Saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE on Sunday, a gripping, brilliantly directed and acted film that is at times difficult to watch – but not because you don’t think it’s telling you the truth. It’s about a free black man kidnapped in 1841 from New York and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He passes through several slave owners, and handlers, the worst of whom display their assumption of racial superiority and their legal entitlement to own human beings as property through ruthless beatings and whippings and casual hangings of their owned ‘niggers’ – with, I can’t help but notice, Biblical justification, a point underscored by scenes of one (relatively benevolent) slave owner conducting scripture readings to his family and slaves combined, and a later scene of slaves assembled at a funeral for one of their own singing a folk song about John the Baptist.
Many scenes in this film would be gratuitously cruel if not for three factors. First, that this is based on a true story. Second, possibly for dramatic effect, we see the one relatively benevolent slave owner of them all (Benedict Cumberbatch) *first*. (The worst one, played by Michael Fassbender, is saved for last.) And third, despite everything, we know the main character, the victim, will survive and somehow be rescued by the end (which, as Slate explains today, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/10/_12_years_a_slave_and_schindler_s_list_how_american_movies_valorize_those.html, somewhat undermines the film’s premise, in a way all Hollywood films do).
The star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is not a complete newbie, as I’d thought going in; he was in CHILDREN OF MEN and SERENITY, among many other Imdb credits, but this will surely be his breakout role, a likely best actor Oscar nomination. There are compelling performances by others as well – Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Paul Dano, especially.
This is an important film about a period of American history too often discounted or airbrushed away – like nothing else put on screen, except possibly the early episodes of “Roots”, way back in the ‘70s. And it reflects an attitude still present in parts of this country that, not to put too fine a point on it, is apparent in the resentment of anything our black president tries to accomplish, by a certain element of the population.