12 Years a Slave – The Academy Got It Right

Scene from 12 Years a Slave
Scene from 12 Years a Slave
Scene from 12 Years a Slave
Scene from 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave really was the best picture—the richest storyline, the most courageous reach,  the best ensemble acting, including stellar performances from Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), best-supporting actress, and the lead Chiwetel Ejiofor (Northup). Nyong’o was born in Mexico of Kenyan descent and the British-born Ejiofor has the same name as a Nigerian footballer. It seems fitting that a movie about slavery should have an African presence, indirectly by heritage at least.

Michael Fassbender also puts in a memorable performance  (isn’t he, role by role,  proving himself to be one of Hollywood’s finest?) as does Brad Pitt. On the night of the awards, producer Pitt was also credited by the British director Steve McQueen for making the movie possible. What name recognition and a little money will do!

I was fearful that Gravity with its technical brilliance (deservedly it won a number of technical awards) might steal the show even though its storyline is shallow and underdeveloped. You can summarize the movie in a haiku: Tethered good. Unthethered bad. On earth and in space.  Too simplistic for a best picture award.

12 Years a Slave—a memoir bears the same name published in 1853— is rich in autobiography and history.  It tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn African-American kidnapped into slavery.  Northrup, a violinist, lives a charmed life of culture and elegance in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children until the day of his kidnapping and his being sold into slavery in 1841. For the next 12 years he works on plantations in Louisiana.

Chosen for the audience award at TIFF in 2013, the academy-award winning film gives the viewer, far more extensively than Lincoln or Djano Unchained, an experience of what slavery must have been like for African-Americans, whether educated and sophisticated, albeit a little naïve, like Northup or hard-working and illiterate like Patsey.  The drive for freedom, to be your own person, pulses through every frame.

When the US government has yet to fund-raise for a national museum recognizing the enormity and degradation of slavery, McQueen’s movie introduces young Americans, black and white, to the single most significant event in American history.

As New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis writes, “12 Years a Slave  isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” There’s no going back to the kitsch and sentimentality of Gone with the Wind now.

By J.S. Porter

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