Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" Is Miserable and Hard to Watch, but That's No Excuse To Miss This Amazing Film

Directed by Steve McQueen, written by John Ridley, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Michael Fassbender - Rated R

A suffering Vader seemed appropriate for this one.

Slavery is a topic ever present in many historical films, but it is rarely given center stage treatment.  Even last year's phenomenal and fun Django Unchained was more of a revenge fantasy than it was a movie about slavery (the fact that it can be described as "fun" should tip you off that it's not a serious take on the institution of slavery).  If Django was fantasy, then 12 Years a Slave is the miserable reality.

12 Years a Slave is the first film in a long time to deal with slavery head-on.  Slavery can be a tricky subject for a film because it can easily delve into a preaching, hackneyed affair.  Another problem with slavery on film of late is the seeming need to include the white perspective of the time period.  It seems that many filmmakers feel that guilt over slavery is so inherent in our culture that they must include some white character in the proceedings to help save the day.  For what would have happened with Django without Dr. Schultz?

12 Years a Slave rises above these problems with ease.  First off, it's based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free family man in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.  Since Northup wrote about his account, the film must follow things from his perspective.  There are still the stereotypical elements of a slave story, such as whipping and sympathetic whites, but it's different because of the perspective.  A story told from the slave's point of view is not an easy story to follow.  It's disjointed and confusing, which is the point.  Solomon Northup became a slave in utter confusion and remained uncertain of his future throughout his ordeal.  In fact, it's unfortunate that he named his account as he did because it gives the audience the knowledge he never had: that he would one day be free again.

Chiwetel Ejiofor handles the uncertainty of Northup's situation perfectly.  Ejiofor is great for all the normal reasons an actor receives praise, but in the quiet moments of the film he truly shines.  12 Years is directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), a director who embraces the awkward, quiet moments in life and allows them to play out on screen.  What this means is that the long moments of waiting or thinking that normally are implied are instead shown.  Ejiofor has to perform through his eyes and his overall expression for many long, tense moments to convey Northup's situation, and he's a natural at it.  His sympathetic eyes not only convey his dire situation, but also make him one of the most sympathetic characters in recent memory.

As easy as it is to root for and get behind Ejiofor's Northup, it's even easier to abhor Michael Fassbender's Epps.  The character of Epps, a drunken, brutal slave owner, is inherently unlikable, but Fassbender brings such realism and deep ferocity to the role that it becomes more than just your standard mean racist.  Fassbender has this look in his eyes throughout the film that you cannot trust.  You know that at any moment he could lose control, and a man in his position is doubly dangerous in such a state.  Both Fassbender and Ejiofor deserve all the awards they will most likely receive.

Another name that should come up for awards is Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey.  Patsey suffers a terrible existence on all fronts, and Nyong'o conveys the strife in a powerful way.  Her performance could easily just be loud sobbing, but, once again, the expression on her face is what makes it stick with you.  You can see misery in her eyes, and that speaks much louder than any sob.  Sarah Paulson as Patsey's torturer (and Epps's wife) does a great job, as well.  The cold hatred is written all over her face.  She is almost as detestable as Fassbender.  Almost.

Performances aside, McQueen contributes in some very important ways.  His shot selection is effective throughout.   Beautiful shots of nature are juxtaposed with the unnatural circumstances of slavery.  The conflict of beauty in nature and hideousness of humanity is constantly present.  This goes for the use of music, too.  Northup is a musician, so he is requested to play the fiddle many times during the film.  During some of these sequences the diegetic sounds coming from Northup's fiddle, which are jovial, are overpowered by the non-diegetic score (courtesy of Hans Zimmer), which has a much more foreboding sound.  The conflicting sounds express the mood of both the time and the film itself.  A good score is supposed to go unnoticed (or so the saying goes), but a brilliant one, when used properly, is not only noticeable, but intricate to the mood and theme of the film.

Despite the conflict expressed in the sound design of the film, the actual world presented was unfortunately normal for the time.  Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film (I suppose this counts as a SPOILER) consists of Northup struggling to breathe after a lynching was halted.  Northup is left trying to keep his feet on the ground while the owner is fetched.  You expect someone to cut him down soon after the lynching is stopped, but the scene goes on for an excruciatingly long time.  As we wait and watch Northup fight to breathe, life goes on.  Kids play; slaves go about their work.  This is "normal."  McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have captured the utter absurdity of a slave-owning society.  A society in which a human life can hang literally by a thread, and hardly anyone seems to notice.  It's upsetting to imagine what can become "normal" in daily life.

Because of the disturbing ideas about humanity and the brutality of slavery, 12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch.  It is a film that needs to be watched, however.  Slavery is all too often glazed over in history.  It's the cause of war, and it's awful, we're told, but how often is it truly thought about?  Of course, a documentary can help you remember the evils of slavery.  Emotion is what makes 12 Years a Slave so great.  This film will not only remind you how terrible humans can be, it will also give you hope.  Solomon Northup mentions many times that he will not "fall into despair" because terrible things cannot last forever.  There is always hope.  It's impossible not to feel something as you watch a man witness and be part of such brutality, yet remain hopeful.  12 Years a Slave is a history lesson, a statement about humanity, and an emotional onslaught all rolled into one.  It is also one of the best films of the year. 

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