This Movie Is So Good It Hurts

Violent and disturbing, 12 Years a Slave is almost unwatchable, but you must see it.

Still of 12 Years a Slave (Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Still of 12 Years a Slave (Francois Duhamel/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

(The Root) — You don’t go to see 12 Years a Slave expecting a good time at the multiplex — the title alone is enough to disabuse anyone of that notion. No doubt about it, it’s a hard, hard slog, disturbing and despairing, gnawing at the spirit long after the last credits have rolled off the screen.

You should see it anyway.

The filmmakers have said that 12 Years, which opens in limited release on Friday, is the first film to tackle slavery head on. And while that isn’t technically true — Django Unchained, Glory and Lincoln are a few that come immediately to mind — this is, without question, the most visceral, you-are-there treatment of the subject that I’ve seen. Where Quentin Tarantino’s Django was the ultimate revenge fantasy, all blood splatters and Grand Guignol theatrics, 12 Years seeps into the psyche. You can’t watch it without getting caught up in feelings of fear and mounting dread.

An example: A slave is being punished. He’s strung up to a tree and left there hanging for hours upon hours, balancing on the tips of his toes, the only things keeping him from a snapped neck. All around him, life goes on. The only sounds are a symphony of cicadas in the Southern heat — and the man’s grunts as he struggles to keep his feet on the ground.

You can’t shake this off.

Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black New Yorker who was drugged, kidnapped and sold into captivity in 1841. As the title suggests, Northup labored on plantations for 12 years before he finally won back his freedom. He was one of the lucky ones, living to write about his experiences years later. That memoir is the basis of this film. The realness of Northup’s story lends the film a sense of urgency.

It’s interesting that many of the people involved in the making of this very American story aren’t Americans: McQueen is a black Brit of West Indian parentage; Ejiofor is Anglo-Nigerian; Michael Fassbender, who plays the deranged slaver Epps, is German-Irish; and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, the unwilling object of Epps’ sexual obsession, is Mexican by way of Kenya.

Perhaps it takes an outsider to truly take on this topic. But then again, Colonial-era chattel slavery had international reach — and still has impact today. And as the film demonstrates, slavery infected everyone who participated in that “peculiar institution,” from the enslaved, who had no say in their own lives, to the slave owners who mortgaged themselves to the hilt so that they could own other human beings.

After Solomon is put in chains, beaten and shoved onto a boat heading for a Louisiana slave market, he quickly learns that all it takes is one false move, or one brave one, to end up dead. You protest mistreatment — yours or others — at your peril.

“If you want to survive,” another enslaved “freeman” tells him, “Tell no one who you really are. And don’t tell anyone you can read or write — unless you want to be a dead nigger.”

“I don’t want to survive,” Solomon tells him. “I want to live.”