12 Years a Slave
How long are you willing to stare into the eyes of a person being beaten near to death?
With Halloween just passed, perhaps you feel your tolerance is fairly high. Each year, studios attempt to get a jaundiced audience to flinch. Surely, our generation is unique for its acceptance of horror and cruelty. Surely, you cannot horrify a generation who have learned to normalize torture, assassination, and endless imprisonment. Surely, this generation can look into that human being’s eyes and endure hearing each crack of the whip.
I found my tolerance to be less than a minute. About the time it would take to read this far.
Director Steven McQueen apparently knows this, and put those terrified eyes in front of mine for nearly 3 minutes.
12 Years a Slave does not delight in violence. It just refuses to look away from it. Unlike the worst Hollywood snuff and torture fantasies pedaled to fright-happy teens each year, McQueen’s movie takes no joy in discomfort, and is mercifully restrained in the amount of blood and bone featured. But it is not squeamish. And worst of all, it is not fantasy. Based on the memoir of a real man, Solomon Northup, and about a real institution, slavery, it does what very few of us wish to do: look it in the eyes.
Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Based upon the account of Solomon Northup (here played with haunting minimalism by Chiwetel Ejiofor) as told to his lawyer, it tells the story of Solomon, a free and successful black family man living in New York state, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. Renamed Platt, Solomon is brutalized and sold from one master to the next, drawing hatred due to his self assurance and intelligence from overseers and masters who expect a docile and humiliated slave. After more than a decade in servitude, he is able to write home and gain his freedom when it is proven that he is a free citizen.
The movie is full of talent, and perhaps overfull. Ejiofor is soulful and quiet, rarely erupting into obvious emotion, instead conveying his anguish mostly through long closeups. Lupita Nyong’o is devastating as a fellow slave who draws the constant violent and sexual attention of the harsh Master Epps (Michael Fassbender), and the harsher vengeance of Mrs. Epps, a steely and terrifying Sarah Paulson.
The rest of the cast has some memorable small parts, like Alfre Woodard as a former slave who now is her master’s mistress, but the cast seems bloated by A-List actors trying to get parts in what will surely be a critical awards success. Benedict Cumberbatch is credible as a morally obtuse “good slave owner”, but other appearances such as Paul Giamati as a slimy slave salesman, and (especially) Brad Pitt, seemed tacked on. Both actors are quite talented, but they turn visceral cinematic moments into gee whiz cameos. I understand Pitt put quite a bit on the line to get this movie made, but showing up at the end as the white guy with a heart of gold (who nevertheless is working at southern plantations despite hating slavery…) really took me out of the moment.
Musically, 12 Years is hit and miss. Hans Zimmer’s score is aptly moving and dramatic, yet indistinguishable from his other works. If you’ve heard him in Inception, you’ve heard him here. A shame, as I expected more nuance. Where the score is at it’s best is in the director’s hands as a counterpoint to the onscreen action. A racially despicable work song is sung first in full frame, and then eerily in the background of the following frames. Likewise, other pieces, many of them violin pieces “played” by Northup, fade into and out of focus as scenes shift from current brutality, to former memories, and back again. One can feel that Solomon‘s fiddle is unfortunately a clunky metaphor the director hopes to get more voltage from than is justified, ultimately.
The cinematography likewise gambles with its impact, though it wins more often than loses. McQueen quickly establishes the use of grueling closeups that last forever, unsettling the audience with an image that just won’t fade away. This is especially true of the scenes of violence, but also of quieter moments. A burnt rescue note smolders on screen for an endless moment, and in one of the most jarring moments, we see the stricken and shell-shocked face of Ejiofor that lasts. And lasts. And lasts. And finally, looks straight through the audience.
There is little doubt that this movie will perform admirably come Oscar time. It is well acted and well scored, despite flaws, and the visual impact of the movie is undeniable. But when you consider the subject matter of this film, of the brutalization of a whole people, it’s hard to care about statuettes. I can’t care less about how many awards it takes. Rather, will this movie change minds?
Comparing this film to previous attempts to discuss slavery, I feel that 12 Years a Slave will end up being seen as one of the two or three top films on the subject. Obvious Oscar attempts such as Amistad and Lincoln hardly compare to the serious contemplation of the terrible institution found here. They focus too much on the role of admirable white men. Eventually, McQueen’s film will be discussed with such iconic efforts as Glory and, more importantly, Roots. Though I feel Haley’s miniseries will remain the defining depiction of slavery on film, 12 Years is certainly the most mature and unflinching look taken in my generation.
And back to my generation.
I feel, perhaps due to intense conceit, that this film is uniquely aimed at a modern audience. It’s hard to pull punches, or to ignore the echoes of racial animosity found nearly 200 years ago. The movie takes pains to show the good pious natures of men who read scripture to the enslaved people they are about to literally work to death. In a “post-racial” America, “founded on Christian values” as many of our laziest pundits announce, how can we ignore the culture of acceptable racial violence we inhabit? What of the political animus aimed at a black president? The easy taking and imprisoning and torturing of other peoples? It may seem crass, but has slavery become a metaphor for our current social order? Is that acceptable? Is it unfair to either our generation or the generation that actually had to suffer this blight? I cannot answer. But I think, I cannot look away.