Intelligent and Challenging History Lesson With a Heart

256px-Solomon_Northup_001Twelve years. In slavery. Having lived a free man i the northeast of the US, Mr Solomon Northup suddenly finds himself the victim of an abduction and winds up further south as another man’s property. The year is 1841 and the nation is still divided between the states practicing  the regular use of unpaid labour, and those – predominantly north of the capital Washington DC – that has abandoned that system. The civil war hasn’t been fought yet. And yes, this is one of those films labelled ”based on a true story”. Northup wrote a book about his ordeals, published in 1853.

Solomon quickly tries to adjust to the new circumstances, in order to survive. There’s no point in trying to speak up about injustice or his true identity. Rather he needs to keep a low profile and preferably not reveal things like the ability to read and write. Like so many other people in similar situations, he will face many changes and learn to obey different masters with different stripes. The systematic oppression can be brutal, while at other times more subtle, arbitrary and above all, almost impossible to completely adapt to.

Considering the subject matter, ”12 Years a Slave”, directed by Steve McQueen, is not the monumental message movie looking for instant emotional impact that it could have been. Often it’s strikingly slow and low-key, although charged with a near-ubiquitous feeling of dread and looming threat. The relative slowness can test the patience of those expecting something more explosive.

The people living off the labour of their ‘property’ come in different shapes and sizes. The Benedict Cumberbatch character seems comparably ‘civilized’ and decent under the circumstances, but he has a hard time controlling the wrath and vengefulness of some of his associates when they deem Mr Northup (or Platt, as he’s come to be known to them) an insurgent, obnoxious character that cannot be trusted. Michael Fassbender plays another kind; moody, unstable and by all accounts an alcoholic who unpredictably switches between anger, paranoia and an equally eerie playfulness including manipulative mindgames with everyone in sight. Especially, of course, the slaves but also with his wife. Their relationship is obviously dysfunctional and has been for a long time, which results in her being increasingly jealous and frustrated with primarily a young slave girl seemingly attractive in the eyes of the master. This will have dire consequences – and definitely most for Patsey, the slave girl.

Cruel and unusual punishment are sort of compulsory in this genre, but here the scenes of sadistic violence are used as a dramatic device quite carefully and when they really can have an impact. They serve to remind us what this is all about; the notion of ‘owning’ other human beings and thus not considering them completely human. With the support of the surrounding society.

256px-Chiwetel_Ejiofor_by_David_ShankboneIn the midst of all this we follow the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as a respected man with a family and a life, waking up to a nightmare that’s not a nightmare and who has to decide how to act in this new environment, under inhuman circumstances. Ejiofor has been doing great work for years, for example in films like ”Serenity” and ”Children of Men” but now he has the opportunity of becoming more of a household name. For those motivated enough to practice the pronounciation of his name, at least. Also worth mentioning is the newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, skilled at picking cotton but taken advantage of in more ways than one, and more or less deprived of any ways of changing her predicament. Short of suicide, which is certainly something she contemplates, although I will not spoil anything by revealing how her storyline unfolds at the end of this film.

”12 years a Slave” is overall an intelligent, challenging and urgent piece of filmmaking, where the easiest ways out are generally avoided. It appears capable of creating more of a lasting impact than just the immediate experience of having seen a film that’s not primarily entertaining but acutely arresting and challenging for hearts and minds. What more could you want from the cinema at Christmas time?

Illustration information and credits:

1) Nebro (Solomon Northup (1855) Twelve Years a Slave) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

2) Chiwetel Ejiofor at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008. By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [GFDL ( eller CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Note: a Swedish-language, somewhat altered version of this review is available at