There's nothing like a movie about slavery to give you a dose of reality regarding your own non-strife filled life. Based on the unbelievable true story of Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freed man living in New York who was lured to Washington D.C. under the pretense of a job offer, 12 Years A Slave is a remarkable account of what the human spirit is capable of enduring. Not only is it a harrowing portrait of the treatment of slaves in the pre-Civil War era of United States history, but also an uplifting narrative about what one can accomplish when he refuses to give up.
Going from the departure of writing and directing a movie about a sex addict (Shame, also with Michael Fassbender), Steve McQueen showcases his incredible talent and versatility as a filmmaker. His collaboration with screenwriter John Ridley (acclaimed for writing Three Kings) reveals McQueen's collaborative propensities in addition to his strength as an autonomous writer-director. The fact that the film was born from the minds of two black men lend it far more meaningfulness and credibility as well.
Not only is 12 Years A Slave an encapsulation of perseverance in the face of hopelessness, but also a testament to the depths of both human cruelty and kindness. Furthermore, McQueen has a keen ability to contrast striking imagery against emblems associated with justice or cleanliness (e.g. when Solomon is first imprisoned and the camera pans up to the backdrop of the Capitol Building or when Patsey [Lupita Nyong'o] receives a brutal lashing rendering her bloody and causing her to let go of the soap bar she was holding to make herself clean again).
In spite of the film taking place centuries ago, Solomon's story still represents a relatable and resonant plight. As Solomon and others who were kidnapped ride the boat into Southern territory, one of his comrades warns him to keep his head down and just survive. Solomon counters, "I don't want to survive, I want to live." And that is the issue with so many of us: Most people are just surviving to get by. We're conditioned to believe that making waves will ultimately drown us.
While Solomon may have played the game, so to speak, of acting the ignorant slave, it was never about rebellion in the first place. His struggle was always about tenacity, even in the face of evil like John Tibeats (played with racist precision by Paul Dano). There's not much you can't get through after being strung up to a tree and then waiting hours for your "master" (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cut you down. And yet, this is only the beginning of the waiting and horror Solomon must persist through. But rather than succumbing to his fate, he was consistent in his attempts to communicate with his family and others who were looking for him in the North. His triumph--and 12 Years A Slave as a whole--puts everything in such glaring perspective.