SPOILERS: the ending of the film is discussed at lenght.
The freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and put on a slaver boat. One of his fellow prisoners bemoans the wretched state of Black slaves, looks down at the “n****ers” around him. Once the boat arrives at the destination, his master is waiting. He passionately runs to his master, clinging onto him lovingly. All pretense of being jaded is abandoned to cling to a man who owns him. It’s the moment where 12 Years a Slave becomes more than just one man’s true story.
While the film’s context is slavery in The American South, there’s something more to the idea of slavery in the film. It’s not a story of survival; Solomon does not look deep within himself to find a seed of strength that keeps him going. By the end, there isn’t a sense of human triumph. The film certainly doesn’t pull any punches depicting the sadistic evils of slavery, but it’s not a film about moralizing. And it doesn’t feel like it’s a political film although there’s opportunity for plenty of race commentary.
Perhaps the best way to understand the film is to begin at the ending. Solomon, finally rescued by a friend from the North, enters his home to see his family for the first time in 12 years. He asks his wife and children to forgive him, to which his wife replies as the family embraces him “There’s nothing to forgive.”
Backing up a bit more to when Solomon is rescued, he must confide in Bass (Brad Pitt), a man who expresses sympathy towards Black slaves. For 12 years he might have escaped, in one scene, he even considers it, but is scared back into the arms of his master when he stumbles across a lynching. In the end, his rescuing is not a result of his own actions, but at the mercy of others.
12 Years a Slave is about being completely and utterly powerless. When on the slaver boat, Solomon speaks of taking over the boat, but soon the fear begins to gnaw at him, he sees what happens to those who take a stand and he becomes complacent. There’s still a streak of independence in him, he takes a stand from time to time, and more than a few beatings, but his spirit is always quashed and crushed back into complacency.
A slave has no power. He’s at the beck and call of his master. Solomon plays beautiful music on command just as he later brutally beats his fellow slave when told to by his master. There is no will there, only submission. When he shows more will than that, it comes back to haunt him. Even the overseer who saves him from a lynching leaves him dangling merely an inch from death for hours until his master comes to cut him down. He brings him into his home and protects him from those who seek to end his life.
The film does distinguish between two kinds of masters. Solomon’s first master is Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who shows some sympathy towards his slaves. He gives Solomon a violin of his own. Ford also preaches to his slaves, passages from the Bible clearly picked to comfort. In contrast, Solomon’s second master, Edwin Epps, uses the Bible as a justification to beat his slaves.
If the film wanted to be about justice, getting back at slavers and slave owners, the closing title cards demonstrate that there is plenty of history the film could have drawn from. Instead, it ends with Solomon reunited with his family. But far from being a rousing reunion, it’s empty, somewhat tense. Solomon comes his family unable to restore 12 lost years. All he can say is that he’s sorry. Some might consider it tragic, but there’s something beautifully moving about his final surrender to his family.
That kind of storytelling takes maturity. It could have gone on to explore the injustices, or tried to find some way to make Solomon strong, but it’s ultimately his weakness that makes him compelling and sympathetic. Instead of changing that, the film embraces that weakness in the final moments, which is the film’s ultimate strength. All he can do is fall into the arms of those who love him.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing