Monday, November 18, 2013


12 Years A Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley

     Steve McQueen's third feature film, 12 Years a Slave, is the most brutally, anger inducing and heartbreaking film about American slavery in the history of film. It does not joke or have a crowd-pleasing, revenge fantasy as Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) and most certainly does not paint Antebellum South as a decadent, romance emphasized white cultured world as Gone with the Wind (1939). This film shows the horrors of the oppressed and the oppressors. It is not didactic in any way, but examines the brutality placed in the hands and minds of individuals that have no humanity. In all honesty, it shows how dehumanized African Americans lives were impacted in an unsettling and gut-wrenching way. A way that causes much fear, anger, distrust, sadness and brings tears to the heart. Steve McQueen has created a masterpiece of true cinema, and a film that should be an obligation and education for everyone.
     12 Years a Slave is a difficult film to watch. McQueen, a visual artist from London turned director, has crafted an historical film that is not soaked in clichés, but saturated in beaten bodies and hopeless souls. The heart aches in every scene of immoral actions. The horror is depicted so forcefully and with McQueen's long takes and elegant style, forces the audience into a world of hate and sadness. The art cinema that so boldly and effectively embodied McQueen's first two films, Hunger and Shame, is toned down here with suffocating shots of intense brutality, juxtaposed with images of serene southern beauty. These are somewhat a break to the audience, but also, I believe, to show how such a beautiful environment can contain such an impactful and disgusting disease. There is almost nothing worse in this world than to violently hate someone for the color of their skin or origin of their birth, but this film effectively puts the audience in this world. An honest, terrifying horror of the life of one Solomon Northup.
    Northup, played brilliantly by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a free man in Saratoga, New York, in 1841. An accomplished violinist and loving family man, Solomon is offered a financial opportunity to play with a traveling circus in Washington, D.C. by two men (Scoot McNairy and  Taran Killam). Solomon dines with the two men in D.C. and wakes in a dungeon like room in full chains. We are witnessed to a man, who has lived a life of comfort and respect, beaten so relentlessly that all hope is bled and bruised out him. The experience is framed in an upward shot from the ground, with the scariest of framing. The beating seems like it lasted forever, but Ejiofor's expressions and the enforcer's anger, who breaks a wooden paddle over him and continues with another, is so terrifying that we see the fear and hope fall with every tear and scream out of Northup's body and soul. Northup's life, as he knew it, is gone.
    Solomon is assigned to a slave trader in Louisiana, Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who sells him to a more generous and less evil plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Giamatti plays Freeman with complete distaste and vitriolic disdain for slaves. Great in it, but he has achieved a hatred based portrayal that is truly disgusting to watch. Cumberbatch is a soft spoken, benign man that sees more positive and talent out Solomon, who is now named Platt, but has a plantation overseer named Tibeats (Paul Dano) who is a high contrast from Ford. Dano, playing Tibeats with the same outlandish enthusiasm as the preacher in There Will Be Blood, is a violent, weak man who disregards slaves as mere nothing. Solomon fights back with his intelligence and sophistication when Tibeats questions the quality of his carpentry and house building. Solomon beats Tibeats until he cries like sniveling scared little man. This act of revenge has consequences of unthinkable brutality.
     The fact that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails), who adapted the memoir by Solomon Northup of the same name, have made the quintessential film on slavery and centered the main character as a free man, that is tricked into slavery is quite astonishing and genius. This shows how his life is taken away without control. How inhumane these slave owners and overseers were, and the depravity that they imposed on innocent human beings. It is a horror that can be seen through the eyes of a man of innocence and love. A man that had his complete life turned upside down for no honest reason at all, longing for his family.
     The scene following Solomon's courageous attack on Tibeats is one of the hardest in the film. He is hanged, with just the tips of toes touching the muddy ground. The sound is unbearable. In a scene that lasted, what felt like at least ten minutes or more, we see slaves and white people going back to work without helping Solomon. The fear of aiding him is so impactful here and the mere shock of seeing Solomon fight for his life is unbearable. Ejiofor is just so amazing in this scene and throughout the whole film. How this amazing group of talent achieved such heartbreaking excellence speaks to there unbelievable skill and talent. It is quite amazing, but also so difficult to watch.
     Solomon, to save his life from Tibeats relentless desire to beat the hell out of him, is sold from Ford's ownership to the malevolent, Bible thumping drunk slave owner Edwin Epps (McQueen regular Michael Fassbender). This is the devil. Flashy, but not without his own contradictions, Fassbender plays Epps with violent ferociousness that is so intense and full of hate. What he does and how he believes these slaves are his property and, as the Bible supposedly states, he can beat his property when he wants, is shocking. He believes he can do with his property as he sees fit. One of his slaves, Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) is his best worker, secret love and holds the sinister disdain of Epps' wife Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson). Patsey is heartbreaking and just wants this pain and suffering to end. In the most difficult scene to watch, Patsey, who ran away to a neighbors plantation, comes back and is forced to be whipped by Solomon. It is without a doubt one of the most difficult scenes I have ever seen in my life and brought intense anger and sorrowful tears to my eyes. Nyong'o is a revelation in this film. She expresses, with subtle, emotional brilliance, the innocent heartache of a woman that is in throes of the devil in a white man's body. It is so devastating to see what she goes through in this film. Truly heartbreaking. Eventually, Solomon works with a Canadian carpenter Bass (Brad Pitt) that aids him in getting the correct papers that proves he his a free man. This allows him to return to the family he has not seen for twelve years.
     As difficult as this film is to sit through at times, it carries some of the finest performances in cinema this year. Everyone is excellent and Nyong'o and Fassbender are both mesmerizing and chilling in every scene. Both should easily be nominated for supporting actor Oscars, but nothing is as beautiful and harrowing as Ejiofor. He is in the role of his young career. The role of a lifetime and he plays it with such humanity and fear. The man was abducted and his life was in most unbelievable turmoil. In a scene towards the end of the film, Solomon stares right at the camera. His solemn, touching countenance forces the audience to become inescapably immersed in this world. In this horror forced upon him. The scene forces the audience to not hide from this treacherous world and no longer feels like we are an outsider looking in at this world. We have witnessed the unsettling situation that Solomon has been forced in to and this scene is a stroke of genius from McQueen and acted impeccably well by the Ejiofor. He has to be the man to beat in the best actor race and deserves every accolade that comes his way.
     McQueen is fearless and honest with this film, and is in complete control. Easily a best director candidate for every possible award from this year. Beautiful and haunting cinematography from Sean Bobbitt and a scathing, sharp tuned, string based score from Hans Zimmer, resembling some of his work on Inception, adds to this frightening infliction being unveiled on the screen. The period looks perfect, with a watchful, detailed eye to clothing, hairstyles and plantation life, but nothing is not in the watchful eye of McQueen.
     12 Years a Slave is an honest, brutal film on the horrors of the inhumane actions of human beings and how these actions affected innocence. McQueen does not shy away from the atrocities, but does it with a genius touch and artistic handle that shows how talented a filmmaker and artist he is. He has made a film that should be mandatory viewing for everyone. A film that is an unflinching portrait of the unbearable scab on not just American history, but a whole race of people that were treated with such disregard and malevolence, that there can never be an apology that will suffice these evil actions. I cannot praise the quality, guts and craft of this picture enough. This is the best film of the year, and it may not be a film I want to rush out and see right away again, but with the quality at work here and the importance of the subject at hand, it will be hard not to dive deeper into this true, profoundly important cinematic masterpiece.

Photo credit by IMDB.    

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