Genre: Biographical Drama
Directed by: Steve McQueen (Shame)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o
All in all, the praise you have almost certainly heard for Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave — as well as the excellence of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role — is deserved. This is a very good film. Possibly, it is a great one. It is beautifully made and stylish to no end — even elegant. With an assured hand, McQueen has captured the uncomfortable juxtaposition of natural beauty and unnatural ugliness. His images of a genteel Old South that ignores the very uncivilized events playing out in its midst — often just beyond the veranda railings — is disturbing in a way I have never seen in a film of this sort. I have nothing but praise for all this. It's fine work. It's powerful. It's as disturbing as it was meant to be. And yet — why did I sit through it completely dry-eyed? Why was I not in tears by the end of it? I don't know if the fault lies in me, or my mood at the time I saw it — or in the film. A second viewing will probably answer this for me, though I'm inclined to blame McQueen's clinical approach to filmmaking (something that marred his 2011 film Shame). He sees and records powerfully, but he keeps his feelings close to his vest. That may be what keeps me from calling 12 Years a Slave a masterpiece, but I still think it's close to one.
It recounts the fact-based tale of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free, middle-class black man from Saratoga Springs, New York. He was duped into accompanying a pair of traveling showmen (Northup calls them "artists") on a trip to Washington, D.C., with the promise of picking up some easy money as their violinist. Instead, they drug Northup and sell him into slavery that will send him to the Deep South — for 12 years of living hell. The film is drawn from Northup's own account — co-written with a professional writer — and has the feel, at least, of authenticity. The unspeakable cruelties to which he is subjected are occasionally leavened (ever so slightly) by curious flashes of humanity. While we see none in the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) — ironically named Freeman — there is much apparent decency in Northup's first "master," Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), though it's mixed with the belief that it's all right to own slaves and (more importantly) the fear of upsetting the status quo. Ford likes and admires Northup, but when Northup beats up a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano in a skin-crawling performance), it's easier to sell Northup than deal with the consequences.
Ultimately, Northup will find himself on the worst plantation imaginable — owned by Edwin Epps (a mesmerizing Michael Fassbender). Epps is not merely cruel, he's plainly psychotic. His actions rarely make sense, but they always seem believable in the context of the characterization of Epps as a madman. His wife (Sarah Paulson) is no better, but her ire is directed at Epps' slave mistress, Patsey (TV actress Lupita Nyong'o). It's a wholly poisonous environment — not helped by a few side-trips to a neighboring plantation where there is a black mistress (Alfre Woodard) who has risen from slavery to a position of power — she delights in having slaves tend to her every need. (She's like something out of a Tod Browning jungle drama.) Everything in this world is twisted, ugly, dangerous and duplicitous — all the more so because of the physical beauty of the landscapes and the stately homes. The sole voice of reason is a builder named Bass (Brad Pitt), who openly despises slavery and freely espouses that it's morally wrong — but even he is hesitant to help Northup, knowing that any such act would be dangerous to all concerned.
All of this is brilliantly achieved and powerful. McQueen's depiction of the torments is unflinching — and it should be. The film is nothing if it doesn't disturb you on a deep level. I expect to hear the usual arguments about the film being inflammatory. Well, it's supposed to be. It's clearly not worried about offending anyone's sensibilities. And it shouldn't be. (I also anticipate a certain amount of "slavery wasn't like this" from some quarters, based on the depiction in Gone with the Wind.) But this is taken from a first-hand account, and it hews pretty closely to that account. See it for yourself. It is a must-see, though as one person asked at the screening I attended, "Do you really think that the people most in need of seeing this will?" Sadly, the answer is probably no. Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas
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