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For Your Consideration: '12 Years a Slave'

If the Ionarts poll for Best Movie of the Year (vote before the Academy Awards, at the top of the sidebar) is to be believed, the Best Picture award is going to come down to Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. The latter should have an edge because it has double appeal to the Academy as a historical drama that also touches on an important politico-social issue. It is also just a better film, if we set aside Gravity's cinematographic wizardry, in which categories Gravity will likely win big. 12 Years is based on the life of an actual person, Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., where slavery was legal, and sold into captivity on the false claim that he was an escaped slave. Northup spent twelve years as a slave on various plantations in Louisiana, before he was able to get word to his family and friends of his whereabouts. Northup was one of the few people kidnapped into slavery this way who actually managed to escape.

The story is not unknown, having been adapted for television in the 1980s, but it has been made into a frank and incisive screenplay by screenwriter John Ridley. To do so involved sifting through some historical background: the book on which the movie is based was written mostly by a white lawyer, David Wilson, who interviewed Solomon Northup about his time as a slave. Director Steve McQueen, the British video artist who directed two unflinching feature films in Hunger and Shame, does not shy away from the repulsive realities of slavery. At the same time, he does not go over the edge, as Quentin Tarantino did in Django Unchained, into the realm of fetishized violence, which pushed that film, after about its midpoint, from hard-nosed tragedy into parody. McQueen and his cast manage to make all of those complicit in the ownership of human beings seem repugnant, those who treat their slaves in a more kindly way, for their vile hypocrisy, and those who are brutal, for their appalling sadism.

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12 Years a Slave (directed by Steve McQueen)
Michael Fassbender, whose work with McQueen in both Hunger and Shame has been incendiary, is terrifying as the vicious plantation owner Edwin Epps, not because he seems inhuman, although he is, but because he makes the viewer sympathize with him, a person whose violence and cruelty should be beyond compassion (again, unlike Leonard DiCaprio in Django). As Patsey, the young woman who is both the best cotton picker on the plantation and, perversely, the object of Epps's sexual predation, Lupita Nyong'o has a breakout performance, equal parts frailty and unbounded endurance. Both Fassbender and Nyong'o were nominated for Best Supporting awards by the Academy, and both are the best performances in their category. The same cannot be said of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who struck me as an actor who had the extraordinary good fortune to walk into the role of a lifetime, rather than one who compelled me to watch what he was doing, so the award for Best Actor seems more likely for Bruce Dern (Nebraska) or Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club). The Best Picture tide could carry along McQueen, who was nominated as Best Director.

McQueen's strength as a filmmaker up to this point, besides his artist's eye for color and composition, was his independence as a Hollywood outsider. The low point of 12 Years was the sanctimonious cameo of Brad Pitt, who also gets a credit as producer, as the Canadian carpenter who agrees to carry word of Solomon's plight to his family, at considerable personal risk. The character is based on the actual person who saved Northup, but the words he speaks and the conversation he has with Solomon, in Pitt's faux-profound tone (actor, meet soapbox), just rang false. Likewise, the screenwriter's refusal to pare down his cast of characters felt at least partly like the opportunity to include lots of cameo roles. Highlights include the genteel slave owner of Benedict Cumberbatch (is there anything he was not in last year?), Paul Giamatti as the slave dealer who sells Solomon, Liza Bennett and Sarah Paulson as plantation mistresses. By casting its net wide, the film has a vast scope, of time and experiences, but at the same time it can feel diffuse. Its likely win as Best Picture will have more to do with the political issues upon which it touches (about which few would argue).

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