Making the Grades
Release Date: 18 October 2013 (Limited)
African-American director Steve McQueen had a difficult task in making 12 Years A Slave. Somehow he needed to create a film that accurately told the story of Solomon Northup but still had people sitting in their seats when the credits rolled. The fact that so many people have persevered through this painful biography of the dozen years during which Solomon was abducted into slavery speaks volumes about the artfully crafted and exceptionally enlightened execution of the film. But don’t think for a moment this is a movie you will watch and soon forget.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man born in the state of New York. He compiled his experiences in a book that was published in 1853—a best seller in its day. Based on that account, this adaptation opens with Solomon living the life of an educated gentleman, playing his violin at high-brow events, and enjoying being a husband and father. When a friend introduces him to a couple of entertainers seeking a musician for their travelling circus, Solomon sees the well-paying, temporary job as an opportunity for adventure and additional income. All seems well until the trusting man wakes up in chains. Next he is thrown into the infamous Williams Slave Pen in Washington DC, with a view of the Capitol Building from his tiny subterranean window.
Needless to say the kidnapped man’s misery has only begun, as he is sold and transferred as property from one Southern white landowner to the next. He soon learns that no matter how obedient he is to his “master,” he will ultimately feel the slash of the whip on his back multiple times. But even the bitterness of having to accept this unjustified punishment pales compared to moments when he is ordered to render the same abuse on another slave. One scene (for me one of the most unsettling) is the beating of a young slave woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Tied naked to a tree, Northup is commanded to whip her after she returns from borrowing a bar of soap from a neighbor. After a couple of dozen reluctant lashes Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) takes over and strikes the woman nearly to death.
This tirade, and other violent scenes like it, shows blood, ripped flesh and explicit injuries. Many other sequences depict slaves being killed (one is stabbed, others are hung and treated inhumanly). A rape and another moment of sexuality (no nudity is shown) are present, along with portrayals of slaves forced to strip naked for inspection (full male and female nudity is seen). As well, the script includes a selection of moderate and mild curses, and many uses of a derogatory racial term.
Parents and teachers evaluating 12 Years A Slave as a possible learning opportunity for young audiences should carefully assess the disturbing content within—otherwise the harrowing images may override the important messages they hope the viewers might gain.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about 12 Years a Slave.
Aside from obvious discussions on the history of slavery in America, parents will also want to be prepared to discuss the use of violence and torture as a way to make people do things against their will. Caregivers should be particularly sensitive to young people who may live in situations where this type of behavior is occurring.