Wednesday, November 27, 2013

12 Years a Slave (2013) - Directed by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, the black, London-born director of such artsy fare as the self-important Hunger and sex-addiction focused Shame, has taken on the topic of American Slavery with perhaps the most direct and accomplished portrayal that anyone has yet seen on the subject. Eschewing his favored embellished takes and political/social maneuverings of his previous films for a more direct and emotionally involving style, 12 Years a Slave is filled with the kinds of moments that are essential to tell this story, but is without the sort of Hollywood colloquialisms, overt sentimentalization and politically correct quagmire that we might expect were this film coming from a more American/Hollywood minded perspective. Thus, the film feels remarkably clearheaded. Maybe for too long, Hollywood has been too afraid of hurting certain people's feelings by making a film about slavery. Or maybe the wounds are still too fresh. That is except for certain "safe" portrayals like Tarantino's hollow and superficial Django Unchained. Spielberg also mostly sidestepped the issue in Amistad (basically a courtroom drama) and last year's Lincoln (a biopic of the president), as neither really went into the subject completely. Perhaps McQueen’s nationality allows an objective portrayal to come forward. 12 Years a Slave brings us face to face with one of the greatest evils in the history of humanity. Perhaps not since television's "Roots", has the subject been approached with any degree of importance, and let’s not forget….that was, amazingly, 36 years ago!

“12 Years a Slave” was a memoir written in 1853 by Solomon Northup. It concerned his personal story of how he was taken from his life in Saratoga Springs, NY. He had a wife and two children when he was kidnapped while traveling in Washington D.C. and taken as a prisoner and traded on the slave market, shipping him down to a plantation in Louisiana, where he began 12 years enslaved to a couple of masters, all the while attempting to find a way to notify his family up north. The film bases the story upon this memoir and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in a gut-wrenching performance as Northup, who eventually has his name changed to Platt by force. Throughout the film, he is under servitude to two masters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford, and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps. Under Ford, Northup is exposed to the vengeful treatment of John Tibeats (played with a bit too much crazed bravado by Paul Dano), a carpenter on the plantation. In a scene almost unbearable to watch, Northup is nearly hung by Tibeats and his cronies, but ends up dangling by his neck, standing on his tiptoes in the mud all day, while Northup's fellow slaves look on, unable to help him. After this incident, Ford sells Northup to Epps, an extremely racist and violent man, prone to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse upon his slaves. Of particular note, his attentions paid to a slave named Patsey (an amazing Lupita Nyong’o) bring the ire of Epps’s cruel and vengeful wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). All the while, Northup tries to maintain secrecy of his education and ability to read and write, biding his time until he can find a way out of this bondage if possible. That is until he meets an honest and kind man named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), who helps him send a letter home, providing an impetus for his return to freedom.

Because the film focuses on such a personal story, rather than on such a large swath of slavery, it makes the film so much more streamlined and taut than a longer or more broad film might be. This focus on Northup and his particular predicament is not necessarily common to the slave experience, though. His story of being enslaved as a freeman is not typical, yet it’s alarming and jarringly shocking in ways we may not be used to, somehow taking a type of story we think we know everything about, and unveiling a new degree of moral corruption and human torment through that. Ejiofor gives the performance of the year as Northup, where he emotes even while he must often refrain. It’s a balancing act that is best seen in a few of the film's most memorable moments. One is the scene where Patsey is begging Northup to kill her to put her out of her misery. Much of the dialogue in this scene and in the film in general actually feels a bit formal and almost pre-determined. Yet in a way, this effect comes across as a most tragic kind of poetry reading. The second is the moment where Epps confronts Northup with having asked a white man to deliver a letter for him. They stare each other down in the dark, in the candlelight like two men waiting for the other to crack. Finally, in a penultimate kind of scene, Northup breaks down and reveals his story on the plantation to Bass, and Northup is shocked to tears that he's actually telling the story to someone.

McQueen makes the choice to include elements of religion as it became part of the justification for the white south. Epps and Ford preach the Bible to the slaves, while the slaves reach out to God in their own way. Each speaks of the same God, yet the corruption of power led the southern plantation owners to utilize certain passages of the Bible for their own ends. Through the corruption of un-checked power, slavery became a reality, while religion was used a "justification” and this point hits home several times. If Ejiofor is the main focus of the film, the point of view sometimes seems to drift toward Fassbender’s Epps, which may be the only flaw in an otherwise spectacular film. Fassbender has a tendency for one too many pregnant pauses for my taste, and some of the passages involving Fassbender’s perspective are the most overwrought elements just because the story isn’t really about him. One might wonder how a film about slavery, featuring a character who is free at the beginning and freed at the end can really fully examine the integral experience. Somehow, and it's to McQueen's credit, the ending leaves us not elated or relieved, but instead broken and enlightened. Through Northup's journey, we are able to experience an amazing story of perseverance and also the slavery experience as a whole, providing a voice to those still left in bondage at the end of the film. There is no attempt to sensationalize, sentimentalize or politicize the experience. Northup’s memoir, suppressed for nearly 100 years, provides for a framework for McQueen's film that makes us feel the injustice first-hand, giving us a cinematic portrayal as penetrating and moving as any film could. Few movies are ever truly important culturally anymore. Let’s hope that this one becomes such a film. 


Sam Juliano said...

"Few movies are ever truly important culturally anymore. Let’s hope that this one becomes such a film."

Indeed Jon. You have written a beautiful and passionate review of a contemporary masterpiece, a film that is sure to pile on over the upcoming awards season. While the entire cast is superlative I'd count three performances as master class: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Pupita Nyongo and Michael Fassbender. The film is lovingly mounted and deeply moving and as you note it's an important document, chronicling what was surely America's darkest hour.

Jon said...

Thanks Sam. I think Ejiofor and Nyong'o are on their way to winning Oscars. I tend not to be the biggest fan of Fassbender and have often found him difficult to judge from film to film for some reason. We both agree it's a great film.