The film 12 Years a Slave is a valuable work of art. Telling the story of a free black man who, in the 1840’s, is captured and forced into bondage, it has a good script and flexible dialogue. Its direction by Steve McQueen is sensitive and restrained. Its acting is excellent.
It is a necessary social document. It shows that where the laws allow evil to flourish, as in an economic system where slavery is allowed, even kinder people, such as some of the whites in the film, do not prevent vicious actions from occurring. It shows that such evil flourishes not merely because of the malicious people but because of the better-intentioned people who do not rise against them.
Slavery was a huge and divisive evil in the U.S. before the Civil War. Its depiction in film even today makes viewers uncomfortable. If we can barely address evils from one-hundred-fifty-plus years ago, we try to fully evade the evils of today.
What of a government that will not adequately deal with the drug epidemic because the leaders inaccurately consider it a poor person’s problem? What of a legal system dedicated to jailing black men for long periods of time? What of a trial in which a shooter gets away with killing an unarmed black youth named Trayvon Martin by unilaterally and falsely depicting him as street punk? What of an economic system that coddles the wealthy few while sending the masses deeper into poverty?
These are among the problems that confront us today. Many of us are too uncomfortable to face them in our cinema.