Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN


May 2, 2014

'12 Years a Slave' deals with a great deal more than slavery

FROM THE DEN AT HOME — Occasionally a film comes along that’s almost TOO good, and, for me, “12 Years a Slave” is the latest in that category.

How can a film be too good? First, you need a suitably challenging, difficult or provocative subject. If the film in question can provide new insights into the subject by reflecting its realities from fresh perspectives, the resultant film might be “too good.” Other films I might place in this category include “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “The Pianist” (2002). There are certainly other films, dealing with other topics, but note that the first two that come to mind pertain to the Holocaust.

Based on my understanding of history, there are two American eras which might themselves be considered a “holocaust.” One of those involves the plight of American Indians during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, while the other involves the African American holocaust that was American slavery.

At first brush, “holocaust” might sound extreme in describing any era in American history, then along comes “12 Years,” reminding us exactly how brutal, callous, heartless and purely inhumane this era was for African Americans.

Working from a 160-year-old memoir of the same name adapted by novelist John Ridley (who won a ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ Oscar for his work), director Steve McQueen tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black-American born in New York in 1808.

Northup was a violinist, farmer and dedicated family man when he was lured to Washington D.C. in 1841 under false pretenses by two clandestine slave traders. At that time, slavery was legal in D.C., making it easy for the traders to drug Northup and sell him into slavery.

Northup wakes in chains and spends the next 12 years in bondage, bouncing around slave-era plantations in New Orleans. Some of his owners and overseers, like William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), were relatively benevolent, while others, like Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), were monsters in human skin.

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