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12 Years A Slave: An Uncompromising Film

12 Years A Slave

Last night, Steve McQueen’s period drama 12 Years A Slave won the Golden Globe award for best drama picture.

It should have won many more awards, including Best Director. It’s that good.

But such is show business, fickle and unpredictable.

Enough with the awards. A few words on the film itself.

Note – this is not a typical review. It’s my initial reaction, penned as soon as I got back from the cinema, two nights ago.

Breaking The Bondage Of Denial

12 Years A Slave is a modern masterpiece.

Those who have labelled it as black cinema at its best are either fools or opportunists. It is not black cinema at its best. It is excellent cinema, all-around.

 This is not your average ‘black-person-good, white-person-bad’ scenario, or some soppy liberal propaganda. It’s more meaningful than that.

The way it works is that the anthropocentric version of the story is laid out on the backdrop of an atrociously racist period in America’s history, giving it a sturdy platform from which to make its powerful statement: that man deserves to be treated with dignity by his fellow man.

Those who break that rule are savages, however noble, pious, or civilized they pretend to be. Those who pretend they are doing God’s work while doing so, are hideous and destined for the trashcan of history (the ‘trashcan’ metaphor is mine, not the movie’s). Those who possess a good mind and a strong heart are destined not to just survive, but to live and flourish.

The film is so good, making the above points convincingly, precisely because it has brought out the human element in the racial story, not the other way round. Both the redeeming and nasty aspects of man are showcased in it, whereby people of either race, black or white, display a wide range of qualities. This is not your average ‘black-person-good, white-person-bad’ scenario, or some soppy liberal propaganda. It’s more meaningful than that.

The horror of slavery is showcased forcefully in this film. It leaves no room for munching your way through it. Make no mistake, this is a horror movie. Not a boo-the crap-out-of-you flick, but a truly distressing film: the horrifying but ultimately inspiring story of Solomon Northup, a free man, a family man, who, having trusted the wrong individuals, goes out to drink with them in a town away from home, only to wake up in bondage. A man in chains. On his way to the deep south. To be sold as livestock in the slave markets and thrust into hard labor by his self-proclaimed masters, with no recourse to justice other than that which he carries with him, in his heart, alongside the hope he cultivates to one day be reunited with his family.

Solomon is subjected to the most heinous aspects of humanity. One could never imagine such things taking place on this earth less than two centuries ago.

Long, torturous years pass, during which Solomon is subjected to the most heinous aspects of humanity. One could never imagine such things taking place on this earth less than two centuries ago, in a civil, unmilitarized society no less.

This is an unflinching, compelling, harrowing tale, which will have you cringing in your seat, feeling guilty not just about your skin color or historical past, but also about the fact that you are sitting in a comfy theater chair, enjoying life’s perks, taking your freedom for granted.

If this film does not make huge, angry, boiling tears roll down your face, or — should your eyes remain dry — if your body does not writhe in waves of seething emotion as you sit and watch, then you deserve to die. You heard me, die. Right where you sit. Draw your last breath as you watch the film, in your chair, and exit the theater in a body bag.

You may be taken aback by my display of rage, but it’s not really rage. It’s calling things as they are. If you are not moved by this story, you might as well be dead. All I’m doing is stating the obvious.

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Steve McQueen has done something very important with this movie. He dared face the ghosts of the past, coming through the other side successfully. His film tells the story of slavery in a way that hasn’t been told before. It is superbly acted, superbly directed, beautifully shot, cleverly scored, and made for an audience willing to stare history in the face, judging not just the brutality of a despicable way of life, but also one’s ignorance of it.

It also inspires faith in human tenacity, ingenuity, and the will to live, despite the odds.

May it set a new standard in both filmmaking and everyday life.

Here is a featurette about the film to whet your appetite even more.

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