Friday, January 24, 2014

12 Years A Slave (2013): A Review


A True American Horror Story...

There's something to be said about people's refusal to accept things as they are.  The Italian posters for 12 Years a Slave (12 Anni Schiavo) barely hints at the idea that the film has anything to do with the true-life story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the North who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, where for those 12 years he endured horrors upon horrors until through a fortuitous twist of fate he was able to make contact with friends in the North who got him released.  Instead, it focuses on the beauty of both Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, hovering over some anonymous black figure almost lost in the cotton fields.  Yes, both Fassbender and Pitt are very pretty, but the sight of Brad Pitt looking down on us Christ-like is bizarre to say the least (perhaps ego-boosting and reflective of how Pitt may see himself, but that's neither here nor there).  Even more bizarre, Pitt (one of the film's producers) has a very small part in 12 Years a Slave which does not justify his prominence in the poster, and Fassbender is the primary villain in 12 Years a Slave.  I won't venture to guess why the actual subject of 12 Years a Slave was downplayed, though I am too kind-hearted to place nefarious motives on people.  However, the film itself doesn't let up on the brutality of 'the peculiar institution', even if the only major difference between 12 Years a Slave and something like Roots is the degree to which the violence is displayed.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a successful fiddler in New York State, with a wife, two children, and the general respect of the community.  He comes upon two figures, a Mr. Hamilton and a Mr. Brown, who offer him a job playing with a circus.  Needless to say, once they arrive in Washington, D.C., where he is plied with wine, there is no job waiting for him.  Instead, he is taken by slave sellers and literally sold down the river.  He protests his free status, but nothing doing: as far as the whites are concerned, he is a recaptured runaway slave named Platt.  He is now sold, and his first owner is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who on the whole has a sense of right and wrong.  Ford, for example, attempts to buy Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and her two children, but the slave seller Freeman (Paul Giamatti) won't have it.  The children are sold off, with a hysterical Eliza and distraught Solomon/Pratt going to Ford.

Sherlock Learns to Share

Ford reads The Word to his small group of family and slaves, and unlike others does not go to the slave quarters to enjoy the pleasures of their company.  However, his carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) has no problem being brutal.  He is furious that Pratt has Ford's ear and respect, and at a certain point is so enraged by Pratt daring to insist that Tibeats is wrong that he attempts to strike Pratt.  Solomon, however, defends himself, and it is only because the overseer gets there in time AND that technically Pratt is Ford's property that Solomon is saved from lynching (even if Solomon is left to hang until Ford cuts him down near sunset).  As for Eliza, her constant crying over her lost children disturbs Mrs. Ford so much she cajoles her husband to get rid of her, and she is never to be seen or heard from again.

With things too hot for Pratt, Ford sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  Epps is the ultimate in derangement.  He has the slaves who don't meet his cotton picking quota beaten.  He gets his slaves to 'dance' in the European style in the middle of the night.  Most telling, he subjects his best cotton picker, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) to torture, in turns going to her bed and brutalizing her.  Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson) is fully aware of her husband's twisted and conflicted feelings for Patsey.  She constantly pushes Epps to get rid of her, and she at one point throws a bottle at Patsey's face (making her denial of cookies to Patsey at one of the 'Negro dances' shocking in its tameness and pettiness, let alone gentleness, or as gentle as a woman who coolly assaults someone with a full bottle of liquor can be).  Epps' insanity grows, going so far as to force Pratt to whip Patsey.  Despite her pleas, Solomon cannot kill her to free her from this horror. 

Into his captivity, Solomon meets Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian who like all Canadians is gentle, kind, noble, and prescient.  He knows that slavery is evil and will eventually devour America.  Solomon takes a desperate chance and tells Bass his true identity.  True to his word, Bass has made contact with people and Solomon is rescued from Epps' plantation.  Epps is infuriated but there is nothing he can do, and with regards to Patsey, there is nothing Solomon can do.  Solomon returns to his family, his children now grown, and with Solomon as a grandfather. 

We are told in closing text that he sued his abductors, but being a black man he could not testify against whites in Washington, and the case in New York being dismissed.  We also learn that what happened to Solomon Northup (his later life after he became active in the abolitionist movement and his death) is a mystery.

Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the late actor) does not water down the horrors Northup endured.  Sometimes the accusation that he lingers too long on them (the attempted lynching lasting a while) appears justified, but it should be remembered that this is as close as we will be able to see just how insidious American slavery was without actually experiencing it itself.  I say 'American slavery' because only in America is slavery, already a barbaric act, is tinged with racial attributes.  Slavery in the past (and sadly, present) was more economically-based than race/ethnicity-centered (let us remember that 'slave' comes from 'Slav', i.e. Eastern Europeans).  We are not allowed to remove ourselves from Solomon's plight, which must have affected uncounted hundreds, if not thousands. 

How many other Solomon Northups must there have been?  How many other free men and women were abducted and forced into slavery?  How many families were callously broken up due to the idea that blacks were automatically property, no different than animals?  The horror of American slavery has rarely been depicted to the extent it has been in 12 Years a Slave.  It is a horrible thing to imagine, that there was a time when a piece of paper was the only thing that kept one from being a slave.

However, that isn't to say it hasn't been depicted.  In many ways, someone who has seen Roots has seen a version of 12 Years a Slave.  There is the kidnapping, there is the idea of an uprising aboard the ship, the separation of families, the rape of women and creation of mixed-race children, the sympathetic and unsympathetic white characters.  It may be that 12 Years a Slave is based on a personal narrative that lends it more impact than Alex Haley's novel, which may have been drawn from the Haley family oral tradition.

The acting is almost all excellent.  Ejiofor brings dignity and inner strength and courage to Solomon, knowing he has to hold his head down to survive but also on occasion reaching a breaking point where he will not allow himself to endure without taking a stand.  Solomon struggles, endures shocking acts, but he never loses his moral core.  He cannot kill Patsey, even if by doing so he frees her from the hell of her existence.  Fassbender is also fascinating as Epps, who I would argue is not evil but insane.  Holding midnight dances for his slave is perhaps his irrational behavior at its most tame, but in his paranoia, his brutality/obsession with Patsey, Epps appears to be a man driven or pushed into insanity by the evil he allows to grow.  Cumberbatch as Ford appears to be kind, and perhaps in real life he was more considerate of his slaves than others.

However, as Eliza points out, he is still a slaver.  Ford still owns people, he still does not appear to see the contradiction between being a good Christian man and being a slave owner (or using that deplorable word to describe African-Americans, sadly used by African-Americans themselves to describe each other).  12 Years a Slave doesn't answer that.  Instead, we are asked only to see how slavery was, and I imagine the portrayal of it is sadly an accurate portrayal of how dreadful it all was.

Nyong'o is so heartbreaking as Patsey, someone who is trying to survive as Epps brutalizes her body, mind, and soul.  Her performance is raw and honest and tormenting, when we see how she is fiercely beaten for getting soap or how Mistress Epps so torments her for things not of her own doing.

Here is one aspect of 12 Years a Slave that I did have trouble with.  Both Sarah Paulson's Mistress Epps and Liza Bennett's Mistress Ford behave and act so alike that one would not be blamed for thinking Epps married Ford's wife.

Another aspect is the use of flashbacks, which momentarily disorient the viewer and which do what a lot of films with flashbacks do: start us somewhere, take us back and then go chronologically until we get to the starting point, only to not have that serve as the end but as just a particular point where we pick up the story and continue. 

One good decision in John Ridley's adaptation of Northup's memoirs is to not have the slaves speak in clichéd broken English.  Instead, they speak with mostly proper English, which lends the characters more dignity than their owners would ever grant them.

12 Years a Slave is a hard film to see in many ways.  However, it is a film that is as close to what the actual experiences of a slave would have been that we are likely to see.  As I said the African-American pre-Civil War experience has been seen before, and it is a strong historic film which will serve as instruction of how things were.  I don't know if 12 Years a Slave is a film that will be seen regularly.  It is certainly not a film to be 'enjoyed' in the traditional sense of the word as in 'deriving pleasure' from it.  However, 12 Years a Slave is a film that cannot be denied its power, its horror, and its ability to display the dark and evil of man to his fellow man.             

1808-circa 1857


2014 Best Picture Winner: Birdman

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