Sunday, November 17, 2013

12 Years a Slave Movie Review

The terrible and embarrassing legacy of slavery is a dark mark on this country. It was a human atrocity that we have only just begun to understand. It remains, more than 150 years after its eradication, the defining factor in race relations. White people would not be where they are in terms of status and privilege without having held black people in bondage. And blacks continue to bear the burden of that time. I’m not sure any movie could possibly do perfect justice as a representation of the horrors of slavery, punishments, beatings, rapes, and other indignities that slaves suffered, but 12 Years a Slave comes closer than anything I’ve seen. This is possibly the least sanitized version ever put on film.


Director Steve McQueen is not one for pulling back from harsh realities. In the same way he had Michael Fassbender bare all and disappear into a sex-addicted lothario, he again presents a tableau of deep historical and psychological import and a portrait of human cruelty at its worst. It is the true story Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who was tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery, where he spent a dozen years wondering what had become of his wife and children. Northup eventually regained his freedom and went on to write a book on his experiences.

The conversation will never end, but this is a profound moment in recent history for a film of such honesty to be made. With our first black president in the White House to comment upon hot-button topics such as Trayvon Martin, people are talking about what it means to be black in the United States and everything points back to the legacy of slavery for it was in that institution that the seeds of prejudice and hatred were forever sown into the fabric of this nation. They have proven very difficult to shake off generations later.

I’m not sure whether it was better to have been born into slavery not ever having tasted freedom, or to be someone like Northup, who had his liberty stripped just as his clothes and dignity are removed from him by the men who would ship him down to New Orleans. There’s probably a decent argument to be made for both. But Northup was one of the lucky ones. The majority of black people kidnapped into the slave trade from non-slave states never made it home. His is just one story among many, the rest of which were never told.

12 Years a Slave forces us to confront what it meant in 1841 to be a free black man in the north, where your freedom meant carrying papers proving such and where falling in with the wrong people could cost you that freedom. Transfer that idea to the 21st century and it’s not that big a stretch to draw a parallel to young Trayvon Martin, another black man in the wrong place at the wrong time, a black man whose freedom was contingent on knowing his place with respect to a white man.

Solomon Northup never had to confront the fact of slavery and the conditions that other men and women of his color endured in another part of the country. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a career defining performance after several years of impactful supporting roles. His Northup is content in his naiveté in Saratoga, where the sight of a young black man being whisked out of a shop by his white owner is his first encounter with the upside down nature of this land of the free.

It’s not long before he finds himself in chains insisting that justice will prevail. He truly fails to grasp the gravity of his predicament and that continues throughout his first stint on a plantation where his benevolent owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is proud to have a slave who understands engineering a pass through the bayou. Northup’s education and impression on Ford stirs the plantation carpenter (Paul Dano) who tries to return Northup to his place of subservience, but receives a beating in return. Northup is beyond lucky to escape with his life, but finds himself sold to another plantation run by the cruel alcoholic Epps (Michael Fassbender).

It is here that Northup undergoes the deep transformation from the man he thought he was in Saratoga to a true slave, standing alongside his brothers and sisters. He becomes authentically black over the years, each experience, from receiving lashes to being forced to brutally dole out lashes to a fellow slave and then finally giving his emotions over to the moment after the death of a fellow slave in the fields, brings him a step closer to discovering what his forbears had been through. Implicit is the great cost at which his freedom came.

These performances are truly powerful. Ejiofor maintains Northup’s stoicism with a glint in his eyes revealing his intellect and education. We see him studying others and learning as he goes. Fassbender is fierce, provocative, and terrifying as the plantation man. He is as unforgiving as he is predictable in his rules and punishments, until drink or his alienated wife (Sarah Paulson) intervene. Epps’ complicated relationship with his slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) determines much of what comes to pass on his property. He admires her for her ability to pick more cotton than anyone and he is attracted to her. How this scars the mind of a man who holds her in bondage as an animal we can only begin to imagine and Fassbender gives us a good look inside. When an ex-overseer, a shamed alcoholic, comes to work the fields, he explains to Northup that a man in such a position has two choices: allow the cognitive dissonance of holding human beings as slaves and endlessly beating them to warp your mind or turn to drink to mask it. Epps does both and pushes himself so far that he eventually gives Patsy such physical scars on her back as he carries in his soul. Nyong’o is heartbreaking in her role of a young caught between two impossible decisions. She can resist Epps and probably be killed eventually or she can succumb to his advances and perhaps one day end up like Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) at a nearby plantation, a woman who has earned an esteemed place by becoming the mistress of her owner.

McQueen’s direction is unflinching. We have never seen brutality of this extent. It is horrifying to witness and will cause many to turn away. But turn away we mustn’t as this is the legacy that we can not escape. Brad Pitt turns up late in the film as a migrant worker from Canada, a philosopher and sympathetic ear to Northup and his ultimate savior. He tells Epps that slavery is a great ill in the United States, one that will not be easily eradicated, and that a day of reckoning is imminent. The Civil War that followed was only the beginning. The reckoning continues as we go on learning how to overcome and move beyond our Holocaust. Movies like this are a big step in the right direction.

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