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12 years a slave


Born as a free man, kidnapped and sold a slave

Two days ago I had the privilege to watch the movie 12 years a slave during a private screening in a movie club here. Officially this movie will open in February in The Netherlands. I am deeply impressed by this movie and here is my review.

The Story
12 years a slave is based on an autobiography with the same title written by Solomon Northup. Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was born as a free man in New York. He is a violin player, lives a quiet life with his wife and two children at Saratoga Springs in New York. In 1841 two men offer him a job as a violinist in a travelling circus. They travel together to Washington. The following morning after their last dinner Northup wakes up in a cell, with his arms and feet chained. He is drugged by his companions and sold as a slave.

At this point Northup must let go of his old life. He is given a new name, Platt. He is then shipped to Louisiana by a steamboat. There a fellow slave warns him to lay low when Platt tells him about his life as a skilled free man:

Tell no one who you are and tell no one you can read or write unless you want to be a dead nigger.

The story goes on, Platt is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) in New Orleans. After a while he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a rude, heartless man who treats his slaves as his property not as human.

With a help of Bass, a Canadian who rejects slavery, Platt is free after twelve years. At the end he gains his old life back as Solomon Northup.

My thoughts
This movie rawly depicts how cruel, human degrading, shocking and brutal slavery was. Some disturbing scenes have lingered on in my head afterwards: how the slaves are inspected by interested buyers, two slaves are hung in the woods, Platt being hung on a tree the whole day long while other slaves carry on with their activities as if they don’t see him, Patsey (a female slave) gets her punishment; lashes on her back until she is severely wounded.

Unlike other films about slavery like Jango Unchained and Amistad, 12 years a slave is very confronting in another way. I mean the director, Steve McQueen, takes the viewers into the daily life on the plantation.

We see that Epps takes Patsey to release his sexual lust. Patsey visits a former female slave who becomes a lady of the house because she lives together with her master. The slaves hum a tune during their work harvesting the cotton under the hot sun.

The images are also beautiful. The camera captures the idyllic landscapes, pretty sunlight through the trees in the jungle, the humid swamps and rivers. This supports the feel of the story.

The Cast
It will be no surprise if Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender would be nominated for Oscar for their role. Chiwetel comes in every scene. His performance is impeccable. I got goose bumps when I saw the scene where Platt/Northup says this

I will survive. I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy till freedom is opportune.

That man says this so convincingly, word by word, I had to hold my breath!

Playing this role Ejiofor took lessons from an accent coach as he is British with Nigerian descent. Another point for The Academy to reckon with his possible nomination.

Fassbender’s portrayal of Epps is superb. The look on his face is terrfiying. It is cold, degrading, hateful, heartless and mean. This is also worth an Oscar nomination.

Other cast performance is also excellent. Pay attention to Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) and Adepeyo Odure (Eliza). Brad Pitt plays Bass well in only 3 scenes.

Beautiful Soundtrack
I find the music score also beautiful in a way that I am able to imagine how negro spirituals came to life. The slaves hum during their work. They sing with their voice and clap their hands for the rhythm in Sunday church services. They sing their spirit and longing for freedom but yet acceptation of their fate. I can feel this really good by listening to “Roll Jordan Roll” (available in the video below). The ripe woman’s voice starts and followed by the choir. It intensifies as Platt’s voice comes in. This song is from a scene almost at the end of the movie. When the camera focuses on Platt’s face I can see and feel his anger clearly.

12 years a slave is a story told first hand by a slave. It is an impressive and epic movie. This film earns a 10!


27 thoughts on “12 years a slave

  1. I only read the first and last paragraph, and the casts. I am intrigued, deffo will see this at the cinema!! Thanks mbak yoyen x

    • Aku ngga tahu film ini masuk Indonesia atau ngga karena temanya bisa jadi terlalu berat, jadi pemasukan akan sedikit Non. Tahun lalu aja film Lincoln hanya sempet diputar beberapa hari di bioskop tapi yang nonton tiap diputar ngga sampe 50 orang.

  2. Belum ada di Indo, mbak. Musti nonton deh, kayaknya nih…
    Aku selalu suka film setting tahun 1800-an, terlepas dari perbudakannya yg kejam, kostum para wanita bangsawannya itu loh, ketje sekaliiii! 🙂

    • Belum masuk, ngga tahu akan masuk atau ngga Fit. Orang kulit putih di Amerika Serikat juga pendatang dari Eropa dan mereka bukan bangsawan. Bajunya memang bagus dilihat tapi ribet 😉

      • Hihi, iya ya, ribet banget pake kurungan macem sangkar burung begitu. Tapi… korsetnya itu loh, mbak. Bikim perut rataaaaaa, pinggang mengecil sekian cm, hihi…

  3. Your review is convincingly positive. Yet I’ve got minor doubts because I got the impression the main characters are divided in either very ( perhaps too) black and very ( perhaps too) white ( in this case the white man being black and the black man being white that is).

    • Not really. There are white characters who are against slavery. The director is a British guy with Cape Verde roots, the leading role is played by a British with Nigerian parents, the supporting role is played by an Irish/German actor. In brief, this is not typical Hollywood feel good slavery movie. It’s a real deal.

  4. pengen nontooon, terakhir nonton budak budakan ya Scarlett O Hara itu tapi di situ lebih ke hubungan baik budak dengan tuan-nya ya. Satu buku yg kayak gitu apa sih namanya ya Mbak, Uncle Sam Cabin atau mirip mirip gitu, tipis bukunya tapi seingetku sedih jg.

    • Gone with the wind & Uncle Tom’s Cabin itu masih romantis ceritanya Sondang. Kalo ini apa adanya karena autobiografinya yang pernah jadi budak. Mudah-mudahan film ini sampe Indonesia ya biar bisa nonton.

      • Soal budak-budak, The Help juga bagus Mbak Lorraine and Mbak Sondang. Saya malah lebih prefer The Help ketimbang 12 Years a Slave. Dari segi penceritaannya, The Help lebih greget ketimbang 12 Years a Slave.

        Salam kenal…

        • Aku udah baca buku The Help dan lihat filmnya. Sondang juga udah baca bukunya, dia pernah tulis review. Hmm, aku lebih suka 12 Years a Slave karena ini autobiografi dan raw ceritanya. Lebih greget menurutku karena baik buku dan filmnya sukses menggambarkan suasana masa itu. Sementara menurutku The Help itu roman dengan sugar coating untuk penonton/pembaca yang masih muda mungkin.

  5. Tambah pengen nonton nih… Review film ini di mana-mana bagus… Apalagi ada Fassy, one of my favourite actors….. Masalahnya di sini (Singapore) cuma diputar di bioskop tertentu aja yang jauh dari tempatku, padahal aku kalo mau nonton harus curi-curi waktu dan gantian sama suami soalnya anak-anak masih kecil…. Hmm, nonton gak yaa?

  6. Happy New Year! Your post is very informative. I’ve never seen the movie, but you have a very good understanding of how this film depicted the harsh realities of slavery back then. Even though I get tired of Hollywood portraying black people as slaves, the truth needs to be told. As a movie buff, I strongly feel we need more movies that accurately reflect true events that occurred during certain parts of history. It will force people to do their research and understand what actually happened.

    • Happy New Year to you too! Thank you. Bringing true story based on history requires decent research in order to present it well. But then there is also a chance to depict the story from only one side. It doesn’t surprise me that this movie is seen as only a passage of a dark history by some people. Me on the other hand, find this very useful although it is painful for slave’s descendants to see. As you said, such story needs to be told so that our childre and their children would not forget.

  7. As a black man living in America, I strongly agree. Even though slavery is a painful part of our past, we should not forget it just like the atomic bomb dropped on Japan to end WWII. The reason I bought up this example is because I love Japanese culture and hate to see Hollywood ruin their image on screen just to gain a profit. It’s easy to make a movie about something that never happened. However, it is harder to make one about something that actually happened and get it told the right way.

  8. I appreciate your keen eye and perspective of such a painful, powerful film. While visually stunning, this is not a happy, entertaining piece. It tells a story that I think many Americans would rather ignore or deny. The attention that will come from winning Best Picture I hope will generate more exposure and conversation so that healing can continue.

    • I do hope so. Such stories need to be told so that people won’t forget. Being the best movie will certainly contribute to more exposure. People are getting curious about this.

      Thank you for dropping by Tracee.

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