October 31, 2013

12 Years a Slave

That's Master John Harrison to you, Platt

Grade: A
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr. 13 min.

12 Years a Slave is going to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to win an Oscar for Best Actor. Steve McQueen is probably going to win Best Director. And, Michael Fassbender is going to at least be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Given Hollywood’s roller coaster history with race, whether those declaratives strike you as meritorious recognition for an extraordinary movie, or a reflexive reaction generated by political correctness and white guilt, is a rather legitimate debate. Except for one select group of people: those who have actually seen the film. For them, the mere bestowing of trophies and trinkets pales in comparison to a motion picture whose story, emotion and, yes, beauty transcends such meager plaudits.

McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s eponymous 1853 autobiography is at once both straightforward and layered, unsightly and gorgeous, disheartening and uplifting. It renders the “peculiar institution” of American slavery like few (if any) previous films, particularly as a (perhaps intentional) counterpoint to the ahistorical antics of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Moreover, it augments the obvious horrors of lynchings and the lash with a sobering portrait of the degradation and suffocating desolation that flows out of a financial system built around human enslavement.

Based on a harrowing true story, Solomon, a free black man living in Saratoga Spring, N.Y. in 1841 with his wife and two young children, is lured to Washington, D.C under the pretense of a lucrative gig playing the violin. There, Solomon is drugged, chained, beaten, renamed “Platt,”and shipped south to Louisiana, where the Spanish moss hangs like tears from the very trees used to hang runaways. What follows is a dozen anni of bondage as Solomon works the cane and cotton fields for several masters, some more cruel than others but all complicit.

The film presents immorality both seen and unseen. On one end of the spectrum is Solomon whipping Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave mistress, at the armed direction of their drunken, mad master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, repellant and mesmerizing), a scene of minutes that seems like hours, the brutality building to the crescendo of seeing the lash ripping open Patsey’s flesh.

However, equally disconcerting are the evils McQueen leaves to the viewer’s imagination. A slave marketer (Paul Giamatti), declaring that his sentimentality extends no further than the coin, sells children away from their slave mother, boasting that her young mulatto daughter will fetch a pretty penny from certain unsavory buyers. In a single scene, McQueen ticks off several atrocities: rape by slave owners; the dissolution of slave families; and even child sex trafficking.

While the overt cruelty is striking, what sets 12 Years a Slave apart is the deliberate way it immerses the viewer into the oppressive, emotionally numb reality of people stripped of their freedoms, forced to abandon hope in order to survive. Slaves dare not utter their real names or reveal their literacy. In other instances, slaves go about their daily chores as one of their own dangles from a tree branch, or they are awoken in the middle of the night to perform a kind of minstrel show for their master.

Indeed, the film’s true brilliance rests in how it immerses the audience in the hopelessness. You quietly reprove each time Solomon casts an eye toward running into the forest, asks someone to deliver a letter up north to his family or considers revealing his true identity to a stranger, fearful of the retribution that would befall him. Viewers find themselves siding with villains, like the overseer who saves Solomon’s life after he fights a malicious white carpenter (Paul Dano) and “only” punishes him by letting him hang from a noose all day, Solomon’s muddy tiptoes the only thing sparing him from suffocation. And, you gradually share Solomon’s affinity for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, typically nuanced), a plantation owner and Baptist preacher (the way biblical scripture was twisted into a justification for slave-owning recurs on several occasions) whose relative kindness masks the obvious fact that he still buys and enslaves other humans like chattel.

In fact, one of the most memorable moments is when mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard in a tremendous cameo), practiced in antebellum manners, in one breath recounts both the indignities she’s partaken in order to survive and the eternal damnation awaiting the captor she favors.

At the center of the moral malstrom is Ejiofor, a respected character actor whose astounding performance is both brave and humanizing. Aided by Ejiofor’s valiant interpretation, Solomon is the apt vehicle for conveying these awful truths. The plight of Africans rounded up and shipped from their homeland into servitude is a world far removed from contemporary Western audiences. On the other hand, the freedom Solomon loses is our own, a life of American domestic tranquility that’s stripped away and replaced by a Kafkaesque nightmare. Solomon Northup is the soul of a setting in which there’s precious little to be found.

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