12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, one of the few free African Americans in the 1800s who were kidnapped by slave traders but escaped. In Washington, D.C., away from his family, Solomon is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The movie depicts Solomon’s ordeal under various slave traders and slave owners in Washington and Louisiana from 1841 to 1853. His first slaveowner is a kindly Christian who’s also trapped by the institution of slavery. However, Solomon also serves 10 years under the brutal regime of mean slaveowner.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is a superbly made, extremely poignant movie, with excellent performances. It has some positive Christian content, plus a great explanation why slavery is unjust by Brad Pitt in a cameo. However, the mean slaveowner is also a Christian who uses Scripture to justify slavery and whippings of slaves. There’s also plenty of foul language, brief graphic violence, strong sexual innuendo, and two scenes with explicit nudity. So, MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution for 12 YEARS A SLAVE. This isn’t a movie for children, or even teenagers.
(BBB, CC, Ab, FR, PP, LL, VVV, SS, NNN, AA, MM) Very strong moral worldview decrying the horrors of slavery in the United States during the 1800s, with some strong overt Christian references including hymns sung, appeals to the LORD, and Scripture read, but also mean, hypocritical slaveholder uses one of Jesus Christ’s parables to chastise slaves into being obedient or facing 50 to 150 lashes, plus some strong elements in the dialogue expressing the American values of liberty and justice in a profound way; 13 obscenities (mostly “d” words) and four strong profanities; brief extreme violence with bloody back when female slave is whipped, and the camera finally shows the abused flesh on her back, man who’s been beaten and whipped takes off bloody shirt, men try to hang man but are interrupted, but he hangs there for a while with his toes barely touching the ground, two other slaves are hanged, slaves are threatened, slave gets into fight with an overseer, slave threatened with being shot dead if he doesn’t whip another slave, woman flings a whisky bottle at slavewoman’s head because her husband lusts after the slave, and it hits her, and woman scratches slavewoman’s skin next to her eye; depicted fornication and adultery while couple are wearing clothes and slavewoman guides another slaves hand under her clothes so that he touches her nude body; full male and female nudity in two scenes when slaves are sold, brief upper female nudity when woman is stripped and tied to a tree to be whipped, rear male nudity as slaves wash themselves, and upper male nudity; alcohol use and drunkenness; no smoking or drugs; and, strong miscellaneous immorality (much of it rebuked in some way) such as brutality, injustice, man threatens his wife that he will leave her if she really hurts a slavewoman he lusts after, betrayal, slave has to lie to keep from being whipped or hurt, racism.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is a historical drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup, one of the few free African Americans in the 1800s in America who were kidnapped by slave traders but eventually escaped. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is superbly rendered and seems to be an historically fair representation that doesn’t demonize all its white characters (though it does seem to romanticize all its African American characters), but it does contain some foul language, a couple slave-trading scenes with full male and female nudity, brief extreme violence, and two strong but not extremely explicit sexual encounters. The sexual content is the most disappointing because it makes 12 YEARS A SLAVE less family-friendly than it should – and could – have been. Thus, the filmmakers have regrettably limited their audience for their movie in a false, anachronistic, and gratuitous attempt to be “realistic.”
The movie opens with a couple scenes in the midst of Solomon’s captivity. One scene shows Solomon secretly trying to use some black raspberry juice to pen a letter to his family. Cut to 1841 in Sarasota Springs, New York. A respected member of the community, Solomon is living happily there with his wife, Anne, and two children, Margaret and Alonzo. Solomon says goodbye to his wife and children, who have to go away for a couple weeks so his wife can earn some money cooking for a white family. Meanwhile, Solomon meets two white men, who want to hire Solomon to play violin for them in Washington, D.C. Solomon is really happy about receiving a nice salary from the two “gentlemen,” but they ply him with liquor one evening, and the next morning, Solomon finds himself chained up in a slave pen, just a short distance from the Capitol building.
Thus begins Solomon’s journey to Louisiana, where he lives as a slave for 12 years under several slaveowners. His first owner is a kindly Christian named William Ford. However, Solomon gets into a fight with Ford’s carpenter, who tries to kill him. Solomon survives, and Ford tries to protect him. Ford is in debt and has to sell Solomon to the mean and hypocritical slaveowner, Edwin Epps.
The rest of the movie shows how Epps, and his jealous wife, mistreated Solomon and a female slave named Patsey for the next 10 years. Solomon’s only hope for escape lies with another carpenter, a man from Canada who abhors the institution of slavery.
In some ways, 12 YEARS A SLAVE plays like a horror movie. Adding to this feeling is another mesmerizing score by the great Hans Zimmer. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a superb performance as Solomon, whose character appears in nearly every scene. Michael Fassbender gives a harrowing performance as the mean slaveowner, Epps, who lusts after the female slave named Patsey. Things come to a head when Epps gets angry at Patsey and forces Solomon to start whipping her. Epps urges Solomon to whip her even harder, or else he will kill Solomon. Eventually, however, he takes over the whipping himself, and the movie suggests that Epps’ guilt over his marital infidelity with Patsey enrages Epps even further.
12 YEARS A SLAVE not only works to show the brutal conditions and heartbreak suffered by the slaves in the South’s “peculiar institution,” it also works to show how slavery taints the hearts of even “good-hearted” slaveowners like Solomon’s first owner, William Ford. For instance, when Ford first buys Solomon, he also buys the mother of two children, and the woman never sees her children again. The horrors of slavery even infect the slaves, as in a scene where one adult slave separated from his kindly owner hugs the owner like a little child when the owner suddenly arrives to take possession of his slave.
Although it strongly indicts slavery as an institution, 12 YEARS A SLAVE doesn’t demonize all its white characters, or even all the white slaveowners. However, it may be accused of romanticizing all its African American characters, who are portrayed as either victims or potential victims.
12 YEARS A SLAVE also contains some overtly positive Christian content. Some Christians hymns are briefly sung, there are some appeals to the LORD, Solomon warns the mean slaveowner that he will suffer divine justice for the evil he does, and Scripture is briefly quoted. However, it’s not just the good-hearted slaveowner who quotes Scripture to the slaves, the mean slaveowner, Epps, also quotes it. In fact, in one scene, he talks about the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant from Luke 12:35-48. The unfaithful servant is “beaten with many stripes” in that passage, and Epps warns his slaves he will whip any disobedient slave with many lashes, just like Scripture says. What Epps, and the movie, leaves out is Verse 45, which says that the unfaithful servant “begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk.” Of course, it is Epps who actually does these bad things, so, as a Christian, he is the unfaithful servant of Jesus Christ, not Solomon or the other slaves.
Despite the movie’s positive Christian references, 12 YEARS A SLAVE could have used even more of them. There is, however, an interesting Christian scene that serves as the big turning point in the movie. In that scene, Solomon and the other slaves are holding a funeral service for one of the older slaves, who simply dropped dead one day working in the fields. The other slaves begin to sing a hymn to their fallen comrade. At first, Solomon is just sad and upset about the other slave’s death and his own situation. However, the power of the Christian hymn begins to affect Solomon, and he begins to join in until, finally, he is heartily singing with the other slaves. It’s shortly after that scene that Solomon’s fate begins to change for the better. Thus, this scene implies that it’s the LORD who finally starts to set in motion the events that will free Solomon from the hellish life of a slave.
Ultimately, 12 YEARS A SLAVE has a very strong moral worldview with strong Christian content. Sadly, however, there is some foul language and brief extreme violence. For example, the scene of Patsey’s whipping is brutal, especially when the scene finally shows the lashes from Epp cutting into her broken and bloodied skin. Also, there are two scenes with full male and female nudity when Solomon and the other slaves are put on sale. Finally, in one scene, a female slave makes Solomon touch her naked body under her clothes. Also, in another scene, Epps comes to Patsey in the middle of the night to force her to fornicate with him. It’s clear what’s happening in the scene, even though the scene doesn’t include any explicit nudity.
Thus, it’s sad to report that MOVIEGUIDE® can’t recommend 12 YEARS A SLAVE for children or even teenagers. Extreme caution is advised even for adults. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a superbly made and extremely poignant movie, with excellent performances. There’s even a couple scenes where Brad Pitt, as the kindly carpenter who helps free Solomon Northup, argues for the abolishment of slavery in a very Christian and moral way that makes a great lesson for everyone. However, a much better and more Christian movie on this topic is the Epiphany Prize winning movie AMAZING GRACE, produced by our friend Ken Wales. AMAZING GRACE is a must-see movie of the first rank!
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