12 years a slave – anything but an easy watch

Living in Germany and also having written my final exams in the past two weeks, I am probably the last person to see “12 years a slave” in the cinema and so you have probably either seen or you won’t bother.

I went to see it last sunday after helping a friend move apartments. I was alone in my seat, tissues at the ready.


There is little need to explain the plot as it is basically in the title. The story follows an African-American man, Solomon Northup, living in New York with a family and a job as a musician in 1841. He is offered a temporary job in Washington while his wife is away with the children – one thing leads to another, he is sold into slavery.

In these 12 years as a slave we meet several tragic characters like that of Eliza, a slave who is separated from her children and is then killed as she won’t stop crying. And then there is Patsey, a young, efficient woman who becomes the object of her masters desire and his wife’s jealousy and violence, and many more; many deaths and cruelties.

Obviously the film shows the violence done to the slaves prior to the American civil war by their masters, treating them as objects, worthless, expendable. But it also shows a load of ignorance and numbness.

Mr. Ford, Solomon’s first master, is really quite nice (in comparison) and he buys Solomon and Eliza from the slave trader. When Eliza protests that she will not go anywhere without her son and daughter, the slave trader sells the boy to someone else, Mr. Ford asks to buy the girl as well, but the slave trader has other plans for her. He states quite clearly that a beautiful youth like her can be used for other purposes that field work, make him a lot of money, in other words: Prostitution.

So Mr. Ford turns a blind eye. He buys Eliza and Solomon, he closes his eyes as Eliza is dragged away screaming.

Later, there is a scene where Solomon is hung, but low enough so he can balance on the tip of his toes. He spends all day trying to survive the rope in the heat of New Orleans. It’s a very long scene, no music, only the sound of crickets and Solomon’s choking sounds. In the background you see Mrs. Ford on the balcony who sees him and then walks away. Every once in a while, the other slaves go about their work, very aware that he is hanging there, still alive. At one point a young woman brings him water then hurries off. They cannot help him until Mr. Ford cuts him down.

Also, when Eliza is dragged away she yells Solomon’s name, but he does not help her.

There are several incidents like that. Somebody is killed, tortured, abused and nobody does anything to stop it.

The question is whether or not they had a choice. Of course, they were scared, of course, they would be have been punished, of course, it was forbidden. But – only referring to the film, not reality as that may have been a different one entirely – how much of it was fear and how much of it was denial?

It was rather interesting to see the mentality of every person in this film. The way that nobody really did anything, if they were the ones being abused or if they were the abusers.

At the beginning, people laughed when Mrs. Ford said to Eliza: Oh poor woman, get some rest, your children will be forgotten soon (or something along those lines). We thought it was ironic. But the longer the film went on, the more irony turned into brutal violence and cold chills up and down my spine.

At the start of the film people were still whispering, eating and all, but soon it was completely silent. I tried not to cry out loud.

To make this clear, I rarely cry, seriously cry, with films. Okay, I cried with the Hunger Games when they listed all the people who had died on the first day and I cried with Avatar when the forest fought back, but otherwise, I rarely cry.

This time I was hysterical. You ought to be glad you weren’t there. Silent, but hysterical.

This does not mean it’s a bad film, no, it was so moving because it’s really well done, it’s also so touching because, well, it’s real.

Not only is it based on a true story, but it’s also happening today, still. Human trafficking happens everywhere, secretly, and like in the film, ignored. According to the NGO Walkfree.org http://www.walkfree.org/learn/ almost 30 million people are enslaved today. When I first found out, that was a few years ago, that slavery still exists, I was devastated. I think you should be too, to be honest.

1981 Mauritania abolished slavery as the last country to do so and made it a crime in 2007. It’s rather late if you ask me, but still.

Slavery is abolished. It is illegal.

And yet loads of idiots make loads of money from it.

Not to go all do-gooder on you, but here’s a video you might want to take a few minutes to watch. It is a topic I deeply care about and watching 12 years a slave has made it a little more clear to me.

So, back the film, it is well-edited and filmed too, well produced and directed, well acted, well written. It’s a good film, in my opinion and it deserves its popularity because it raises attention to an important matter. Yes, it could be seen as a normal movie about slavery (so could Django unchained, which I haven’t seen), but it could also touch a nerve that could lead to something more.

We value our basic human rights, we demand freedom, security, dignity, we demand a fair pay and we have the chance to fight for our rights before court. Imagine you could not go before court, imagine somebody taking away your dignity, your freedom, your safety. I wouldn’t want it to happen to myself or anyone I know, so why should I let it happen to anyone else?

And back the film again, sorry, watch it – and bring tissues (if you’re female and in to cosmetics – don’t wear any makeup that day).


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