortable life and a loving family.
One nightmarish morning, Solomon woke up in chains. Soon he was being transported by ship to New Orleans to be sold as a slave.
The plot is simple: Solomon works as a slave on two different plantations for 12 years.
The purpose of the film is more subtle. It is a genuine attempt to give the viewer a taste of what life as a slave was truly like. And – more importantly – to show how slavery turned proud human beings into subservient beasts of burden.
Coincidently, the best movie of 2012 – “Django Unchained” – was also about slavery. But the two films couldn’t be more different. The arch-villain of “Django” was Samuel L. Jackson’s character. He was the ultimate Uncle Tom: a slave who was so co-opted by the system that he genuinely hated black people and believed that they deserved to be oppressed. Tarantino gleefully kills him off at the end.
In direct contrast, Steve McQueen forces us to understand and empathize with Solomon as slavery slowly changes his heart for the worse.
We experience the emotional horror as Solomon evolves from a dignified, intelligent man into a fearful, obedient child. We watch Solomon do horrible things. But instead of judging him, we fear that we would probably do the same things under the same circumstances.
“12 Years A Slave” is absolutely one of the greatest films of the year and a virtual lock to be nominated for Best Picture.