The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Why 12 Years a Slave is more than a costume drama

with 16 comments

12 years a slaveThere’s one scene in 12 Years a Slave that I just can’t get out of my head. And it doesn’t involve whipping.

As horrible as it may sound, we’re exposed to quite a lot of graphical violence in movies these days. Of course I find it troubling to see torture and blood and gore and whatnot, but I’ve dealt with that kind of images before and somehow I managed to get them out of my system, leaving them on the floor as I leave the cinema.

The scene that I keep returning to is the one where Solomon Northup, the previous free man who has been kidnapped and sold as a slave, is hung in a tree. In order to survive he has to tip toe around while waiting for the slave owner to arrive to release him. If he slips, he’ll die. I have no idea for how long this scene went on. Was it a minute? Fifteen? Thirty? I had no idea. Steve McQueen held me in a grip as strong as the rope and just wouldn’t release me no matter how I begged. And in the background: life going on as usual. The other slaves continuing their work, pretending as if they didn’t see the torture going on right in front of them. If they looked at him only for a moment they knew that they could end up in the same situation. The only way to survive was to put their dignity, their compassion, their humanity aside or rather bury it somewhere deep inside. Pretend that you don’t hear. Pretend that you don’t see. Pretend that you don’t understand, that you don’t object.

This was a strategy that worked during the era of slavery. This was a strategy that worked in the 1970’s Cambodia under the terror of Khmer Rouge. And god knows how many people who still, in 2014, have to use that strategy in order to survive. People who live in countries where warlords and dictators rule. Children whose mothers stand under deadly threat from an abusive man.

Why it’s still relevant
There’s very little dialogue in 12 Years a Slave and no voice-over to explain exactly what thoughts run through Solomon’s mind. Most of the time we’re left to make our own interpretations. We read his eyes, we read the landscape, the music and that’s all we need.

Compared to Steve McQueen’s last movie Shame, this is a far more accessible film, with a lot more emotion and scenes that invite you to emphasize with the people you see. You can recognize a bit of his cold, visual style but someone has sprinkled over a bit of Spielbergesque heart and soul into it, making it possible to embrace for a far wider audience.

But it’s still restrained enough to stand out from more conventional well-made costume drama about “important historical events”.

This is so much more than a monument over people’s suffering in the post, more than a history lesson about something that you “should know about”. It’s also a movie about the present, about the uglier features of the human nature. It points out mechanisms that are still in use if we open our eyes. And this is what makes it such a tough – and important – movie to watch, relevant not only to an American audience.

Not everyone’s cup of tea
In the name of honesty I should also add that it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. My husband didn’t like it at all. He thought it suffered from a phenomenon that sadly is pretty common among arthouse movies: a lack of drive, a lack of a motion forward, a lack of a narrative and plot. “It’s just a bunch of tableaus lined up one after each other. It’s dead. Nothing happens, especially since he’s alone all the time and hardly ever has anyone that he trusts enough to speak with. It was like watching a musical without the song numbers. Dull.”

Needless to say: I don’t agree with him at all. I was on board from the very start, deeply engaged in Salomon’s situation, intensely aware of whatever happened to him, devastated whenever his situation turned from bad to worse. The slowness didn’t trouble me at all and it didn’t occur to me once to check my watch. I just wanted to point out that for all the praise this movie has received, different opinions are available. As always.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

January 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Posted in 12 Years a Slave

16 Responses

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  1. Very nice write up. I liked the movie but I may not be as crazy about it as some. I thought Dano was just awful and Brad Pitt’s character was so poorly written.

    All that said, it still had a nice spot on my top 20 of the year list.


    January 7, 2014 at 3:46 am

    • I agree that Brad Pitt felt a little weird, with a bit of “deus ex machina” over him. Such a handy solution. But I figure that’s what the true story was so… About Dano I actually thought he was great. He’s so good at playing this kind of disturbing characters. I buy into it every time.


      January 7, 2014 at 11:39 pm

  2. Marvellous review Jessica. McQueen’s Hunger and Shame are two of my favourite films so, needless to say, I’m very eager to catch this. I reckon I’m going to like it. Saying that, I appreciate your husband’s sharp, alternative critique of it too. I’ll bear both your opinions in mind.

    Mark Walker

    January 7, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    • Thank you for your kind words! Of course I hope you’ll fall on my side of the discussion, but if not I can see why.


      January 7, 2014 at 11:38 pm

  3. Great write-up, Jessica! Really want to see this as well.


    January 8, 2014 at 4:15 am

  4. Great article! I just finished my review a few days ago and I mentioned that particular scene you mentioned. To me it’s even more harrowing than the whipping scenes not only because of what happened to Solomon but the reaction of those around him.


    January 8, 2014 at 10:14 pm

    • Thank you! I’m not surprised that you felt the same about that scene. I could sense it in the theatre as I watched it, how tormented everyone in the audience was. It goes on and on and on and you just want to escape. Which is exactly what they intended.


      January 8, 2014 at 10:21 pm

  5. So true! I was actually quite surprised when I would talk about Django Unchained and so many people were “glad” that Samuel L. Jackson’s character was killed. I couldn’t believe that they didn’t understand what you just articulated — that slaves had to bury whatever pride they had deep down in order to survive.

    Katy Chung

    January 10, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    • Yeah, that’s the worst part of it. It’s so easy to condemn people sitting safe on the other side. But if you were the one in a situation fighting for your survival, you’d reconsider. It’s strange how little imagination some people have.


      January 11, 2014 at 10:08 am

  6. […] 4. 12 Years a Slave From my review: […]

  7. Just watched it and I enjoyed it.

    But to me, it’s not the masterpiece that the critics make of it, even felt like ‘oscar bait’. It’s all a bit too much black & white to my taste. Once he got down to the south, it was one evil white man after another, one needless hanging after another, one needless whipping after another. And none of the black man, except for the main character had any character.


    February 23, 2014 at 1:26 am

    • I don’t know if “enjoyed” is the world I’d use. I don’t feel any urge to watch it again so to say.


      June 10, 2014 at 9:46 pm

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