12 Years a Slave received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender, Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, Best Director: Steve McQueen, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.
Update: Won Best Support Actress: Lupita Nyong’o; Won Best Adapted Screenplay; Won Best Picture
12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose 1853 memoir is what the film is based. After a series of unfortunate events, Solomon, a free black man, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He is purchased by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and placed to work on a plantation in New Orleans. Solomon will have a second owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), after Ford sells him to save his life. It will be twelve years before a Canadian carpenter (Brad Pitt, one of the producers) shares Solomon’s story with those in the North, and Solomon is rescued from slavery. He is taken back to his home, where he is reunited with his family.
There are a number of major themes in this film. One is the role of scripture. Both of Solomon’s Southern owners quote scripture. Ford seems to lean towards striving for perfection. The scripture he reads from is about loving others. Epps, on the other hand, uses scripture as another tool of power and control, like the bullwhip. Slavery appears to be a complex mess.
Another theme is that of sin and injustice. The fact that a free man can be sold into slavery is a sin and an injustice. Epps is abusive to his slaves and rapes one (Lupita Nyong’o) over and over again. Even after his wife insists that he get of the slave, he cannot function without raping her. On top of that he is an alcoholic. But, according to him, owning slaves is not a sin. Yet, when the cotton goes come in one year, Epps blames it on the soulless slaves. They do not have faith in God, so God is punishing him.
Brad Pitt’s Canadian carpenter challenges Epps on that view. He tries to remind Epps that while he may own them as slaves, they are still human beings. The carpenter understands what so many others do not. That corporate, systemic sin is still sin.
Solomon, for the most part, does not express faith much throughout the film. But when he and the other slaves are burying a fellow slave, Solomon has a moment. Before Solomon shovels dirt over the body, the other slaves start singing a spiritual. Slowly, Solomon starts singing too. The camera settles just right on his face for us to see that the more Solomon sings the spiritual, the more he believes what he is singing. As horrible as the experience has been, it has its effect on Solomon. Suffering has a way of doing that; transforming the suffer in ways unthought of.
The film could easily be the Best Picture of the year. It is (as are the other nominations) a truly great film.