Cinema has the power to do many things, take us to places we’ve never been or even imagined; give us experiences unlike any other, and of course put us in another person’s shoes for a short period of time.
In many ways the latter of these in cinema’s biggest strength; by allowing us to see and hear someone else’s experiences we can empathise with them, and people like them, in ways that we may never have considered before.
12 Years a Slave is a film which puts us in the shoes of a man who has his freedom suddenly taken away from him, and has no clear way of getting it back. Like Schindler’s List or Bloody Sunday it weaves together real life events with an individual’s personal story to give us a broader understanding of the stuff normally reserved for history books.
The film follows the period of Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) life as he is taken away from his wife and kids in New York to be kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Northup must work the cotton plantations for his new ‘masters’, virtually powerless to prevent the cruelty inflicted upon him and his fellow slaves.
The nature of the story does not allow for many laughs or moments of comfort. This is pretty much as far from escapist cinema as it is possible to be. Our comfort comes from the fact we know from the title his slavery will only last twelve years, and the fact that slavery (at least in the form depicted in the film) is no longer legal in any country in the world.
12 Years a Slave is undoubtedly a moral film with a clear moral message. That is when we see those around us as anything less than human, there is virtually no limit to the cruelty we can inflict. Labels like ‘slaves’, ”Jews’, ‘immigrants’ or ‘terrorists’ can, if we’re not careful, allow us to think of ourselves as superior to others; the most dangerous of all moral places to be.
In addition there are some parallels to be drawn with the issues that are current in America today. Slavery may have ended, but many African-Americans still feel they are treated as second-class citizens by the establishment in America. Witness for example the reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin and consequential trial of George Zimmerman.
The other parallel to today is the way religion is portrayed in the film. Both of Solomon’s ‘owners’ read the bible to their slaves and use it to justify their mastery of them; there is nothing uglier than religion which lacks compassion. At the same time it the very same religion seems like the only source of hope some of the slaves have remaining; there is nothing sweeter than the sound of gospel music to a tired soul. The extent to which religion should inform one’s political beliefs and vice-versa is still an issue America is coming to terms with today. Where labels are present and compassion is not, problems soon arise.
12 Years A Slave then is the cinematic equivalent of eating your greens. There are more enjoyable films out there, but few that manage to affect you as deeply as this one will.