The true story of Solomon Northrup (previously outlined in a previous article) is a fascinating set up in itself -- a freeman from New York who finds himself kidnapped and brought into the hands of various slave owners in Louisiana. Yet, even still the story could have been told in a way that romanticizes the south, creates dueling sympathies or diminishes the harsh reality of slave life. Instead director Steve McQueen takes a no hold barred approach to telling the story.
I could speak of the artistic merits of the film, including great acting work specifically by Chiwetal Ejiofor, Michael Fassenbender, and Lupita Nyong'o. I could speak of Hans Zimmer's score, Joe Walker's editing, or John Ridley's screenplay adapted from the original source material. But do so, seems unimportant, sure as we move into Oscar season such discussions have a place. Yet, fresh after viewing it seems more important to think about the themes and thoughts in the film.
In the world of empowerment and entitlement, it might be easy with a limited history to think of someone in slavery and ask questions like "Why didn't the slave's stand up to the masters," or "why didn't more people in the free states do something about this." Or maybe you even ask "Didn't the slave owner's realize what they were doing was wrong."
These are all valid questions as long as you're willing to process through the answers. This film helps take you there to realize the challenge a slave (educated or uneducated) might have in standing up to a master. Similarly you see how the free states might have had a level of disconnectedness from the slave states in a way that they were in no place to challenge the culture, or truly see it and connect with it in a way that would have impact. Further, there's a real interesting picture of morality in this film, particularly the religious slave owners and their ability to quickly associate the slaves as property instead of people.
There are many disturbing scenes of loss, brutality, and the dehumanization of people. Yet one of the tamer scenes in the film follows the sale of Solomon Northup (or rather is slave name, Platt) by Ford (played by suddenly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford clearly seems to pretend that he does not know that his slave is someone different than has been presented to him. He tries to do the right thing (such as keep families from being split up), but doesn't really try hard enough. Instead, he seems to hide behind the system and ideas of property. He has all the appearance of a good heart without the ability to take meaningful action.
What a challenge in this present time to think about. There are a number of social causes and I would be slow to compare hardly a single one with the horrible nature of slavery. Yet, I also cannot submit to the thought that slavery is a thing of the past.
There are people today who are being treated and referred to as property in the world. In that, there are people that are treated to physical and sexual abuse, families are split up, and people are held against their will in the hands of owners who hold no true right to own another person.
It's a challenging place to wonder how you can know something is wrong, but with the assumption of it being far away or out-of-sight no how to address it. Whether it's sex trafficking, foreign slavery, or other forms of holding humans captive. How does one fight such a thing from a distance? Or when even if it's close you cannot know where it is to help stop it.
Slavery of another human is an awful thread we see throughout the history of the world, and yet it is easy for it to become historical instead of emotional. This film takes a horrible narrative of American history and presents it a way that seems very real, horrific, and sorrowful. A way, that the history taught in school does not present.
So when people ask "Was the film good," or "Would you recommend it," it's a challenging question -- because the questions don't even seem to apply. It's an important story that's hard to watch, put together in a very well done way.