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Friday, November 1, 2013
MOVIE REVIEW 12 Years A
Embracing Humanity's Better Angels Amidst Its Worst
Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve
McQueen's epic drama "12 Years A Slave". Fox
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
"Days ago I was with my family in my home, now you're telling me all is lost?
I'm a free man, I'm not a slave." Those words, spoken with sorrow and
incredulity by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), crystallize the tenuous
standing in America blacks had in 1841 and still do, in Steve McQueen's "12
Years A Slave". This penetrating, visceral film is an instant American
classic, an astounding, authentic and raw vision of America's original sin of
slavery. The film grabs your soul and drags it through the alternating
Heavens and Hells of humanity. We're given front-row seats to razor-thin
lines between love and hate, freedom and bondage, family and strangers, life and
In the extinguishing of a candle flame and a blink of an eye, "12 Years A
Slave", presented as a jumbled whirlwind of masochist corporeal evils as a
silent narration in Mr. Northup's head, shows how frighteningly easy it is for
one's physical being and identity to be possessed and eradicated. We watch in stunned, angered disbelief as Solomon does, and ask:
how could this happen? The abrupt change in Hans Zimmer's music score to
ominous and nightmarish and
the look in the eye of a white male as he trains it on and drinks with Solomon
during a banquet early on, are chilling portent.
Solomon Northup, a middle-class educated freeman and violinist in Saratoga, New
York in 1841, is our eyes, functioning for the film as a 21st century outsider
fully immersed in yet disengaged from the horrors, existential and brutal,
inflicted on and around him. In a dungeon a mile from what will years
later be Barack Obama's White House, Solomon proclaims, "I'm a free man."
Chains and vicious beatings insist otherwise. It's this enmeshing of
bewildering psychology and brutalizing physicality that persists in "12 Years A
Slave" and all of Mr. McQueen's film work. The body and its wounding are a
central focus, whether in "Hunger" (Irish Republican Army prisoner hunger
"Shame" (sexual self-destruction).
Interposition of bodies form "12 Years's" deeper subtextual language. In a
film replete with scenes consisting of three people, a white person almost
always stands between Solomon and another white enslaver or overseer. This
"buffer" person is a proxy for Solomon and us as viewers. In 1857, four
years after Solomon Northup's freedom is regained, U.S. Supreme Court Chief
Justice Roger Taney, in the Dred Scott slave case, said blacks "had no rights
which the white man was bound to respect", and "12 Years A Slave" illustrates
this with scenes of repeated vouching for blacks by whites.
3/5 of a person under the U.S. Constitution,
were of the Ralph Ellison school: invisible. Whites argued over bystanding
blacks as property. Those blacks entertained them in an empty world of
artificial superiority. As yet another white man, a former overseer,
betrays Solomon's trust, maniacal slave master Edwin Epps (an excellent Michael Fassbender) says, "if he weren't free and white." Solomon's lies about his
betrayer have saved him from certain death. It's a psychotic America of
such invertedness, perversion and viciousness, with the Civil War to come.
The betrayals of Solomon are a metaphor for blacks' unsteady but unyielding
trust in America, a trust often repaid by what Dr. Martin Luther King once
described as "a bounced check marked 'insufficient funds'". Blacks are
arguably America's most patriotic citizens given the continuous eviscerations of
their personhood, delegitimization and rejection by the country they love, one
they were forcibly taken to. "There were 700,000 slaves in the United
States at its birth. They had no rights and no power. Yet they were
determined to hold America to its ideals."
The last part of that quote, by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., the
film's consultant, is exactly what Solomon and others do in "12 Years A Slave":
appeal to the conscience of a nation in the 1840s: namely white slave masters,
often while beaten to within an inch of their lives. The word "America" is
never mentioned in "12 Years A Slave" and it's no accident: this was
America. (Where would America be now without the restraint by blacks
throughout its brief history, Tulsa race riots, Jackie Robinson, Emmett Till,
16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Civil Rights Movement, etc., in the face of
persistent violence and death?)
Epps, a racist whose illogic feeds his false sense of self-grandeur and
entitlement, devastates a race of people in the name of business. "A man
does how he pleases with his property," Epps says, appealing to prevailing law.
The enslavement of blacks is nothing personal for him; it's natural law made out
of the cotton cloth he wears that blacks have died picking. Yet at the
same time it's very personal for Epps. Epps loves what he hates as he
craves Patsey (a magnificent Lupita Nyong'o), a slave woman who picks 500 pounds
of cotton daily, more than anyone else. Epps, a rapist, hates himself, not
for his evils but for loving Patsey. A white man whose education, like
that of other whites of the time and in the film, is far beneath that of
Solomon's, Epps asks, "why does God hate me so?"
Mr. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley expertly weave Mr. Northup's real-life
narrative into the most detailed and compelling film about enslavement I've
seen. Indoctrination and perversions of Biblical scripture, Native
Americans and more are included, as are how to cut canes. This fabric of
layered components of slavery, tactile and otherwise, form trivial backdrops in
so many films. Thankfully the filmmakers are committed to its centrality
here. You can't escape the dankness (represented in Sean Bobbitt's
marvelous cinematography.) You can't erase the wretchedness, the darkness
representing obliteration of a soul and a people, or the raw, vitriol, evil and
pain of a sudden whipping, lynching, stabbing or scratching.
We're put in an epic headspace of horror, sadness and anger as Solomon, a
shining light, resolutely and passionately portrayed by Mr. Ejiofor, endures and
stands firm, in a shrewd, multilayered performance. Solomon will defy and
desecrate, all in the name of survival. "I will not fall into despair," he
vows in a stirring moment. Solomon Northup's place in American history
should be cemented with Frederick Douglass's or Harriet Tubman's or Sojourner
Truth's. We are told that the time and manner of Mr. Northup's death and
its circumstances are unknown. His legacy, and countless others, is akin
to a later, no less powerful story of pain, courage and endurance, than that of
Fassbender as Epps and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's
"12 Years A Slave". FoxSearchlight
"12 Years A Slave" is a blunt, violent film, matter-of-fact in its dispatch, as
well it should be, considering its subject. It is also a remarkably humane
film, which bursts with music, song and pastoral splendor. Some white
characters, in their cruelest words and behaviors towards blacks, have a
fascination with, appraisal of or admiration for them. A slave auctioneer
(Paul Giamatti) says with gaiety and excitement of the black people he's about
to sell and disrupt: "she's a fine beauty", "look at him, he's perfect."
This is before he sharply utters, "my sentimentality extends the length of a
coin." Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a slave master who initially has
ownership of Solomon in New Orleans, tells his new "slave" solemnly and in dour
patronizing fashion, "I believe that you are an exceptional nigger but I worry
that you won't amount to anything."
After inquiring about his reading skills Mistress Epps (a terrific Sarah
Paulson) says with bland interest to Solomon, "any more will earn you a hundred
lashes." Those words hang in the musty, volatile Southern air, perhaps as
veiled sexual innuendo. A bloodless presence, Miss Epps gently brushes at
the hips of her immaculate white dress after saying them. Out of hate
comes love. Out of love, hate. "You only hurt the ones you love,"
some say. This is an uncomfortable realization in the face of sustained,
extreme subjugation of a race of people over centuries, but full credit to Mr.
McQueen (who calls his film "a film about love") for giving voice to the
complexities of emotion that accompanied the atrocity of slavery. In doing
so the director makes the stakes higher and those involved more achingly human.
"12 Years A Slave", about blacks and whites and the kinds of choices they made
to preserve themselves if not their sanity amidst the most oppressive of eras in
America, isn't so black and white.
Mr. McQueen maps out the varied degrees to those authors or survivors in this
shame of American history. There are slave master types, from the
benevolent Ford, a man whose need to survive is strictly economic, to the
malevolent Epps, a greedy, conflicted and wolfish figure. The director
traces dimensions of the relationships between black men and women, and the
evisceration of the black family (portrayed in a heart-wrenching scene featuring
"Pariah".) Mr. McQueen captures different classes and
sisterhoods between Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), an ex-slave who now lives in
the plantation house and is the love of her slave master, and Patsey, whose lone
sin is to obtain soap from the very same plantation house. Soap won't
clean her resulting wounds.
Some question the recent plethora of biopics and period films about blacks (this
year "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom",
The Butler" among others) as relegating blacks and black film
subjects to the safety of past history instead of having more films showing
That's a misnomer. Such films have their place and are necessary to inform
the current day by engaging a recent past in a very young America. "12
Years A Slave" achieves this while coming vividly alive in the present.
Often, at least when done correctly, films set in the historic past are far more
edifying about the here and now, more vital than those films about present day
vestiges of a previous condition. "The past," William Faulkner once said,
"is never dead. It's not even past."
To that point, dialogue between various characters in "12 Years A Slave" is pure
philosophical debate as if spoken in a modern-day voice. Unlike the 2012
Unchained", where whites were the sole advocates for or against
slavery, the discussion of the enslavement of blacks in "12 Years A Slave" sees
blacks as active participants in that conversation. Some of it could be
spoken on stage in a Shakespeare play.
One of the film's most moving scenes features the white abolitionist Bass (Brad
Pitt), who speaks the elementary and obvious truths we've waited for someone to
say. His words are a calming, gigantic emotional exhale: "No doubt about
it, there must be freedom for white and black alike . . . I can walk out of here
a free man, and I take great pleasure in that." It's a direct reference to
a current America where blacks are followed and detained in delis (Forest
Whitaker) or stores, regardless of if they've bought something (Barneys
and Macy's) or whether they're "driving while black", or, in
Trayvon Martin's fatal case, walking.
Bass, a Canadian, taps into a truism white men and women in America will never
experience: their very physical presence inspires fear or a need for American
society to criminalize them as a group, or worse, kill them. And do so
Bass poses the film's most compelling question to Epps but to whites in the
audience: "what if tomorrow a law is passed depriving you of your freedom?"
Epps answers by rebuffing the inquiry in a racist, arrogant way, the way some
indignant whites today tell blacks to "get over it" when blacks protest or
express outrage at continuing racial injustices (Mr. Martin,
Marissa Alexander) or offenses,
systemic, everyday judicial inconsistencies or reluctances to investigate (Kendrick
buried without half of his internal organs) or baseline abuses (Julianne
Hough), U.S. Supreme Court rollbacks (section
5 of the Voting Rights Act) or other daily unjust U.S. state laws
("stop and frisk", "stand your ground".)
R-rated film is required viewing for all, and in school trips to theaters,
though I'd start with children as young as eight. (Mr. Northup's book
should be mandatory reading.) Every generation or so a grand, impassioned
film comes along to defines an era. "12 Years A Slave" is that
exceptional, indispensible film, a lesson for our times.
This year some films have chronicled the black male body under assault in
America or elsewhere via the U.S. government, police or citizens:
Station", "The Butler" and, to an extent,
Phillips". Mr. McQueen's film joins this quartet. Each,
based on real life events, exhibits the fragility of blacks' standing in
America, even the president's, a man continuously under attack. The
general state of the union of blacks in America today sees them perched
precariously, heads held high, feet not quite firmly planted on the ground.
A disturbing, lingering image of Solomon, while the surrounding world
obliviously passes, ignores or watches him, symbolizes this contemporary feeling
of unease in blacks, especially black men, in a violent, unsettling way.
It's one of several trademark long-take images Mr. McQueen asks us to ponder and
After a recent screening of Mr. McQueen's film a white woman in an packed
elevator in which I was the only black person, said, "I'm glad it had a happy
ending." As she said this I asked myself, "did it?" What was so
happy about regaining something that should never have been taken in the first
Also with: Michael Kenneth Williams, Kelsey Scott, Dwight Henry, Scoot McNairy,
Garret Dillahunt, Bill Camp, Paul Dano, Tarran Killam, Quvenzhané Wallis, Chris
Chalk, Christopher Berry, Scott M. Jefferson.
"12 Years A Slave", which expanded its release across the U.S. and
Canada today, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America
for violence, cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. The
film's running time is two hours and 14 minutes.
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