ejiofor kinky boots

This weekend, the exceptional 12 Years a Slave began its initial expansion into wider release. Currently, the Steve McQueen film is playing in 123 theaters around the country, so a lot of people are just getting the chance to enjoy its brilliant performances and to be horrified by its most powerful scenes. When they exit the cinema, while wiping the tears from their eyes and attempting to rid their throats of the lump that’s been lodged there for at least half an hour, audiences are going to be curious about who Lupita Nyong’o is and where they’ve seen Chiwetel Ejiofor before. They’ll also be interested to know that they’ve just watched a remake, of sorts.

12 Years a Slave still has a ways to go before it reaches the mainstream, Middle America mall crowds. But when it does end up on a few thousand screens and watched by millions more, this guide will be here to recommend past films from the makers and stars of the movie, as well as some other relevant titles worth checking out.

Solomon Northup’s Odyssey

12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, published in 1853, and it shouldn’t be surprising that this isn’t the first movie adapted from the book. Almost 30 years ago, PBS aired a dramatic telling of the same story starring Avery Brooks (of future Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fame) and helmed and scored by Shaft director Gordon Parks. Retitled Half Slave, Have Free for VHS and now sold as Twelve Years a Slave Solomon Northup’s Odyssey on DVD and VOD,  it’s not a particularly good movie, but it’s neat to compare with McQueen’s version. See nearly half an hour of the movie below.

Available on Amazon Streaming

Hunger

If you think a few of the scenes in 12 Years a Slave are difficult to bear, go back and watch McQueen’s feature debut, which remains his best film. Also based on a brutal true story, this movie is about the 1981 hunger strike at Northern Ireland’s HM Prison Maze led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, who plays cruel Master Epps in 12 Years a Slave). I’ve heard people compare the new film to The Passion of Joan of Arc, but the experiential, often close-up and long-take treatment of Sands’ final days is the more apt comparison. We feel the pain of the character in Hunger more than we do Northup’s in 12 Years a Slave. And also, unlike that film, Hunger doesn’t have a happy ending for its hero.

Available on Amazon Streaming (free for Prime members)

Undercover Brother

12 Years a Slave is the first of McQueen’s features where he didn’t have a part in writing the script. The book was instead adapted by John Ridley, author of the novel Stray Dogs (which was turned into Oliver Stone’s U-Turn) and co-writer of the films Three Kings and Red Tails. He also created the web series Undercover Brother, which he later co-adapted into a movie. Starring Eddie Griffin, it’s a comedic spy movie inspired by blaxploitation and Bond films. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a very different sort of movie involving “The Man” oppressing African Americans.

Available on Amazon Streaming

Amistad

Ejiofor made his theatrical feature film debut in this Steven Spielberg movie depicting an 1831 slave ship mutiny and its subsequent trial. Interestingly enough, he portrayed another free black man during the time of slavery in America, a British sailor named James Covey. It was this real-life character who provided translation of testimonies of some of the mutineers. Ejiofor has a transformation here somewhat similar to that of the new film, with the end showing that he returns to Africa many years after he had been kidnapped from there.

Available on Amazon Streaming

Kinky Boots

In addition to receiving his first Oscar nomination for 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor will likely earn his fourth Golden Globe nod for his performance, as well. His first in the Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama category. Two of his previous nominations were for TV movies and the other was for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. This is the comedy in question, and it’s already garnering renewed attention this year thanks to the Tony-winning Broadway musical version that opened this year. Here the actor plays a drag queen who inspires a shoemaker to begin production of women’s footwear in men’s sizes, and while the film is based on a true story his character is a fictional creation.

Available on Amazon Streaming

Serenity

One more movie featuring Ejiofor, in this Firefly spin-off he plays the main villain. While I’m sure a lot of Browncoats will be happy for its inclusion, I’m mostly only highlighting it because it also features Sarah Paulson, who plays the much-hated Mistress Epps in 12 Years a Slave. The two don’t quite have a scene together, at least not where they’re in the same space. Near the end of the film, Ejiofor’s The Operative is shown a holographic report from Paulson’s Dr. Caron, which leads to his surrender in his fight against the Serenity crew.

Available on Netflix Streaming and Amazon Streaming

In My Genes

Nyong’o makes her feature film acting debut with 12 Years a Slave following appearances in a short film titled East River and a Kenyan TV series called Shuga. But she’s worked in the industry in other roles, including production runner in Kenya for The Constant Gardener, during which she credits Ralph Fiennes as encouraging her to pursue her dream of being on screen. She also directed, wrote, produced and edited this documentary about albino Africans, which was her thesis project at Hampshire College. She also produced a music video for Wahu and Bobby Wine’s “Little Things We Do,” which you can watch here.

Buy the DVD from African Film Festival Inc.

The Pianist

Other critics have called 12 Years a Slave “the Schindler’s List of the black experience.” It is definitely like a Holocaust film for a part of American history, but I’d relate it more to Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning drama about Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrian Brody). I was trying to think of another film that might have paralleled Northup’s abduction and carriage into the South, which to me seemed like the train transports to the concentration camps we see depicted often. There have also been other stories in which, similar to Northup, camp prisoners are given special treatment for being able to perform music. The recent documentary Orchestra of Exiles is one example. The Pianist is another, and we see Szpilman forced to play for a Nazi just as Northup has to play his fiddle for his master. And in another scene, Szpilman is whipped. The comparison to Holocaust films is greater for 12 Years a Slave than for some other slavery narratives because of the way we see Northup’s free life before he’s captured, so it’s a story of someone stripped of his entire social standing and wealth as well as freedom and made to live as an animal in the very land he’s known that freedom in.

Available on Netflix Streaming and Amazon Streaming

Django Unchained

There’s been plenty of comparison made between 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained, mostly for how they’re different. I won’t argue that there’s much similarity in terms of how they’re made or what kind of effect they have. But like McQueen’s film, Quentin Tarantino’s latest is about a man who wants to reunite with his wife. Here, though, he’s the free one and she’s the slave in need of rescue. In any event, Django Unchained is worth watching after 12 Years a Slave so you can fantasize that it’s sort of a sequel in which Northup goes back and takes revenge on the evil plantation owners. Because even though there’s a happy ending in McQueen’s film, there’s a lot of injustice remaining when the credits roll. Also, another connection: J.D. Evermore, who plays plantation supervisor Chapin, can also be seen as one of the Klu Klux Klan in Django Unchained.

Available on Amazon Streaming

Manderlay

Lars von Trier’s sequel to Dogville may not be based on any specific true story, but there is some historical evidence of different kinds of peonage that continued long after the official end of slavery in America. Not unlike Northup becoming a slave after having lived as a free man, the plantation workers in this film are made to be slaves in spite of having been born free in this country. Even without the real situations comparable to von Trier’s fiction, the movie was also simply about how even blacks who became paid employees following the Emancipation Proclamation might as well have still been slaves and how they continued to lack complete equality to whites.

Available on Amazon Streaming

Slavery By Another Name

If Manderlay seems too unreal for you, maybe this documentary will make you think otherwise. Directed by Sam Pollard (Spike Lee’s former editor who shared their Oscar nomination for 4 Little Girls) and based on the Douglas A. Blackmon book of the same name, it presents a history of corrupt imprisonment and indentured servitude in the South, where thousands of blacks were basically brought back into slavery following the Emancipation Proclamation and up through the early 20th century, mostly by being forced to work in labor camps for as little a “crime” as talking back to a white man.

Available on PBS Streaming

Whatever Taran Killam Stars In 20 Years From Now

Of all the many brief appearances by familiar actors in 12 Years a Slave, Taran Killam is one of the more notable for only initially being a distraction of recognizability. I expected to find him too funny simply because he’s hilarious on Saturday Night Live. But he was pretty straight and serious as one of the theater gentlemen who kidnap and sell off Northup. It made me realize that he’s going to be one talented dramatic actor one day following whatever comedic career he follows SNL immediately with. Killam has actually been acting for at least 20 years, but his minor role in 12 Years a Slave seems to be his first real noteworthy serious part. I give him another 20 years before he’s the lead in something significant, possibly garnering his own Oscar buzz. For now, let’s watch his film debut, at age 12, in the awful Jurassic Park parody in The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult:


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