Someone wrote that calling 12 Years a Slave (2013) a early Best Picture nominee wasn’t doing it any favors. I now understand what that person meant. Having heard all the buzz about the film, I was expecting something dramatic, haunting, and impeccable. This creates expectations that, if unsatisfied, will result in push back. What is better is to watch the film for what it brings, which is a moving story and a painful view of the life of an American slave. Sadly, that too was severely handicapped by seeing it in Time Square with people who have no business seeing good movies early in their run. Please, don’t spoil the movie by laughing at every irony, clapping at dangerous sassing, and generally not understanding the tone of the film. You probably mistook this for a screening of Django Unchained (2012) where your hoots may be better appreciated. But in movies like 12 Years a Slave, we generally clap at the end and recognize that there are other people in the audience. I was embarrassed for you. And stop checking your cell phone! Barbarians!
This is how you harvest sugar cane. Platt (Chiwetel Ejiofor) watches on while the brief lesson is given. Some years ago, Platt was a free man and went by the name of Solomon Northup and earned money as a violinist. Two men, Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam), bring him down to Washington, DC, on the pretext of playing for their circus. They get him horribly drunk and Northup wakes up in chains. He is beaten and whipped until he is made too afraid to tell anyone that he was a free man. He is sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a relatively kindly slave owner, and is then sold over to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a relatively unkindly slave owner. Epps’s wife (Sarah Paulson) is no better. There is no better. There is survival.
There is a deep and destructive conflict playing out at the center of this film and that is the skill of the writing against the woefulness of some of the acting. Fassbender, Ejiofor, Paulson, and Cumberbatch are all excellent and deal with the language like the trained and natural actors that they are. Others, however, seem to think they’re on the stage, filling their lines with as much meaning and poetry as they can muster. This is clearly the opposite of what they should have done. While director Steve McQueen, cinematographer (Sean Bobbitt), and the named actors are all doing realism, these others break the spell. One might blame screenwriter John Ridley for writing lines that open themselves so easily to theatricality. But if Paul Giamatti–who I didn’t name because his part is so brief, though well done–can pull of “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin”, then no one should have trouble. But they do. They call out their olde language in their brash American accents like a high schooler playing a centurion “Come here a while, I would speak with you.” I should mention Lupita Nyong’o who played the ill-used Patsey was also incredibly good.
Fassbender and Ejiofor are the central figures and I have no qualms in proclaiming their destiny for golden statues. Ejiofor has a list of great credits and is always excellent. His role is a bit thankless in that he must play a man afraid and proud simultaneously. He also goes through a number of brutal trials. But it isn’t showy, even if McQueen tries to dwell on his middle-distance gazes (to no avail). McQueen has better luck with Fassbender with whom he has made all of his feature films (Hunger (2008) about an Irish prison hunger strike and Shame (2011) about a sex addict). When McQueen and Bobbitt get close up on Fassbender, the scene is electric. Fassbender’s role is in every way the opposite of Ejiofor’s. It’s showy, insane, unstable, terrifying and glorious to watch.
The production side was good but not great. I was expecting stark images, but somehow the clarity was not all it could have been. Perhaps that’s the projection, I honestly don’t know. But there were certainly beautiful images and some static shots that force you to look where you might rather not (in a good way). The music from Hans Zimmer did some pretty serious borrowing from his earlier Inception (2010) score, but that’s a pretty terrific score. It fit pretty well, though, again, I think I expected lower-budget minimalism and I got a medium budget half-epic.
Is it strange that I didn’t find it harrowing? Some of that is because I have absolutely no difficulty imagining that people used to do this to one another. Even today, you can see the limited imagination of stupid people to understand that humans are humans even if they come from Guatemala or Syria. When Fassbender reads out Bible verses on slavery and ends with “That’s scripture” as though his point was irrefutable, it’s easy to find parallels to so-called moderns. Self-interested cowardice and dishonorable blindness to legal obligations and duties even when causing extreme pain and horror to others is equally plain to see even in the highest echelons of our society.
I just saw a headline for 12 Years a Slave that said it “holds nothing back”. It does hold one thing back, and that’s hopelessness. The real “film about slavery” is not something anyone would want to watch. In that film, a person is born, treated badly, and dies never knowing that anything else ever existed for them.
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