What Writers Should Learn From 12 Years a Slave

Every frame of a movie should make you feel something, but what happens when a movie makes you feel conflicting emotions. That’s something that
Steve McQueen is really good at in 2013’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years A Slave. It tells the true story about a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South. And the way the film depicts slavery is rightfully horrifying, but it’s horrifying not just because of the brutality shown but because everyone in the film is numb to the suffering of others at some point. And you don’t have characters monologuing about how terrible slavery is. At least, not until the very end when Deus Ex Brad Pitt comes to save the day.
“Then what is true and right is true and for all, white and black alike.” Instead the theme is presented to the viewer through juxtaposition and layering. McQueen regularly places images with conflicting tones right next to each other in the film so that you are constantly confused about how to feel. Sometimes they are right after one another like in this shot when Solomon is captured. The camera pans up and we see the Capitol building, a building that in another context is supposed to represent freedom. But because of the previous image represents blindness to the mass suffering of the people it is supposedly there to protect. In other moments, conflicting tonal images are in the same shot. Like in this early one in the film when the slaves are eating a meal in a depressed silence. In the background, free children are laughing and playing. This is repeated in the hanging scene where McQueen lingers on the shots of Solomon nearly suffocating to death for a full three minutes with only a single other slave coming to help him. The plantation re-animates itself behind him and in the background children begin to play with his hat and the other slaves go about their day, afraid to help him in any way.
There’s another shot like this in the film but here the focus is shifted out of focus and the distance slaves are lashed for not picking enough cotton while we watch slaves continue to work, unable to say anything about the brutality. McQueen also edits the film in an interesting way to constantly contrast the past and the present. Like in this scene when a slave Solomon had befriended is saved by his master. Solomon calls out to him for help, but Clemens does not stick his neck out. “Clemens! Clemens! Clemens!”
“Get him back!” We then get this seemingly innocuous scene of Solomon and his wife at a store when he was free and him doing the exact same thing to another slave trying to escape: ignoring his plight because he is powerless to do anything. There’s so many different emotions in these shots that any glimpse of happiness is drowned out by the shots of depression and pain. Even more impressive is McQueen’s use of sound in the film, especially the music. Now, music can change everything in a film. It’s even more important than what you see on screen because it gives the image context, it tells you how to feel.
Most of the music in the movie is very light and sorrowful but every once in a while there’s extremely
heavy music used. Mostly it’s used on Solomon’s forced journey to the South and it has the power to make anything horrifying. I mean he travels there on a paddle wheeler.
It’s about the most adorable looking form of
transportation out there but not when you shoot it like this… And that brings us to the most repugnant scene of the entire film when Tibeats sings this song. Now, I’m going to give a warning here that this next part of the film does include the n-word. That’s unavoidable considering the topic matter but I just wanted to point that out before I play this clip. “[email protected]#* run, [email protected]#* flow, [email protected]#* tore his shirt in two. Run, run, the patty-roller get you. Run [email protected]#*, run Well you better get away!” Makes you wanna barf, doesn’t it? Well, this will make even more sick. Here’s some history on the song: that song is actually one that slaves would sing to each other. Slaves weren’t allowed to leave their owners plantation, but occasionally they would go to visit friends on other plantations. So owners set up slave patrols to stop this from happening. So, this song is about a slave evading the patrol, since it was better to run in that situation than to try and explain yourself. So when Tibeats sings this song at them, something that was supposed to be a meager form of comfort for them, is compromised by virtue of him being the one singing it. He is mocking them and their hopeless situation. And on top of that, he forces them to be part of their own humiliation by making them
clap the beat of the song he’s singing. We then cut to the reality of their situation as slaves, further emphasizing their humiliation. But then it also cuts to Mr. Ford giving a sermon
and it compromises that, as well. “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob.” “Run [email protected]#* run, the the patty-roller catch you.”
“When the multitude heard this, they were…” In an instant, this moment of piety is tarnished by their complicity with slavery. This happens once more in the film when the sounds of Eliza weeping are played over the images of the sermon mixing them in a really sinister way.
“The same is the greatest in the
Kingdom of Heaven and who so shall receive…” All of these moments of conflicting tone help to articulate the struggle slaves faced.
Not just the brutality, but the fact that others are numb to their suffering: that the government is ignorant of what is happening; that supposedly pious people are blind to their sins.
McQueen does all of this without a monologue and that’s why 12 Years A Slave is one of the best pictures ever made. My name is Sage. Thanks for watching and make sure to subscribe for more videos about the Best Pictures. You can check out last week’s episode here to see Birdman was made to look like one continuous shot.

77 Replies to “What Writers Should Learn From 12 Years a Slave

  1. Great film, and loved your analysis. However the example you used to compare Solomon calling out to Clemens on the boat was miss placed. The accompanying scene to the one where Solomon calls after Clemens is when Eliza (The Woman who had her children taken from her and wont stop crying) is dragged away from the plantation, crying out to Solomon, who does his best to ignore her. This moment is again reflected near the end when Solomon leaves the Epps plantation and Patsie faints in the background of the shot as Solomon rides away.
    The scene in which Jasper enters the shop before being taken away by his master shows that Solomon isn't numb to the treatment of slaves. The Master tells the shop owner "Pardon the intrusion" To which Solomon butts in saying "No intrusion." Thus this scene gives weight to when Eliza is taken away and Solomon does nothing, showing his character arc and his slow numbing to the world he is a part of "So have you finally taken your place as Platt?"

  2. I acknowledge McQueen's creativity and talent for framing and editing a movie, but the content as a whole is really shallow and manipulative. Everything comes down to: white=evil, black=victim and white=saviour, bottom line: slavery=wrong. No shit! It's very simplistic, it didn't portray an interesting or deep treatment of such a delicate subject, McQueen as talented as he is, took the easy route. It was way more compelling and interesting what Von Trier did in Manderlay.

  3. I will NEVER see this movie. My family were slave owners and it terrifies and sickens me that they were complicit in this monstrosity.

  4. I never noticed so much of the things you pointed out and only now realized and went duh! Because i couldn't stand to watch it a second time to even do a proper analysis no matter how much i wanted to. Excellent work.

  5. That image of the 'paddle-wheeler' is Williamsport's Hiawatha…where I love, haha just thought that was funny

  6. When this movie came out my whole immediate family went to go see it (parents, grandparents, etc.) but the little kids were supposed to go see a movie that started shortly after. My mom let my younger brothers stay with her until the movie started which was fine until our protagonist was kidnapped and the beating scene appeared on the scene. My younger brothers began to bawl and scream, confused why this man was being beaten? We couldn't comfort them with "its just a movie" because it wasn't. They had to accept the reality that this is what happened to people who looked like us. What happened to our however many times great grandparents. If this movie just made you uncomfortable or guilty, imagine how it feels knowing the events of this movie are the ONLY reason why your family is here in the U.S.

  7. Your analysis is ignorant of some important historical aspects.  Slave owners and many whites in the South literally thoughts Black slaves were sub-human, farm animals.  You use the term " compassion or empathy for fellow man".  Its not appropriate.   The 19th Century man was a completely different beast than a modern millennial raised on political correctness.

  8. Damn! You really hit it explaining the juxtaposition between conflicting elements in various scenes. I felt a substantial degree of discomfort but could not place it.

  9. Thank you. You helped me realize I did not appreciate this movie (which I truly like) as much as I should from a cinematic point of view.

  10. Great analysis. I just can't believe the movie is really based on a true story. I mean, how can people treat each other like this… And why? Because of a different skin color, an uncontrollable physical attribute. It was still a great movie though. It's the slavery and racism that's just despicable

  11. Well this movie looks horrifying… I remember reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and crying. This looks as haunting as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
    Great analysis .

  12. What to learn?
    Portray history the way it was, don't be afraid to be brutal, don't be afraid to upset anyone.

  13. I saw the movie a couple of years ago and was admittedly indifferent to it, but this short 5 minute video on it actually made me break down in tears. I hadn't noticed any of the complex details that are pointed out in this video. Truly amazing film.

  14. This film was horrifying yet beautiful. The actions shown are revolting, some of the worst things ever done by humanity. but the cast, the acting, the scenery, the sheer amount of realism dripping from every frame is just outstanding.

  15. Nice leftwing propaganda.

    Tell me how many of the rich, white liberal's in California have illegal immigrants working $2 a hour for them???

  16. Can't argue with the brilliance of this movies structure. Hated how they showed the slaves dieing. It's stupid. Sure it further pushes the point and also helps us not get numb wile watching the movie and from a directors position it makes sense but not from a logical or from that time

  17. It always amazes me how whites seem to be more bothered by these kind of movies than blacks, Is it because blacks have become desensitised to the idea, since we're drilled with kind of information from a very young age, I don't know

  18. My class watched this movie in our history class.Most of the girls (exept me :') ) were trembling and covering their eyes while the landlord wipped the black girls' back.

  19. You mentioned comparisons of the past and present, I wonder if that was in attempt to make the audience think if there's anything that they're turning a blind eye too or shying away from in their lives, the way that the characters here did.. I dunno, I haven't watched the movie, I'm only guessing here.

  20. It's weird, I expected to be horrified and moved, to have really been put through the wringer in a way that only the best movies can do, but I felt detached and entirely unmoved throughout the whole thing. It didn't speak to me at all, and I expected it to. I put off seeing it for a long time, because I thought it would be a bit too harrowing to watch, but I felt I had to. Yet in the end I really didn't care about this man and the terrible things he went through. It just felt like a bunch of vignettes screaming "slavery was awful, you know." Well, duh, I knew that much already.

  21. movie should be required watching. the amount of people that will not be engaged, or feel like they are learning nothing they haven't heard or could conceive being the case in the conditions of slavery (I was also not particularly engaged) is worth it for the numbers it DOES effect. judging by this comments section its clear people generally got a lot more from it than I did.

  22. Just pointing it out… The government was not ignorant of what was happening with slavery.

    Slavery was legalized by government. Those patrols searching for running slaves were organized by government.

  23. Great vid! Loved the film!
    But please man, don't waste your time on trigger warnings! We came to watch a vid on 12 Years a Slave… we should know what to expect

  24. When I first saw this movie I was like "God damn, someone ripped Hans Zimmer's music from Inception with that theme." Then I looked it up and realized it was him. Happened to me again with The Crown.

  25. What i find more horrifying from slavery, is that the owners that were so mean to his slaves didnt even think that, apart from being an human too, it was a living being. Because yeah, some of them didn't recognized them as humans, but they were living beings. I mean, they didn't treat their horses like that

  26. Great analysis. I felt my chest tight and I was holding my breath through most of it because it's so horribly tragic and unfair. I only watched it once but can't wait again. This video alone made me feel sick.

  27. This film is a politically motivated lie. It's a complete distortion of the slave's memoir. The hanging scene never happened. Besides, it's not "horrifying", it's pornografic. Torture porn. Well shot piece of crap.

  28. I never understood the love of this movie. When it comes to 12 Years a Slave as a historical piece, I love it. However, when it comes to presenting the film as a film that deals with slavery, I feel like it is just a generic movie that deals with the topic of slavery. Whatever, I probably need to watch it again.

  29. It's also conflicting because that song's topic is so dark and terrible, but the tune is so up beat and catchy.

  30. I went on one of my bootleg websites to watch this movie and it want there than I looked up hidden figures and that wasn’t there either BUT IT HAS EVERY OTHER MOVIE IN THE WORLD 😤

  31. I already called it a great movie, but the way you broke it down really points out things. Now I have to go watch it again.

  32. I still cannot get my head around how anyone in a civilised society thought this was ok. I can understand a savage and barbarous nation doing it but a civilised and supposedly moral one does not compute. EDIT: Ok I get it now. Ultimately it was prompted by money and sanctioned by God.

  33. if i ever wrote and directed a slavery pic…. white american suicide rates would increase, especially christian white american rates. the history is disgusting, and the religious context behind the history would make alot of people depressed and filled with righteous self hatred or shameful delusion. these movies bring a match light to catacombs filled with darkness

  34. Are you still making video essays on the "Best Pictures" for this series. I think these are absolutely amazing

  35. This whole movie was supposed to make you angry 🤷🏽‍♂️ make you feel uneasy and make you feel….just feel

  36. God, this film is so overrated. Firstly, the film is literally monotonous, and very sluggishly paced. Then you have Brad Pitt's performance which is claw-your-eyes-out terrible. The pompous, pretentious language Chiwetel Ejiofor has to chew on renders so much of the dialogue unnatural and forced. The ending is a huge anti-climax – after seeing his family for the first time in years, all we get is "I apologise for my appearance"? That is such weak writing, and it totally undercuts the catharsis of the scene. There are talented actors among the cast, but the film itself is neither well written nor well executed.

  37. I love how MqQueen set you up to judge Clement as a self serving coward for hastily leaving Solomon ( not looking back), at the start of the film yet you understood when Solomon did the same at the end.

    McQueen directed this perfectly through the grasping hug (especially since we hadn't yet encountered trustworthy or caring , white characters). He then put the same hug into context through Solomons experience.

    It is easy to judge those who saved themselves from the outside looking in, but the movie took you on a journey that placed you inside of their suffering looking out.

    A masterpiece of detail whereby at the end you understood the clasp of trauma, desperation and the save yourself mentality (which is conflicting to judge).

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