Last night, I viewed the latest Oscar-nominated feature film, 12 Years a Slave, which discussed the issue of slavery in America's early 19th century. This film is a true story about Solomon Northup, an African-American free man abducted into slavery, away from his wife and kids. He faces all the difficulties and pains of slavery against very mean-spirited Caucasians, but above all, he longs to return home to his family. I say that this movie is a picture worth a thousand words because so many moments of this film paint an accurate picture that raises so much awareness about the issue of racism in America.
The directing, acting, and writing of this movie are absolutely top-notch. Solomon Northup is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and his performance is nothing short of astonishing. Ejiofor has proven the uncanny ability to communicate to the audience without even saying a word; it only takes a brief quiver in the lips or slightly raised eyebrows to know exactly what Solomon is thinking, which pours a significant amount of emotion and power into the man's story. The rest of the actors are also nothing short of brilliant, and the strongest performance in my opinion comes from Lupita Nyong'o, who plays one of the African-American girls bound into slavery. As for director Steve McQueen, he maintains his focus on a theme that is worth remembering: the threats of racism are real, as it has been in all of history.
The rest of the aspects of the movie are also very passable in communicating the story. The editing and cinematography work harmoniously to deliver the proper emotions, and every single frame used in the movie is used thoughtfully in communicating its own individual meaning. However, there were some moments when the camera was out of focus, and it created a nuisance in viewing the image. But other than that, the production design, music, and sound all do exactly what is appropriate in the telling of the story without pulling attention away from the story and characters.
There are a handful of moments throughout the movie that stir up the audience's emotions and present a real reason to care about the events in the story. One example in the movie is an instance when Solomon has offended one of his supervisors, and is sentenced to be hanged. They are told not to hang him, but though his neck is strangled by the rope on a tree, the only thing keeping him alive is his feet, which are barely touching the ground to support him. The camera lingers on him for a while, an instance where there is no music or dialogue, just his choked gasps to struggle in his predicament. He remains on the rope until dusk, when he's eventually freed. Moments such as this really force a multitude of emotions onto the viewer, and the very image of seeing him on the rope speaks to more than just him hanging on for dear life; it exclaims his struggle for his freedom, his personal rights, and the family he may never see again.
As far as content goes, this movie is absolutely not for kids. There are exposures to both male and female nudity, but never done erotically and only used to represent the shame of the African-Americans brought into slavery. There's also at least fifty uses of the n-word, but are only used to indicate the cruelty the Caucasians had towards the African-Americans. There are malevolently violent moments throughout, and none of it is sugar-coated in any way. Two people get whipped, the gruesome slash marks are shown on their backs, and when one of them is receiving medicine for her wounds, she undergoes a lot of woeful agony. Lots of emotionally disturbing instances are featured, including one when an African-American mother is forced away from her two children, and one where a slave gets a vase thrown into her face. Overall, this movie is incredibly difficult to watch and even harder to digest, and suggested for adults and mature teens only. But would I recommend this film? Absolutely. It's an important film for everyone to see at least once, because they will then understand how our country's history has affected the present age.
2013 has been a year of African-American cinema, with feature films such as 42 and The Butler, which, like 12 Years a Slave, also tackle the issue of black significance in America. Why is this so much more common in Hollywood these days? I'd say it's because we now have an African-American president, and Americans in general have become more accepting of our cultural diversity. As a result, they would like to see films about how America has changed, in light of real stories about important African-Americans in history. But yet, not everybody accepts this message. I read a news report the other day about a fraternity at my college that held a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day party, where the whole theme of the party was black stereotypes: they wore basketball jerseys, flashed gang signs in pictures, and drank out of hollowed-out watermelon cups. Discouraging events like this prove that racism is still an issue in America today, even if we're comparatively more accepting than we were eighty years ago, and the purpose of McQueen's film illustrates how we have to watch our behavior or history will eventually repeat itself.