For as mammoth a role it plays in our history, there haven’t been that many movies about slavery in the United States. For as many movies as there are about gladiators and Israelites and subjects as dark and difficult as the Holocaust, the subject has been explored rarely (Amistad, Django Unchained), and often somewhat indirectly (Glory, Beloved), and what movies we have gotten have often focused on white saviors (this category also includes Lincoln, and even to some extent Django). Notably, just about every last one of them has also been directed by a white man—Steven Spielberg, Edward Zwick, Quentin Tarantino, or Jonathan Demme. Watching these, I tend to agree with Roger Ebert, who in 1990 wrote of Glory, “I consider this primarily a story about a black experience and do not know why it has to be seen largely through white eyes.”
This is just one of several reasons to be interested in 12 Years a Slave, the most high-profile in a small wave of movies to tackle this part of our history this year, and whose trailer just surfaced this evening.
The film tells the story of Solomon Northup, who was born a free man in the North, worked as a carpenter and violinist to support his wife and three children, and was kidnapped and sold into chains in Louisiana. He was eventually able to get word of his illegal enslavement up to his family, and when he was free again he wrote a best-selling slave narrative about his experience, called 12 Years a Slave.
For the adaptation of Northrup’s historic book he is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the award-winning Shakespearean actor who has been dealt mostly peripheral roles in Hollywood films, but who looks more than up to the task here. Closer to the periphery this time are names like Brad Pitt (who also serves as a producer), Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Dano. Many of these stars play slave-owners, which is to say cruel and corrupt people, with Michael Fassbender—perhaps our most exciting new actor, and one who excels in the roles of villains and morally ambiguous characters—looking to play a particularly intense embodiment of the period’s racism.
Fassbender is also a close collaborator of director Steve McQueen, who is one of many black directors coming out with films in a breakout year for black filmmakers. (Others include Lee Daniels, with The Butler, and Ryan Coogler, with Fruitvale Station.) McQueen’s two previous features, Hunger and Shame, were both meticulously shot and overwhelmingly powerful films about controversial subjects (the IRA hunger strikes and sex addiction). While 12 Years a Slave’s subject matter is no less controversial, this trailer makes McQueen’s latest look ever-so slightly more Oscar friendly—note that the inspiring score seems to come from Inception—all without bending over backward to focus on sympathetic white characters. The movie looks like a major contender, and if it can deliver on all it promises here, it’ll be a must-see.