Wilma and I took in 12 YEARS A SLAVE yesterday – and as good as it may be, it was not up to the caliber of winning the Academy Award for Best Film of 2014.  (What should have won is another story….)


12 YEARS is the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in Saratoga, New York, who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841.  He is offered a job as a musician (a temporary job, that is, like so many musician jobs).  While in Washington DC as he is executing his duties as the hired musician, he is drugged and sold into slavery, ending up under the very nasty hand of one Mr. Epps.  We meet several characters – we see several instances of how the white owners abused their slaves – we see all the usual scenes depicting slaves at work in the cotton fields – a good deal of it quite graphic.  Once Solomon (who is forced to use the slave name of “Platte”) gets the ear of a sympathetic Canadian, he is freed and returned to his family.  WE find in the credits at the end of the movie that Solomon went on to be a speaker for abolition and participated in helping slaves escape via the Underground Railroad.


Moving story, yes.  But as a movie, there’s this:


There seemed to be no outstanding technical feats in the movie.  No amazing camera work – I had expected to see some shots of huge cotton fields, spreading plantations – but there was nothing like that.  Sound – nothing spectacular, maybe even a bit trite – it seemed that the sounds of the whip being used over the heads of the cotton pickers didn’t quite match the rest of the sounds in the scene… so hey, dubbed in, were they?


The acting was solid.  Solid casting all around: kudos for putting together a solid ‘no-name’ cast, and for finding some names to add some meat to the cast:  Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti,  and Alfre Woodward, to name three ….  and I would be hard pressed to contend that members of the cast should or should not have been nominated for Oscars.


I found myself with some questions as to the story line:


Mr. Northrup was conned into taking this musician job.  Here’s an African-American man who, we are told, is well-educated, married with 2 children, and a home owner.  We are asked to believe that he naively accepts a job from two strangers in a country that is well-known for its slavery.  It seems to me in all his education and experiences (we find through the story that he is rather quite well-traveled as a free man….) that he should have seen huge red flags flying when he is offered such a job from such strangers in such a country with the atmosphere it had regarding free black men.  It was hard to buy that precept that Mr. Northrup was indeed that clueless about the situation afoot in his own country.  He KNEW about slavery.  He KNEW. … I have to assume such a lack of story telling it is not the fault of the original book of Mr. Northrup’s (12 Years a Slave, written in the 1850s) but in the fault of the screenwriters.


I also found myself wanting to know if, over those 12 years, his family had been searching for him.  He disappeared from his home while his wife and kids were away on a visit elsewhere – they returned to find no Solomon anywhere – gone, vanished, with no trace whatsoever.  It would make sense to me to have included scenes in which  his wife would be shown consulting with the authorities, pleading with the officials – but we see nothing of this potential story line at all.  Again, screenwriter’s choice, and hence screenwriter’s error.

So, 12 Years a Slave is a good movie.  It recounts well the specific story of a specific man, complete with all the vagaries of our country’s history of the use of slaves.  It is not great because it contains nothing that sets it apart technically, and has some holes in the story that left me hungry to know more.


12 Years a Slave