Top 100 American Movie Quotes of the 21st Century: #79

The actor:Chiwetel Ejiofor
The character:Solomon Northup
The film:12 Years a Slave
The quote:“I apologize for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”

In March 1994, the Oscars were hosted by one of the most famous female comics of the era. She presided over a ceremony where Best Picture was given to a microcosmic story representing one of the unquestioned tragedies of recorded history, a tragedy unnatural brought on by all-too-fathomable human evil. The story ended a little less bleakly than you’d expect. Its protagonist may not have done enough in his own eyes, but in the eyes of the audience he has done a great deal. In March 2014, the Oscars were hosted by one of the most famous female comics of the era. She presided over a ceremony where Best Picture was given to a microcosmic story representing one of the unquestioned tragedies of recorded history, a tragedy unnatural brought on by all-too-fathomable human evil. The story ended a little less bleakly than you’d expect. Its protagonist may have suffered the cruelest injustice for a major swath of his life, and witnessed the cruelest injustices in that time, but he gets to come home.

Schindler’s List and 12 Years a Slave are awfully similar movies. The difference for me is that I find Schindler’s List insufficiently brutal and 12 Years a Slave brutal enough. I cannot overstate how effective that scene is where we watch Solomon struggle against strangulation, standing in slipping mud and working desperately to keep himself from dying in the next few moments. It is horrifying. It draws attention to itself as a lengthy shot; would it be more effective if there were more close-ups of Solomon’s face and feet? Would it be more effective if it zoomed in or out? This is a film where white people do all manner of disgusting things, where the indigent or working-class are as callous and wicked as the people who would consider themselves their betters in manner and breeding. In that moment of the film, a long moment indeed, the evil of those people permeates the air and the mud and the tree and the rope. Their presence is unnecessary; they are invisible in that moment but as deadly as carbon monoxide.

If it had been a few months, or even a year, that Solomon was gone, this line would be unnecessary. The reason why this line is so excruciating, so understated and raw, is because at this point Solomon is barely a part of his own family. He speaks like a houseguest. He speaks like someone who’s been carted in for a hot meal and a warm bed and who will be carted out in a day or two to go beg somewhere else. This is not a moment of congratulations, even a denigrating one like the one Oskar Schindler speaks. This is a moment where Solomon and his family acknowledge a scar that will always be visible, always be disfiguring, and never be their fault.

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