12 Years a Slave – My Reaction

I’ve always loved this quote from director David Fincher: “I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me, I’m always interested in movies that scar.” The title of my blog, Films That Scar comes from this quote and it’s this explanation of films that I think fits my love of film best.

Yes, the quote is heavy in its theme and somewhat depressing, but I think it applies to all films, even summer blockbusters and comedies. When I watch a movie, I become completely engaged in it. I like to be transported to the world of the film, to be engrossed in my emotions and setting of the film. Even with films like “Iron Man 3” or “This is The End”, I leave the theater reflecting on what I just saw and can easily spend 30 minutes in the car talking about with whoever is with me.

However, there are some films that linger and stay with you for a long time. And often, these are films that are hard to watch and hard to shake after the lights come on.

“12 Years a Slave” is one of those films. It’s incredibly well made- with smart and controlled, but revealing directing by Steve McQueen and a wrenching, stunningly emotional performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

I’m going to forgo a traditional film review and instead concentrate on the reaction I had to this film. However, here’s a great review by Entertainment Weekly writer Owen Gleiberman that briefly chronicles the plot of the film. I’m going to be talking about certain pivotal scenes and go into quite a lot of detail about them, so a fair warning: spoilers ahead.

The opening scenes show the kidnapping of Solomon Northup(Ejiofor), who was born a free man in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was fooled into thinking he was being hired to play fiddle in a circus, but instead was drugged and then chained up and is ultimately sold into slavery.

He then spends 12 years of his live as a slave, working as a carpenter and a cotton picker on Louisiana plantations. The first plantation owner he is sold to is William Ford(Benedict Cumberbatch). Prior to this, Solomon has been beaten and forced to be submissive when it comes to revealing that he is rightfully a free man. He is forced to keep this information under wraps, so right away, the audience is shocked. He is a free man. He should not be experiencing this. But isn’t everyone born free? Wasn’t every slave born free? That’s the questions the film makes you ask yourself.

Ford offers some comfort to Solomon by acting reasonably kind towards him. He is not violent towards him, and even gifts him with a fiddle, encouraging him to play it at his leisure.

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These comforts do not last for long, however. Ford’s carpenter, John Tibeats(Paul Dano) shows anger towards Solomon for his intelligence and bond with Ford. 

The scene that follows is a harrowing one and just barely prepares you for more intense and hard to watch scenes. Tibeats puts a noose around Solomon’s neck and has the full intention of hanging him from a tree. Before he is able to do so, however, he is stopped by another plantation worker. He does not completely remove the noose, however, so Solomon is left dangling from the tree, the tips of his toes scrapping the mud. He is left there for hours on end and it’s painful to watch.

This is when I realized the film was going to be a brutal and unflinching look into the horrors of slavery. The audience is placed right there in the terror that Solomon is experiencing. This hanging shot is held for minutes, and every second is more uncomfortable than the last for the viewer. But imagine what it was like for Solomon. And that’s the riveting effect the film has on you. As uncomfortable and horribly gripping as it is, it’s brilliantly executed. 

As if I wasn’t already emotionally overwhelmed by this point, when Solomon is sold again, but to the much harder and brutal planation owner that is Edwin Epps(Michael Fassbender), the horrors only grow. 

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The pivotal scene in the second half of the film involves Epps, Solomon, and the young woman slave, Patsey. Patsey is the plantation’s best cotton picker, picking hundreds of pounds of cotton a day. Epps praises her daily for it, but also advances towards her and ends up raping her. The look in Epps’ eyes whenever he advances towards Patsey and forces himself on her is extremely uncomfortable. Fassbender is incredible in this terrifying role. There is a shade of mental illness and a strong presence of alcohol problems to the character of Epps, which only makes his actions all the more frightening. 

The scene that had the audience looking away and gasping out loud is undoubtedly the hardest to watch in the whole film. Epps is looking around the plantation for Patsey, but she is not found. After she returns from obtaining a bar of soap because she has not been clean in months, Epps has absolutely no sympathy and does not accept it as a reasoning for her absence. He then has her stripped naked, ties her to a post and forces Solomon to lash her with a whip. The scene is brutal.

At first, we are looking at Solomon’s face as he is forced to do such an unspeakable act. Ebbs becomes frustrated and begins to savagely lash Patsey himself. There is blood spraying from Patsey’s direction and the crack of the whip and her screams of agony increase.

Then, McQueen makes a bold directing choice. Just as you feel you want to look away, the camera whips around and the abuse Patsey is enduring is shown. The shot is not held for long, but it’s enough to garner gasps and groans from the audience. It’s a sickening shot, but also pivotal to what the film succeeds in achieving: this is how it really was. America’s original sin. And it’s fully exposed in this film, in this scene particularly. It’s overwhelming to watch and I found myself looking away, though as an audience, we are forced to look. It’s actually hard for me to write about it. That’s how strong of an effect it had on me.

It’s shots like that and the lingering shot of Solomon hanging from the tree that really make the film incredible to me. Sometimes, longly held shots can be frustrating and uncomfortable in a way that it’s boring, but the long shots are so effective in this film. 

One shot that really stayed with me was a shot held on Solomon’s face. It’s a medium-close up shot of Solomon, sitting and reflecting not long after the lashing scene. Ejiofor is incredible throughout the whole film, but the emotions he gets across in this lingering shot are heartbreaking.

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His eyes are giant orbs of sadness and reveal a broken soul. With this close up, held shot,  you are forced to look at him and to experience his sadness. You automatically have sympathy for him. It’s heartbreaking to see someone so broken and scarred. 

The final shots of the film show him being freed by a shopkeeper that recognizes him and his free-born rights. He is then reunited with his family back in Saratoga Springs. It’s an emotional scene. Solomon’s face is full of relief, but still ghosting with the horrors he experienced. He is now a free man again, but forever a changed man. 

As the credits rolled, I just sat there and reflected on what I had just seen. This may sound extreme, but I remember feeling like I was in some kind of  cinematic shock. I was almost stuck to my chair, unable to do anything else but be affected by the film. I don’t think I’ve ever been so emotionally affected by a film before. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to view it again, though I debate with myself over this, considering it is so stunningly made. It’s riveting, heartbreaking, brutal, brilliant, and important cinema. And it is definitely a film that scars.

 

 

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