I reluctantly hired this out and was blown away

12 Years a Slave

Released November 8, 2013

Mounted handsomely and richly literate, reminiscent of films in the 1980s, 12 Years a Slave is already a modern classic.

For all (almost) of two hours, it shows the painful plight of African American slaves in white-owned plantations in the South before the American Civil War and the success of the abolition movement.

The film starts by telling us this is a true story and the buying and selling slaves are ‘business-as-usual.’ Paul Giamatti has a small but prominent role as a seller, costumed finely like other Southern men in the 1840s. The dubious economics of the endeavour becomes apparent while the class system and slave owners’ depravity are stark.

The cruelty that occurs is in the context of Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) descent from a comfortable life in New York state where he lived as a free Black man.

Sold into slavery and passing from head to master, he at first wants revenge. This turns to helplessness, then the urge to survive even when facing indignities and institutional savagery.

Powerful scenes will sober and stir any viewer.

Of course, we are not meant to enjoy such brutality, but it has a way of highlighting the unfairness of slavery.

The rape of a slave is not about sex. It is more about control, power, and hate.

And if it were not for Brad Pitt’s small but significant role, the story would be bleak and incomplete.

Central to a string of powerful performances is Michael Fassbender – a Bible misquoting, proud, senseless, shameless, and ruthless master of Northup.

And when his cotton crops fail, he blames his slaves for bringing God’s punishment.

We expect something better to happen, but we do not know how when the odds are against it.

The central question of 12 Years a Slave is how do we maintain our dignity in the face of cruelty and injustice?

Northup plays games, fights back, and faces death.

Slavery has almost broken his will to live, and yet he remains human.

I give it personally five out of five stars, but it’s not must-see. I found this a powerful film, but it is grim and not for every taste.

Contains graphic violence and sexual violence. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti. Screenplay by John Ridley. Director Steve McQueen.

Originally published 2014, Anglican Taonga online.



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