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Wick's Review

Created Nov 01, 2013 08:59PM PST • Edited Jun 13, 2020 05:28PM PST

  1. Quality
  2. Perfect 5.0

    Solomon Northup has just become an iconic American hero, some fifteen and a half decades after he lived. Americans from this day forth will know his name like they know Patrick Henry’s or Harriet Tubman’s.

    That’s not all. The movie that brought his memoir to us just joined the short list of supremely important American history films, alongside Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln up on the cinematic Mount Rushmore.

    As the most important slavery movie, 12 Years a Slave stands alone.

    It shows us scenes that we knew existed, that we’ve seen in glimpses before, but that have never been brought to life so clinically or extensively. Nearly pornographic, Solomon Northup’s biopic includes close encounters with field slaves and house slaves and slave concubines and slave masters and explosively viscous whippings and children being taken from their mother. And more, much more, a parade of horribles the likes of which has never been seen on screen before. We must all bear witness.

    Django Unchained tread similar territory, but its plot was fantasy. 12 Years a Slave tells no tall tales. Solomon Northup really was kidnapped out of the Yankee North and sold into slavery in the Deep South some twenty years before the Civil War, making this a movie of utmost historical gravity.

    Speaking of gravity, Gravity had the misfortune of appearing in theaters just before 12 Years a Slave. While it’s a milestone movie, one that I declared Perfect and the year’s best till that point, it too is a fantasy. True beats false, especially when the true movie tells a world historic tale with profound grace and riveting power. The year’s not done and we’ve got two best pictures, but the better Best Picture is 12 Years a Slave.

    Viewing it is a moral act. Unfortunately, some who do will perceive the wrong moral lessons. Just because most white people in the movie are evil doesn’t mean white people are inherently evil, just as the fact that nearly every black person in the movie is saintly doesn’t mean black people are inherently saints. More generally, just because slavery thrived in the United States before the Civil War doesn’t mean Americans today retain significant guilt from that sin. More about false lessons in the Reality commentary below.

    The correct moral lesson to take from 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was ultimately wrong because it violates personal property rights, the most fundamental of which is every person’s God-given right to their own self. Abraham Lincoln based his anti-slavery reasoning on this deeply American notion. Every man owns himself, with all the rights and responsibilities that come from that natural law. The deeply held respect for Private Property Rights that truly underlays America’s exceptional success starts there.

    12 Years a Slave makes this plainly clear, as the word Property is used perhaps more frequently than the word Ni**er, though the N-word is used very frequently. The latter connotes a perversion of the former.

    12 Years a Slave is often hard to watch, but is also serenely beautiful, being both painterly and spiritual. It’s quite simply essential viewing, essential viewing indeed.

  3. Perfect 5.0

    Chiwetel Ejiofor etches a portrait of manly strength and dignity as the benighted Solomon Northup. From prosperous family man to abject kidnapping victim to upright slave and back again, he makes this American hero’s journey understandable and even more than that – relatable. How did he survive such a soul searing role? He realized the need to honor Northup, who he said had an absence of hatred.

    As a mnemonic aside, Northup is the perfect name for the man he plays: North-Up vs. South-Down.

    Others in the massive cast share from one to a handful of scenes with him. None strikes a false note.

    • Kelsey Scott as his wife Anne. They had a fine family and life together in Saratoga Springs, NY.
    • Scoot McNairy and Brown Taran Killam as conmen who kidnap Black men for the slave trade
    • Paul Giamatti as a heartless New Orleans slave trader
    • Benedict Cumberbatch as a slave owner who maintains a shred of Christian decency
    • Paul Dano as a cowardly and especially vicious plantation boss
    • Michael Fassbender as a cruel plantation owner without any shred of decency
    • Sarah Paulson as his sexually spurned and equally cruel wife
    • Lupita Nyong’o as a tremendously productive slave who comes between them and suffers all the more because of it
    • Alfre Woodard as a plantation Mistress, i.e., a slave who sleeps with the Master and gets to live like the lady of the house
    • Garret Dillahunt as a White man reduced to plantation servitude alongside the Black slaves
    • Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter who sees the evil inherent in slavery
  4. Male Stars Perfect 5.0
  5. Female Stars Perfect 5.0
  6. Female Costars Perfect 5.0
  7. Male Costars Perfect 5.0
  8. Perfect 5.0

    Steve McQueen and John Ridley’s long film never wavers, never loses its riveting hold on our attention, notwithstanding its characteristicly leisurely editing. Credit this to McQueen’s directorial eye and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, which have a painterly quality that makes every frame suitable for, um, framing.

    McQueen briskly opens his film in the middle, with Solomon Northup arriving at a new plantation (sugar cane this time) while trying to fashion a writing instrument so he can perhaps send a letter home. The stakes established, McQueen then takes us back to the beginning, rejoining the opening scene halfway through. Deftly accomplished filmmaking, this.

    Unlike another historical fetish film, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t feel like it glorifies or revels in the horrid goings-on it chronicles. This is high praise indeed.

  9. Direction Perfect 5.0
  10. Play Perfect 5.0

    John Ridley based his simply perfect script on Solomon Northup’s autobiography Twelve Years a Slave.

  11. Music Perfect 5.0
  12. Visuals Perfect 5.0
  13. Content
  14. Horrid 3.7

    Beware the parade of horribles: rape; blood clouds from the lash of a whip; lynching of mere teens; children ripped from their mother. Don’t avert your eyes however. We owe it to their memories to bear witness.

  15. Sex Titillating 2.2
  16. Violence Savage 4.4
  17. Rudeness Nasty 4.5
  18. Glib 1.1

    Lincoln expert David Von Drehle wrote in his Wall Street Journal essay The Emancipation Proclamation and the ‘Right to Rise’ that the Great Emancipator believed all liberties begin with economic freedom.

    The slave wasn’t the only one whose liberty was at stake. Lincoln believed that no one, regardless of race, could be confident of any freedom in a society that wasn’t grounded in economic liberty.

    12 Years a Slave lays bare that lack of economic liberty is the root evil of slavery. Lincoln was right.

    As to America’s residual guilt, 8 generations – eight score as Lincoln would have it – is a lot of diffusion.

    America has had lots of ins and outs since she offered up 600,000 of her young men and countless collateral damage casualties in the great and horrible Civil War. Consider some Ins who’ve come to America since then: Harry Houdini, Barack Obama Sr., my grandparents, Colin Powell’s parents, Justin Bieber.

    What do they or their offspring have to do with slavery? Other than inheriting its legacy, of course. Legacies can be successfully embraced when they’re understood. Understand this one to be a lesson in proper property rights and Solomon Northup won’t have suffered as a slave or written his memoir in vain.

  19. Circumstantial Glib 1.3
  20. Biological Natural 1.0
  21. Physical Natural 1.0


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