12 Years a Slave is the type of movie that makes you mad. Much like Platoon did nearly 30 years earlier, 12 Years a Slave forced us to confront one of the darkest periods of our history in a way that was uncomfortable, disturbing and sometimes difficult to watch. What makes it even more troubling is that it’s based on a true story. A real human being actually went through this ordeal.
This was the second time for me seeing 12 Years a Slave, the first having been when it was first released. I liked it a lot the first time I saw it, and I liked it even more this time because I think that I picked up on a few things that I missed out on the first time I saw it. Mainly, I really picked up on the thematic elements of the film when I watched it this time. I think they kind of went over my head the first time because the film was just so shocking and induced so much anger. But thematically speaking, this is a very simple, yet strong film. This is a film about survival, and we’re introduced to that theme early on. After being kidnapped and wrongfully sold into slavery, Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tries to plan an escape with another slave Clemens, who seems to be educated as well, as they sail from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. Clemens has been a slave before and he tells Solomon that he needs to keep his education secret, and that he should just be concerned about survival. Having been a free man just days before, Solomon vows that he doesn’t want to survive; he wants to live. However, Solomon’s tune changes very quickly as he’s exposed to the brutality of slavery where every day is a fight for survival.
Another thematic element that gets heavy use in this film and is somewhat related to the idea of survival is the fight against despair. When Solomon is initially kidnapped, there is a woman slave with him named Eliza, and she has a young son and daughter with her. At the slave auction in New Orleans, Solomon and Eliza are bought by Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who appears for all intents and purposes to be a good man. He attempts to buy Eliza’s son, but he’s buying on credit and another man comes in and is willing to pay cash for the boy. Ford then tries to buy the daughter as well, but the auctioneer Freeman (Paul Giamatti) refuses to sell her at any price because her peak value will happen in the years to come when she gets older and can be sold for a variety of purposes.
Being taken from her children causes Eliza to fall into despair. She weeps all the way back to the plantation and she weeps nonstop after they’ve arrived. No longer able to bear it, Solomon yells at her to stop and not to fall into despair. She chastises him for not despairing over his own wife and children, to which he responds that he’s saddened every day by his separation from them, but he refuses to fall into despair. A short while later while Ford is giving Sunday services, Eliza cannot stop weeping and it draws the ire of Mrs. Ford, and the next scene shows Eliza being dragged away. At that point we see that these two thematic elements of survival and pushing back despair are what will keep Solomon alive during his ordeal.
With those dual backbones in place, we are given a compelling and riveting narrative by Director Steve McQueen and Screenwriter John Ridley. I’ve not read the book, but I would imagine that the dialogue is written in the style of the book, since it was written by Solomon Northrup himself in the mid 1800’s, and the language they use reflects those times. I must admit, there were times when I was watching it that I felt like the performances of the actors were somewhat Shakespearean. Indeed, there are times in this film where characters are conversing in a language that is clearly English, but the vocabulary is so removed from the way people naturally speak today that I felt like I was listening to dialogue that was written by Shakespeare. There are points in the script where the dialogue is in fact that poetic.
There is also great subtext to much of the dialogue, and this is certainly a screenplay with which any aspiring screenwriter should be familiar. In fact, John Ridley would win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his efforts on this script and it was one well-deserved honor. Aside from the dialogue that was poetic when it needed to be, brutal when it had to be, and was a script in which every character had a clear and individual voice, the story also had a beautifully developed structure that was so subtle and so precise that you wouldn’t even know it was there unless you were looking for it. There is a clear Hero’s Journey in this script in which all of the stages are met at the appropriate times, and the act breaks are clear as well. But again, they’re so subtle and the story flows so naturally, you don’t even notice the story’s significant changes in direction.
The first act ends when Solomon is actually sold in to slavery. That is the Crossing of the First Threshold, and the point at which there will be no return. He is out of his Ordinary World as a well-to-do musician and in to the Special World of slavery. Quite often a screenplay will change directions in the midpoint of the second act in what Christopher Vogler refers to in his book The Writer’s Journey as the Ordeal. This story has that moment when Solomon runs afoul of Tibeats, one of Ford’s men who was embarrassed one too many times by Solomon, who had a hard time initially at not showing how smart he was. Looking for any excuse to beat him, Tibeats goes after Solomon for using the wrong nails in building a barn, even though they were the ones he asked for. Solomon fights back, and Tebeats gathers some friends to hang him. However, they’re stopped by Chapin, another of Ford’s men who tells them that if they kill Solomon, they’ll owe Ford for his debt. The Ordeal happens for Solomon after Chapin chases Tibeats and his friends away, but leaves the noose on Solomon whose feet are barely touching the ground. As the rest of the people on the plantation go about their business, Solomon spends an interminable amount of time on his toes trying not to slip in the mud which would result in him hanging himself. Finally Ford shows up and cuts him down, but he has to sell him to get him out of danger because he’s certain that Tibeats will come back.
The second act ends after Solomon is betrayed by Armsby (Garrett Dillahunt). Ford could only sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a drunkard and pseudo-religious man who misinterprets passages from the bible to justify his quickness with the whip. Late in the second act, Armsby, a former plantation worker joins the crew to pay off a debt of his own. He befriends Solomon and gains Solomon’s trust to the point where Solomon asks him to mail a letter to people in the north who can help him. Armsby agrees to do it, but instead betrays Solomon to Epps. Epps confronts Solomon about it, but Solomon is able to convince Epps that Armsby is lying in order to curry favor for a job. We next see Solomon burning his letter in a classic all-is-lost moment as it would seem that all hope for freedom is burning with that paper. The next time we see him he has the look of someone who has fallen in to despair.
These are all subtle moments in the film that taken on their own don’t seem to be more important than the moments that surround them. They’re just the next stage of the film. But if you take these moments in context of the dramatic structure that they’re supporting, you see that they are actually very powerful moments that propel the scenes that come after them in significant ways. This film has a screenplay that is excellently written on a multitude of levels and should be studied by anyone who wants to improve any aspect of their own writing.
The third act of the film is just as well structured with the next stage of the journey being the Resurrection. In this scene, Solomon’s hope is resurrected, for this is where he meets the general contractor Bass (Brad Pitt), who has been hired by Epps to help build a gazebo. Bass is Canadian and can’t abide slavery. In a private moment, Solomon confesses to him his true identity and asks if Bass can help him. After some reluctance Bass does, and eventually we see one of Solomon’s former friends from New York arrive to take him home. The Return with the Elixir shows Solomon arriving home, 12 years later, his children grown and his daughter with a son of her own. He apologizes to them, and the family comes together in a warm and tight embrace.
I remember being somewhat afraid that this film would feel episodic. Bio-pics always have that danger because a person’s life rarely fits naturally into a dramatic structure where the drama builds over time and scenes flow naturally into each other. 12 Years a Slave accomplishes that on a number of levels. There is a natural progression to the storytelling that doesn’t ever feel episodic and has a natural tension that rises right up until the very end.
There is all of this, and I haven’t even gotten to the Oscar-winning performance of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, the slave who has drawn the perverted attention of Epps and the ire of his wife. Nyong’o’s performance was at once fragile and delicate and then tempered and strong. There is a scene where she begs Solomon to take her down to the river and drown her and then bury her in a lonesome grave. Solomon refuses obviously, but Patsy tells him that God isn’t here and there is nothing in her life but pain. A few scenes later, Patsy is missing, but then comes back with soap that she borrowed from a neighboring planter’s wife. Enraged with jealousy, but unable to whip her himself, Epps orders Solomon to do his dirty work. Solomon is unable to do it until Epps threatens the lives of all of the slaves there. He finally starts whipping her lightly until Epps’ threats become all too real, and Solomon has to really let her have it. When Solomon stops, Epps pulls the whip from him and mercilessly pounds her to the point where we see her flesh coming off with every hit. During the next scene as the other slaves apply salve to her skin, she gives a painful look to Solomon that seems to say, this wouldn’t have happened if you had just done what I asked. It’s heartbreaking and real.
Did the Academy get it right?
It’s hard to say otherwise, although it’s actually not the film that I would have voted for. There were nine films nominated for Best Picture of 2013, and I break them in to three tiers in terms of how deserving they were for the Oscar. The bottom tier is Philomena, Nebraska and Her. I liked all of them, but didn’t love any of them. To be honest, I’m not sure how Philomena got nominated. Judy Dench is awesome in it, and it’s a fine film, but it isn’t a great one. I know a lot of people really liked Nebraska, and I liked it a lot as well. I thought it was a very thoughtful and engaging film, but I didn’t think it was quite at the level of a Best Picture Winner. I could say the same thing about Her. In fact, I loved the message that Spike Jonze was trying to make in Her much more than I liked his execution of the story.
The second tier was made up of American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club and Gravity. The latter was an amazing film to look at and an amazing piece of art, but if you watch it again you’ll see that it has a really boring story, a lead character who is not particularly engaging and the film doesn’t really give us much reason to care about anything. American Hustle was a fun caper movie with terrific performances by all of the actors, but somehow came out to be less than the sum of its parts. Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club as a homophobic man who becomes afflicted with HIV and needs to go around the FDA in order to find treatments for himself and others afflicted. In doing so he becomes a hero to the gay community.
The top tier nominees for me in 2014 included 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street. Any one of those films could have won Best Picture and I wouldn’t have had a problem with it. I thought that Wolf of Wall Street was an amazingly entertaining film that was like a 2 and a half hour roller coaster ride. It was fun. It was irreverent. And if not for McConaughey’s performance, Leonardo DiCaprio would have been a shoe-in for Best Actor with the performance that he gave. I’ve been through the merits of 12 Years a Slave, and it was an amazing film to be sure. However, the film that would have had my vote in 2013 was Captain Phillips. Much like 12 Years a Slave, this was a film about survival; however Captain Phillips handled that thematic element in a different way where we’re on the edge the whole way through. Once the second act starts, Captain Phillips and his crew could all be killed at any given moment. It is so intense and there is such a release at the end that it is impossible for me to watch that film without being overcome with emotion at the end of it. With all that in mind, I’ll say that the Academy did get it right in 2013, but there were three possible right answers.