12 Years A Slave is the “Roots” of the 21st Century. It is based on the true story and book of the same name as the movie, of how Solomon Northup, a free black man in Saratoga, New York, who was introduced to a couple of white traveling performers who offered him a job working with them, only to lure him to Washington, DC for a performance and arrange to have him kidnapped and put into slavery in the South.
Solomon Northup remained enslaved for 12 years.
The only way for him to survive was to play as if he was not educated if he had any hope of seeing his wife and two kids again.
Like Roots, 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching look at slavery told using the makeup techniques and special effects available in the 21st Century. And, like Roots, 12 Years A Slave is the kind of movie that will make anyone who has a moral compass, and has never seen this kind of movie before, extremely mad, especially if you are African American.
I saw the movie at a special Fox SearchLight screening at Regal Cinemas At Jack London Square in Oakland Wednesday night. Because I have seen this kind of high level of special effects and makeup before in horror movies, and I have seen many depictions of the Slave Trade in America, I saw the entire movie. But many, mostly women, averted their gaze and two just plain walked out of the theater.
I later went over to the Fat Lady, a local bar and restaurant at Jack London Square, and wound up talking to two black women (“sisters,” as we say), one of them who left the movie early.
She said she needed a drink.
I learned that some younger blacks in the screening questioned why a movie like “12 Years A Slave” was necessary to even make. My counter is that it’s good that Steve McQueen, the film’s director, elected to show the raw brutality of American Slavery and its injustice to black people in order to take the rose-colored glasses off those who in some way may have romanticized the period.
There’s nothing romantic about slavery.
Others, particularly a feminist I talked to who had not seen the movie, wondered why the rape scenes of black women were necessary. Again, the point was to capture the insanity of the period, not water it down for public consumption today.
The performances by the ensemble cast were amazing, particularly Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon, and Michael Fassbender, who played a particularly psychotic slave owner who commits rape crimes and many crimes against humanity that were deemed legal in the 1800s in America.
Michael Fassbender is emerging as one of the finest actors of our time, going from an Android in Prometheus, to this performance that will make you hate the man if you can’t separate the character from Mr. Fassbender. He’s that good.