Friday, November 1, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW 12 Years A Slave
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 Searchlight


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, November 1, 2013

"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 death.

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 strike) or "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. 

Blacks, labeled 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 Anne Frank. 

Michael 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 Adepero Oduye, "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", "Lee Daniels' The Butler" among others) as relegating blacks and black film subjects to the safety of past history instead of having more films showing today's blacks.  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 films "Lincoln" and "Django 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 without redress.

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 Johnson, 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".) 

Mr. McQueen's 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: "42", "Fruitvale Station", "The Butler" and, to an extent, "Captain 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 absorb.

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 place?

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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