"12 Years a Slave" Worthy of Golden Globe--and Oscar Too?

January 15, 2014 12:23 PM

Pardon me for being late to the party, but I see and hear too much about modern slavery, hate, and injustice in today’s world—-toward all beings and species. So when the movie first came out, I was in no rush to see “12 Years a Slave.”

Slavery? I get it. When slavery ended, more than a few Jim Crow southerners moved west and lynched Filipinos who worked California’s fields in the ’20s. Racism never ends. It only evolves.

But “12 Years a Slave” just won the Golden Globe for best dramatic film, and an Oscar nomination should follow. I couldn’t stand idly by. So I traveled a few hours (more than the length of the movie) to the closest 10-plx on bargain night to catch it. 

If closing your eyes and looking away is your standard for what makes a great film, then “12 Years a Slave” is a great, great film. (Imagine, a film so good you can’t bear to watch it.) 


Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the role of Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

There are moments so graphic and painful, you really can’t keep watching. You’ll flinch and want to look away more than once. It’s just all too much, a cringe-fest of American racism and hate, full blast on the big screen.

But some people need to see this movie. And they need to see it now. Maybe several times.

They are the people who say the debt America owes for slavery is over, and therefore, any racial remedies in the present are unnecessary. Affirmative Action? Are you kidding?  You’ll hear that sentiment creeping into the modern race rhetoric from time to time. It comes from people who see slavery as merely something in the past—the dusty, historical texts, much like the 1853 narrative of Solomon Northup. He’s the free black man of New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. His story is the basis of the movie. 

But Director Steve McQueen pulls no punches and tells Northup’s story as if banging a drum loudly.
Bang, bang, bang. There’s no let up, and it all brings Northup’s story to life.

“12 Years a Slave” is America’s horror story that too many people have forgotten.

This ain’t Kunte Kinte. This is full-blown, no doubt about it. In your face graphic racism. Not the subtle, artful discrimination that is generally seen and accepted in today’s real world, or merely goes unnoticed.

In that sense, it’s good to be exposed to our historical racism, where no one bothers with today’s euphemistic phrase, the “N word.”

There’s nothing like seeing people use “nigger” in its full racist context. But the language in the movie is the least of it.

All that racism reaches out over the screen and just grabs you by the neck for more than two hours. It’s called “12 years…,” but there’s nothing really to indicate the passage of time. No super-imposed dateline, no summer/fall/ winter/spring time lapse. Within the first 10 minutes, Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Golden Globe best actor nominee and surely an Oscar contender) is chained and beaten mercilessly into submission with a board.

That’s just the warmup. Then it’s 14 more lashes after the board. Sundry lashings here and there after that. You begin to lose count. Each stroke of a whip is magnified. And then there’s Patsey (played by Golden Globe nominee, Lupita Nyong’o). She gets at least 40 lashes during her torture star-turn, with welts that should earn at least a makeup Oscar. On top of all that, add a failed hanging (a lynching interruptus), in which a dangling body just lingers on the screen.

It’s a wonder they didn’t make it in IMAX, 4-D, with flying whips and swollen wounds you could touch.

You’ll ask, “Did they really have to show that?” Was it really for historical effect or some kind of perverse titillation?

In this era, society is no longer aghast by school shootings, theatre shootings (I was sure to turn my phone off), or news of enslaved females in Ohio and abroad. Our shock threshold is so high we are inured to it all.

Maybe we all need to get beaten up by “12 Years a Slave.”

It’s electroshock for racists.

For the rest of you good people, the kind who would have been abolitionists then, present day civil rights fighters now, or animal rights folks, vegans and Sea World/Blackfish protesters, “12 Years …” might be too painful. But it just may embolden you even more when you realize that this true narrative of Solomon Northup could ever happen in America.

It did. And we should never forget that. That’s all the uplift you get from the best “feel-bad” movie of the year.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. Guillermo, you are probably too young to remember ROOTS, you can never tell the whole story of slavery in a few hours. Read the autobiography for the full story. The movie hopefully brings everyone into a closer conversation about systemic and institutional change in America with regard to race and acknowledgment of the great sacrifice the ancestors made so that we can all be where we are today. Renee Moore, Founder, Solomon Northup Day, 1999- www.solomonorthupday.com
Posted by: Renee Moore | Jan 22, 2014 6:20 PM

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