12 Years A Slave (2013): Beauty and Sadness

UPDATE Feb. 16: 12 Years A Slave just won BAFTA 2014 Best Film and Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Actor. 

UPDATE: 12 Years A Slave is nominated for 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing.

Movies this season seem to come in pairs in terms of subject matter, which makes interesting viewing. Gravity and All Is Lost is a pair. Lee Daniel’s The Butler and 12 Years A Slave another. I watched them purposely back to back.

12 Years A Slave is powerful in many ways, most readily is the aesthetics and styling, both visual and audio. Before he turned to directing, Steve McQueen was a visual artist trained in fine art in London and New York, and it shows. His cinematic work is a testament to the fact that film is a mixed-media art form. More importantly, it shows that film art does not have to be esoteric, or be appreciated only by an ‘artsy’ few. 12 Years A Slave is an exemplar. It carries no elitism but speaks to all. What more, the subject matter may be ugly, but the medium depicting it can be artistically gratifying, thus, conveying the message with even greater potency and inspiration.

12 Years A Slave Poster copy

The film is an adaptation of the 1855 memoir written by Solomon Northup, a free black man, known for his skills in playing the violin. He was living happily with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York. One day, two men came to offer him a gig to play the fiddle at a circus. Solomon was deceived, drugged, and later smuggled to Louisiana to be sold as a slave. There for twelve years, he endured insufferable hardships until he miraculously met a Canadian carpenter named Bass who stood against slavery. With his help Solomon found freedom and rejoined his family.

I disagree with some critics who assert that the film is too artfully directed, pristine and sanitized to convey the ugliness of the subject matter. One of the qualms they have is with a scene at the beginning of the movie wherein a beating is being shot with artful camera work and lighting. After he is drugged and chained in a dark holding cell, Solomon is fiercely beaten until the torturing paddle breaks in two. Amidst the total darkness in that filthy cell, we see him cower in pain, yet his white shirt literally shines. I noticed that scene too and appreciated how well it was shot. For me, I saw the glowing white garment as a powerful symbol of purity and innocence amidst utter depravity. I’m glad there’s an artist/director to helm this film. We are seeing how the cinematic medium can be sculpted to its full potential. I don’t see anything ‘art’-ificial about it or sense any contrivance.

The issue here is the paradox of conveying ugliness in a well-crafted and artful frame. I have no qualms with that. Should art capture beauty only? Or, should ugliness be depicted by casual and shoddy work in order to be ‘realistic’? The answer is elementary. A quality medium can only enhance the poignancy of the message.

On another level, the film shows us that amidst evil, beauty can still be found. It exists in the persevering spirit of Solomon Northup. Herein lies the inspiration of the story. I found this quote from an excellent interview article with director Steve McQueen. It speaks to the fact that, in the midst of utter sadness, the human spirit can still glean what’s positive and beautiful. From the memoir of Solomon Northup we read these words:

There are few sights more pleasant to the eye, than a wide cotton field when it is in the bloom. It presents an appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, new-fallen snow.

Acclaimed British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup is inspiration itself. His nuanced expressions portray clearly some very mixed and intense emotions under the most desperate of circumstances, like consoling a female slave lying next to him at night and yet keeping his integrity, or being forced by the sadistic Epps to whip another slave. Even at the point of despair, Solomon maintains his self-respect, remains upright and kind, and upholds a human spirit that no whips can break. The actor is also heading straight to the Oscars according to consensual predictions.

Glimpse of hopeThe excellent supporting cast also renders beauty to the overall production, some of whom might garner recognition of their own come Awards time. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is impressive as fellow slave Patsey, a desperate soul dangled on the edge of survival and despair. Paul Giamatti (who won a Golden Globe as John Adams in 2009) plays a mercenary slave trader. The excellent character actor Michael Fassbender (in both of McQueen’s previous films Hunger, 2008 and Shame, 2011) as slave breaker Epps embodies the wickedness of the system and a soul derailed. Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, 2007; Prisoners, 2013) is within type as the murderous slave driver Tibeats. Again the paradox appears. We’re glad to see actors giving superb performance playing villainous roles.

Then there’s the versatile Benedict Cumberbatch, picking up a Southern drawl to portray the kind slave owner Ford. His scenes with Solomon offer some needed relief. Unfortunately, those better days are short-lived. The man who helps Solomon to freedom is Canadian Samuel Bass, very short screen appearance by Brad Pitt. He is an itinerant carpenter working on Epps’ land. This chance encounter makes Solomon aware of Bass’s anti-slavery stance. For the first time in all those years of captivity, he confides his true identity in someone trustworthy and pleads for Bass to contact help in his home state up north.

The music and sound, or the lack of it, are equally effective. Composer Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack ‘Solomon’ is epic and heroic. The spirituals sung by the slaves on the plantation express their deep yearnings for release and freedom. In one scene towards the end, we see other slaves singing their heart out the spiritual ‘Roll Jordan Roll’. At first Solomon listens as a bystander. After a while he can’t help but pour his soul out and join in. That’s the point he totally identifies with the others in their hopeless condition, calling out to God for deliverance.

What follows is memorable. Sometimes silence speaks louder than sound. That moment of silence marks the change of fate for Solomon. I was captivated by the lack of sound, and the camera static, closing up on Solomon’s face of apprehension and despair for a long minute. Often it is the slow, silent space a director allows us to absorb and wait that I appreciate most.

As I stepped out of the theatre, I breathed out a sigh of satisfaction. True there was much sadness in Solomon’s story, but I was relieved to see ultimately his perseverance pay off. I was gratified too that this story of the human spirit triumphant is well told in a meditative pace, sculpted artfully, and delivered by poignant performance. This is the beauty of film art.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


Related Links:

My Review of 12 Years A Slave the memoir by Solomon Northup

Download 12 Years A Slave the book

Solomon Northup from Wikipedia

The Underground Railroad


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

19 thoughts on “12 Years A Slave (2013): Beauty and Sadness”

  1. Your closing line says it all. I said once of Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” something to the effect of – great tragedy befalls us all, but luckily every so often so does great art.

    This is ONE OF THOSE FILMS. Absolutely essential and a true testament to the power of the cinematic medium.


    1. Well said, David. It’s mind boggling, isn’t it, to criticize this film for being too beautifully shot. Wonder what Terrence Malick has to say to that.


  2. I’ve been wondering about this film, if it was too sweetened, tailored to the big market.
    Your review certainly make me want to have a closer look!

    (I love Steve McQueen’s Shame! And I’m not, as you might know by now, especially afraid of aesthetic beauty)


    1. Sigrun,

      I definitely would not use the word ‘sweet’ to describe this film, nor ‘pristine’ or ‘sanitized’ for that matter. David of The Schleicher Spin (Do click on the Pingback above your comment to read his review) used the word ‘burden’, but also ‘essential’. Steve McQueen in one interview said that Solomon Northup’s memoir should be included in school curricula, just like Anne Frank’s Diary. I’m eager to know your thoughts once you’ve seen it.

      Yes, Shame is another example of handling a nasty subject with an artful approach. Both Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are exceptional. My favorite scene is when she sings and he reacts… nuanced and sensitive performance from both.


  3. High praise! And I’m glad B.C. plays a kind person in this one! Another on the list — oh, that list is getting so darned long…. but this one sounds moving up a little closer to the top!


    1. Jeanie,

      Unfortunately BC doesn’t have too much screen time. The bulk of the story is with the cruel Epps. I think Michael Fassbender will get an Oscar nom for his supporting role here. And yes, the list of TBW (Watch) is only going to grow longer still as we approach the Awards nominations.


    1. Stefanie,

      I just found out I hadn’t replied this comment of yours. And, I’ve just finished reading the memoir written by Solomon Northup himself, the book from which the movie was adapted. I read it on my iPad, downloaded free online. Here’s the link. I urge you to read it. It’s very eloquent and poignant, an important eyewitness to a dark piece of history that needs to be told.


  4. Now, this is one I’m intending to see.

    I’m not sure I can say this properly, but I’ll give it a try. I think some of the criticism of films as being too “sanitized”, “beautiful” or “unrealistic” is related to a general coarsening of our entire public life. Fewer and fewer people seem to have opportunity to experience beauty as natural, or elegance as comfortable. And the general lowering of educational standards not only means more and more people can’t spell, construct a paragraph or balance a checkbook, it also means that complexity, in any medium, becomes a problem.

    In our society, we seem to have moved from appreciation of “Beauty and the Beast” to an insistance that we choose either “Beauty” or “The Beast”. Life isn’t like that – as this film surely makes clear.


    1. Linda,

      As I was writing this post, the notion of Wabi-sabi came to mind. It’s a stretch, of course, we’re not just talking about ‘imperfection’ but evil. There’s no beauty in evil, but it’s just that the two do co-exist in our depraved world. Like you said, beauty and the beast together. You must see this film. Hushpuppy from Beast of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhané Wallis, has a small role here as Solomon’s daughter. I’d like to know what you think after you’ve seen it. 😉


  5. Wow, Arti. I can’t believe your statement that some critics “assert that the film is too artfully directed, pristine and sanitized to convey the ugliness of the subject matter.” I haven’t read any reviews at all. I often don’t read any reviews besides yours (after I see the film). We saw this film a couple of weeks ago. I thought it was a wonderful, powerful, moving but my husband nearly walked out because it was so brutal. He would be stunned at any suggestion that it was sanitised – and I must admit I would be too. Solomon’s treatment, Patsy’s, not to mention the slave trading scenes and Patsy’s desperation to die. It all confirmed the power too of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Anyhow, great review.


    1. WG,

      It’s ludicrous, isn’t it? I was totally baffled by such a view and wrote this post in rebuttal of it. The narrative of Solomon Northup is a must-read. Director McQueen was referring to it being equivalent to The Diary of Anne Frank. He lives in Amsterdam you see. He feels 12 Years ought to be taught in school, just like The Diary. It was his wife who first came across Solomon Northup’s memoir. While it’s a relatively obscure piece of work, it’s on the reading list of many Black Studies courses. Again, I read all these on the Internet. And you know what, I downloaded the book and read it on my iPad. 😉


  6. Excellent review of an excellent film, Arti. This is my choice for the Best Picture Academy Award. I don’t think anything else comes near it, but the subject matter seems to either scare some people away or just turn others off. I fear the Academy might just give it to something “easy” like American Hustle or worse, Gravity. I found both films entertaining, but neither were on the level of this. I see 12 Years as a masterpiece. The others that are up against it are not. To me, this film was like literature on the screen. I have seen all of Steve McQueen’s features and I think his mastery of cinema just gets better with every film he makes.


    1. LA,

      I totally agree with you here. I’m rooting for it, albeit I feel the Academy would want something lighter, funnier, for mass appeal. I feel Gravity is over-rated. Of course, it offers some visually stunning CGI works, but for thematic force it’s not of the same level as 12 Years. Yes, I think Steve McQueen is a true artist… Shame is powerful and I’d enjoyed the dynamics between Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as estranged siblings. Love the scene with her singing NY, NY… and tears rolled down her brother’s face. Very poignant. Can’t find Hunger though. And yes, just hope 12 Years will do well at the Oscars.


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