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12 Years a Slave
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12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on an incredible true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender) as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon's chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) forever alters his life.
Maybe it had to take a British filmmaker to depict clearly the United States' greatest failing: the horrors of centuries of slavery. In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kinky Boots, Dirty Pretty Things) is a free man living in New York until he's kidnapped and sold in Louisiana as a slave. He's owned by masters relatively kind (Benedict Cumberbatch) and harrowingly brutal (Michael Fassbender), but even under the best conditions, the movie never loses sight of Northup's condition as property, that his well-being and very life are at the whim of his owners. There's no hype here, nor any hemming or hawing; each scene is captured simply but vividly, letting the cruel facts of life in the pre-Civil War era speak for themselves. The movie's power lies in the unsettling details and psychological contortions slavery inflicts on everyone involved, black and white. Performances are fantastic throughout, including supporting work from Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt, and particularly Alfre Woodard as a slave who's gained a position of comfort and clings to it with haughty entitlement. But it's Ejiofor who anchors the movie; his mix of intelligence and fundamental decency carries 12 Years a Slave to a moving conclusion. From Steve McQueen, director of Hunger and Shame. --Bret Fetzer
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Top Customer Reviews
In some ways, it almost reminded me of Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom in how it showed the cruelty humanity can put up with, or even commit, in order to survive. It is just as painful to watch the enslaved Solomon Northup be whipped and beaten as it is to watch him do nothing as the same happens to victims around him.
On a broader level, it’s fascinating how these characters create a sense of order for themselves, in a world so full of cruelty and chaos. Almost everyone speaks in beautiful, nearly-Shakespearean language, heightening the sheer intelligence and thought everyone has put into how they face their often desperate circumstances. Whether Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps practicing horrific cruelty believing such is God’s will, or Chiwetel Ejiofor defending his master William Ford as a good one “under the circumstances,” it’s illuminating to see how these characters warp their realities in order to live through them.
McQueen takes no emotional cheap shots, or force any sentimentality or remorse out of it. Your guttural response is from merely the actions, as the camera is forcing you to witness them for yourself. No artistic work I’ve yet seen shows the condition of slavery as horrifyingly as 12 Years a Slave.
It’s not easy to watch but I’d consider it almost essential viewing. This film is a landmark not only for how neorealistically it approaches its subject matter, but also for its broader and, frankly, disturbing message about humanity.
The first time was in 1984 under the title “Twelve Years a Slave Solomon Northup's Odyssey.” The more recent adaptation, “12 Years A Slave,” kept the title of the book and is based or connected to this present edition of the book.
This fact brings a question to mind that is more and more asked among people: is that interest for the past of African Americans in the recent period the sign of a deep change in the cultural and mental approach of the Blacks and slavery in the United States, or is it only a fad reflecting the fact that the President of the United States has been black since 2008 and will be till 2016? I do not have an answer to that question and I lean towards a twofold approach: the fact that the President of the United States is a black man has some influence on the United States as a whole and every American in particular, and on the other hand Americans have always cultivated their historical dimension probably because they are all of them, except American Indians, uprooted immigrants who were transplanted into a new continent, by force or by choice. All Americans have thus to face this important period in their past: slavery that started for the English colonists in 1619 and ended for the Americans in 1865, though it continued in some form of apartheid or other till the end of the 20thcentury if not till today.
There could be a third side to the question reflecting a change among the Blacks themselves. Since the beginning of this century the Blacks influenced by the mostly Christian NAACP and those influenced by the Nation of Islam have developed an approach of their heritage as Post Traumatic Stress. They have two names for this. The First group calls it Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and they are essentially centered on the concept of reparations, hence a collective approach, neglecting the psychological individual problem and hence admitting more or less, like Booker T. Washington, that they have no knowledge of their ancestry. The second group calls it Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder and they are centering their approach on an individual procedure within group processing to help each individual and his group to understand and step out of the problem by re-assessing and revalorizing their past generations and their heritage going as far as possible within slavery itself.
The recent adaptation of the book (first published in 1853) is outstanding in spite of the fact that it cuts a lot of stuff from it. It shortens the legal battle at the end for example but it gives a clear vision of what the Trauma of slavery was and how the Blacks managed to go through it. Never did they really drop their belief that surviving was not worth suffering for. The film gives some fundamental elements that enabled the Black to survive under the worst possible duress and violence. First of all the very planters and slave owners for reasons that have not yet been explained on the Anglo-Saxon side of slavery actually preached their slaves the Bible and Christianity. In the film one planter uses it to elevate their morals and ethical vision, and another uses it to justify his violence against them. But in a way or another they transmitted to them, more nilly than willy, willy-nilly anyway a religious vision that claimed hope and that eternal life was won by suffering in this world. The slaves turned this belief around into a clandestine and underground call for rebellion (openly stated in the next world) in the name of freedom doubled with a tremendous patience in front of the real situation that was a sign of some complicity with God himself. One song, in front of the grave of an old slave, is just that double message. Booker T. Washington explains in his autobiography Up From Slavery:
“Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before [emancipation and the end of the Civil War], but they had been careful to explain that the “freedom” in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with this life in the world. Now [after the full emancipation after the Civil War] they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.” (p. 21-22)
The other elements that enabled the slaves to keep their sanity for one and their dignity in their survival for two is the direct negation of what Willie Lynch had said: deprive them of their language, deprive them of their culture, deprive them of their religion. He thought that by doing that he would be able to negate their humanity. The Slaves just had to learn another language (the interest of their own masters), English, French or Spanish, and then this new language enabled them to retain and develop their mental power and intelligence. They replaced their old religions with Christianity though they often invested in this Christianity some old beliefs and myths producing Voodoo, for example and other local Africanized version of Christianity. They retained their rhythmic culture and nature and they transformed any task performed on the plantation under duress and violent overseeing into a singing class, a rhythmic experience, a unique cultural survival (enabling them to keep the rhythm of the work, hence satisfying the interest of the planter and escaping whipping in the evening). Actually it is this cultural survival that has produced the music of the Blacks in America and that music has become the polyrhythmic music of the world today. It is a shame the film does not five a full experience of a “Christmas vacation” all planters provided their slaves with. That was one of these moments (present in the book) when the Black slaves were mostly reviving and re-energizing their own African heritage, even five or ten generations after the Middle Passage.
The film shows that mental survival, at the cost of psychological trauma, and we can thus understand that even when a slave wanted to die in order to escape his or her suffering, the survival instinct, multiplied by their own survival experience, will be stronger and will take over and enable him or her to go on one more step or two. The main character, Solomon Northup, is the acme of that survival attitude in how he manages to never forget who he was and still is, in spite of his having to hide his real nature and identity behind the imposed name and identity of Platt.
After the lethal selection of the Middle Passage, the Africans who had survived crossing theAtlantic had managed to develop this survival stance that will enable them to enrich our world today with one of the greatest African heritage we all share in music.
But that has not erased the Post Traumatic Slave/Slavery Syndrome/Disorder because this PTSS/D is individual and has to be treated individually. Their survival stance is collective but the consequences of slavery are essentially psychological and individual. This will explain why Black education advocated by Booker T. Washington and some others did not solve the PTSS/D problem: it did not even address the question. Neither did Marcus Garvey succeed because he only considered the collective level of the problem. In fact NAACP is not the best approach for the problem and it is among the Muslims of the Nation of Islam that today we find the most realistic and effective cure for that PTSS/D. Strangely enough this film, more than the book, does not really cover the Post Traumatic Stress of Slavery, even for Solomon Northup who yet manages to ask for forgiveness from his wife and children, though he did not do anything wrong: his twelve years as a slave have transformed him into a humble fault-carrying individual instead of standing like a liberated and hence regenerated victim.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU