12 Years a Slave, or, A Film in Four Thoughts

They say that with old age men tend to grow more sensitive. You know, cause brain stuff. I don’t know if early mid-twenties counts as old age, but I’ve found myself suppressing emotional outbursts at the movies with an increased frequency. Maybe because I’m an old person. Maybe because movies have gotten better. Maybe because I’ve been drugged. Who knows?

I blame Michael Caine.

I liked The Dark Knight Rises. I liked it a lot. But I’ll never forgive Michael Caine for throwing me into a battle against throngs of oncoming tears with pretty much no warning in the film’s final moments.

Maybe it’s like peeing when you’re drunk. It seems like once I got choked up during The Dark Knight Rises that first fateful time the seal was broken. Whatever the reason, over the last year or so tears have become a familiar foe in the presence of particularly poignant film making. A foe that I vanquish time after time with strict discipline, awkward laughter and heavy breathing. At this point it’s a battle I’m used to.

Ain’t no thing.

12 Years a Slave was an entirely different battle.


During the few moments of Steve McQueen’s latest film, an adaptation of the autobiographical story of Solomon Northrup’s enslavement, that I wasn’t absolutely transfixed I had four thoughts. Not all brilliant. Some flat out stupid. They are as follows:

1. What would it be like to have no means of communicating your story?

12 Years a Slave opens with a succession of moments from a day in the life of a slave culminating in Northrup’s desperate attempts to write a letter with blackberry juice, to no avail.

It very quickly and very effectively sets up just how hopeless the situation is. Today, if I want to tell someone I saw 12 Years a Slave I can make that information available to the entire country within seconds. It’s a privilege we don’t often think about, having a voice. It’s something that feels a given, inalienable. And very quickly 12 Years a Slave establishes that it is anything but, placing the viewer in a world where that voice is actively denied.

12 Years a Slave puts you into the thick of it right off the bat.

12 Years a Slave puts you into the thick of it right off the bat.

2.  This might just be Hans Zimmer’s best work.

Pretty much every trailer that’s come out since 2010 owes composer Hans Zimmer a great debt for the Inception noise. The guy’s an awesome composer who knows how to get an audience’s blood pumping.

In the first twenty minutes or so of 12 Years a Slave, when I could still view what I was seeing as a movie composed of direction, acting, writing, a score and the like, I was struck by how emotive Zimmer’s work was. The score is very much modern and yet it never feels out of place. By the time the credits rolled Zimmer’s theme was an emotion punch to the heart.

3. “It’s just a movie.”

I said they were my thoughts. I didn’t say they were brilliant.

Yeah. Embarrassing as it is to admit, when it became clear just how deep the despair in 12 Years a Slave was going to go I caught myself leaning on a familiar crutch: “It’s just a movie.” It was a feeble attempt to hold up a wooden shield to a massive emotional battering ram. It was the only defense I had against the overbearing hopelessness of Northrup’s narrative. And then I caught myself.

“No. No it’s not.”

Aside from a peppering of famous faces here and there the hand of Hollywood is very much limited in 12 Years a Slave. In fact, the most unbelievable portion of the movie is the fact that Northrup ever escapes. The atrocities that take place in this movie happened. It isn’t Saw. The veil of fiction isn’t there to help you distance yourself from the sights and sounds of human beings inflicting horror upon one another.

When I reminded myself that these events took place, when I let myself feel the scale of not only Northrup’s endeavor but the endeavors of countless human beings whose grandparents and grandchildren spent their entire lives in the circumstances recreated before me for a little over two hours, I had an important realization.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup and Michael Fassbender as evil incarnate

4. It will never be okay.

The owner Northrup spends a majority of his enslavement under is frightening from the start. But then he slowly deteriorates further into insanity over the course of the film. He becomes a little more paranoid, a little more violent and a little more horrifying with each unfolding scene. He’s the monster in this moving, but his detestable practices take a toll on even him. Slavery is a sickness that irreversibly taints all those it touches. It’s a sickness from which there is no recovery.

I’ve heard people say they don’t want to see 12 Years a Slave because they don’t want to feel guilty. Rest assured, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t want you to feel guilty. And maybe check your ego.

Northrup’s story isn’t adapted here for the sake of a guilt trip, it’s adapted so that you can experience, in some small way, what happened to millions of people for hundreds of years. It’s a reminder of a massive portion of America’s past that America still doesn’t quite know how to deal with.

Compensation? Guilt? Denial? Silence?

I left 12 Years a Slave knowing in my bones that there is no making up for America’s history of slavery. It happened. And it will never be okay.

That’s not a notion 12 Years a Slave wants you to feel guilty about. It’s one it just wants you to acknowledge.

I’ve battled tears before. Usually I loudly exhale, bend at the forearms as if I’m preparing to box and open my eyes as wide as possible so that any accumulated moisture can spread out on the surface area of my eyeball and evaporate, rather than plummeting off of my eyelid like emotional mortars. It’s a tried and true strategy in an internal physiological conflict I know well.

12 Years a Slave was a completely different battle. One that left me with a deeper, truer sorrow than any other piece of art I’ve ever consumed.

If you’re a human being you owe it to yourself to see 12 Years a Slave. It is without a doubt one of the finest films I have ever watched.



For more on the movies 12 Years a Slave is going to beat out for Best Picture:

American Hustle

Captain Philips

Dallas Buyers Club




The Wolf of Wall Street


6 thoughts on “12 Years a Slave, or, A Film in Four Thoughts

  1. Probably one of those “one-and-done” deals where you realize it’s a wonderful flick, but so grueling and daunting to get through, that it may just needed to be seen one time. Good review.

    • Thank you. You definitely only need to see it once for it to stick with you. I imagine I’ll have a pretty vivid memory of this movie for the rest of my movie-going days.

  2. Great review. I liked how you divided it up into your “four thoughts” – made it interesting and easy to read. I completely agree that the demanding discomfort of this movie was beyond crying in the theater. I can’t even remember if I cried; I think I was too traumatized during those long shots to do so. In terms of epic emotional battles with films, I haven’t felt this moved since watching Schindler’s List years ago.

    • Thanks. I know exactly what you mean. Towards the end of the movie I didn’t even feel like I was fighting tears. It was more like fighting emotional collapse.

  3. Pingback: Hidden Figures, or, That Monday Morning Racism | Pony Tricks

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