12 Years A Slave will be a difficult film to tackle for no other reason than I’m a white person. I don’t pretend to “feel” the layered effects of slavery past any historical reference, nor do I take credit or blame for the misgivings of my white ancestors (technically I’m Jewish, so my family weren’t the Christian property holders) misgivings and horrific treatment of human life. That said, my whiteness does not preclude me from analyzing the plight of black people in the United States’ infancy and I will take shot at 12 Years A Slave (and Django Unchained). However, this review will be too brief to cover the history of slavery, just as the movie was; how slavery manifested in the US is a great opportunity to plug “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. Instead, this review will focus on the slippery slices of life that were Solomon Northrup’s and Django Freeman’s, how each film’s director decided to tell his story and how the Academy views films rooted in slavery.
Movies concerning slavery pack a larger punch when the film follows a character with purpose, depth, clarity, flaws and foil characteristics – like those that demonstrate the horrific slavery conditions. For example, Solomon Northrup, a free and learned northern man, spends the titular 12 years as a slave in the deep south after he’s literally stolen, stripped of everything and sold to the highest bidder. We, as an audience, care because we want him to find a way to earn his freedom back; we want to root for him to fight for dignity and uphold honor even within the most horrifying circumstances. We also know, through Director Steve McQueen’s clever exposition that he is a kind man – though too proud for practicality. Solomon’s perseverance mirrors our own desires to be free and nested in the overt and still prescient topic of slavery. As a companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained explores slavery through the surreal and hyperdramatization, in a similar fashion to McQueen’s gritty native truisms and blurred timeline. Our eponymous Django, given last name Freeman, earns freedom through a semi-realistic chain of events, until Tarantino eschews realism in favor of a Hamlet-esque ending, wherein everybody dies. Also connecting the two films are both directors’ fancy to make temporal jumps, smoothing out somewhat long periods of time over just two hours. It helps to mirror the reality of how long both men were enslaved as well as the absurd length of time the land of the free and home of the brave treated people like objects. Beyond the obvious connections of two men enslaved, what earned 12 Years A Slave a Best Picture win and Django Unchained a mere nomination? Continue reading