Friday, November 01, 2013
Now opening at a theater near me today, that is, exclusively in Raleigh at the Rialto Theater:
12 YEARS A SLAVE
(Dir. Steve McQueen, 2013)
12 YEARS A SLAVE, the third full length feature by 44-year old British filmmaker Steve McQueen, is going to be the movie that everybody feels that they absolutely have to see this season. But don’t go mistaking it for just another piece of big issue Oscar bait, for it’s a powerfully personal story driven by an exemplary performance that movie-goers will benefit greatly from experiencing.
The British born Chiwetel Ejiofor has shown he’s got the actorly goods before in numerous movie and television roles, but here he works his worry lines like never before as Solomon Northup, a New York native who was born free but kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
The film, based on the real life Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same name, focuses without shuddering on Northup, renamed Platt by his abductors, as he tries to survive unspeakable conditions for over a decade on a Louisiana cotton plantation.
Ejiofor’s Northup would get beaten, brutally lashed, if he protests that he’s not a slave so he resigns himself to the misery of the hand he’s been dealt, and, despite the movie posters showing him on the run, largely doesn’t try to escape (on an errand he take off through the woods at one point but runs into some evil white men hanging slaves and thinks the better of it).
McQueen (wish he’d use a middle initial or something so people would stop asking me if he’s *THE* Steve McQueen) populates his film with recognizable actor folk like Paul Giamatti as a cold slave trader, Benedict Cumberbatch as a slave owning preacher, Paul Dano as a particularly abusive foreman, and Michael Fassbender as the worst of the worst slave drivers who constantly refers to Northup and his people only as his “property.”
All the white people aren’t evil however as Cumberbatch appears to have some compassion, and Brad Pitt (one of the film’s co-producers) shows up as a wizened Canadian carpenter and abolitionist, who just may be able to help Northup out.
Aided by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who shot the director’s previous films, McQueen makes use of long takes and lingers on some shots in a effectively stirring manner that makes us feel what our poor protagonist is going through intensely. One scene, in which Dano strings up and attempts to lynch Northup, has our suffering lead left dangling with only the tips of his toes touching the ground as the other slaves continue their daily activities quietly behind him.
These harsh incidents are indeed hard to watch, but to fully appreciate the severity of what went down they are a vital necessity. Elements such as Adepero Oduye as one of Ejiofor’s fellow slaves crying uncontrollably over being separated from her children from one scene to the next are as harrowing and haunting as cinema can possibly achieve. Fassbender, who previously starred in McQueen’s SHAME, embodies a creature of pure cruelty so convincingly that you can feel the audience’s hatred of him in full force. There won’t be much sympathy for Sarah Paulson as his wife either, for she’s a wretched piece of wrong-minded menace as well.
Folks may compare it last year’s DJANGO UNCHAINED, but while they may share similar subject matter and may equal each other in the heavy abundance of the use of the “N-word,” Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist revenge fantasy was a cartoon compared to McQueen’s heartfelt and heartbreaking work here with its blindingly faithful to reality rawness.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is McQueen’s best film and one of the best of the year by far. It demands to be seen and felt by everybody who is unafraid to see and feel how somebody can endure such Hellish torture, and survive to tell their tale. It can seem like ancient history, especially as we now have a black President, but here we are reminded that it really wasn't that long ago that there were these horrible conditions in our country, and the repercussions of these injustices are still largely felt to this day. As Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
It seems these days, the only way to even begin to get past such horrors is to fully acknowledge them. The unflinchingly honest 12 YEARS A SLAVE is here to make it even harder to look the other way.