When Steve McQueen's captivating new film, "12 Years A Slave" opens, the protagonist, Solomon Northup, a kidnapped free black man from New York, is cutting sugar cane in the heat and mosquito infested bayou of Louisiana.
Minutes later, Northup, played passionately by Chiwetel Ejiofor is trying to write a secret letter to his friends and family in the North using a wooden stick and heated blueberry juice. Such is the spirit and determination of Northup, perhaps the most famous kidnapped free African in the history of the nation.
Every American should see Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave." My instincts tell me this won't happen. In fact, what will likely happen is the masses will avoid this film. Just as America continues to bury and deny the history of the enslavement of Africans, the event that Condoleeza Rice once called our "original sin," so that it is that moviegoers will also stay away from McQueen's painful piece of long overdue cinema.
Of course, this is their loss. "12 Years A Slave" is a potentially liberating film, a chance for a new start about the real foundations for American slavery: greed mostly and then, racism. The film will conjure two competing sensibilities: the anger that many African-Americans have only imagined over the years now becomes a real image and story; the shame the many white Americans have dismissed or avoided over the years, can become a chance to heal.
As a story, "12 Years A Slave" is an absurd tale. Solomon Northup, a free black man living and working in Saratoga, New York in 1841 with a wife and two children, is lured to Washington D.C. for musical work as a fiddler, drugged and sold into slavery. He is kept in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana at various plantations under constant threat of death and violence. Northup works like any African slave picking cotton and sugar cane for free. He endures whippings and constant dehumanization as he tries his best to maintain hope to one day return to his previous life. He is our window into the personal destruction of slavery because he is a free man, both in truth and in spirit.
The film also addresses the bigger picture with its appearance. Along with screenwriter, John Ridley, Director McQueen presents a movie of great consequence that fills the cinematic void in America regarding slavery. There have been few films that have addressed chattel slavery in America down to its cruelty and tragic state in this manner. Haile Gerima's "Sankofa" comes to mind but Gerima's 1993 film is not set in the U.S. and is more concerned with message as opposed to story. "Django Unchained" and "Lincoln," two recent Hollywood productions that focus on slavery loosely don't come close to McQueen's offering here in addressing slavery's essential evil through narrative.
McQueen, in "12 Years..." uses art to denounce the dehumanization of an entire race of people but also to focus upon how the question that always gets lost regarding slavery: what of those who participated in the enslavement, the enslavers; was not their humanity compromised all of this years? McQueen's constant use of close shots of the various players in slavery's drama drives the film's horror. He also makes great use of long sustained camera shots that stress the pain and brutality that the Africans endured and the mindlessness of those who accepted privilege and wealth in exchange for the right to dehumanize.
"12 Years A Slave," to its credit, is not an angry film though it could make many angry. McQueen, as he has done in his previous work, presents a story, and the people, with all their flaws and shortcomings. As writer, Bijan Bayne recently stated to me in an online exchange: "There is no embellishment necessary with this topic." How true.
McQueen and his very fine cast have finally brought American slavery to life not with rage but careful storytelling, realism, and music that uplifts and emotionally exhausts you. Brad Pitt, the famous actor, who helped produce the project through his production company, Plan B, took the film on specifically because of the lack of quality cinematic stories about slavery in America.
Today, with "12 Years A Slave," we have the one that might have begun a new era.