Monday, January 27, 2014

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2013: 12 Years a Slave

 Unless he's got a light-hearted comedy lined up next, I don't think anybody is ever going to accuse Steve McQueen of making easy movies to watch. That is not to say that Hunger, Shame, and now 12 Years a Slave are not also excellent movies, but you should prepare yourself in every instance for an emotionally draining experience. McQueen makes, stark, unflinching, visceral cinema - films that are as rewarding as they are difficult to endure, and 12 Years a Slave might take the cake. In Hunger, McQueen gave audiences a front and center view of an IRA hunger strike; in Shame, he dropped us in on the meaningless existence of a sex addict. In 12 Years a Slave, he returns to the realm of "based on a true story," and adapts the story of Solomon Northrup, a free man falsely imprisoned and forced into slavery.

 Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in upstate New York with his wife and family as a free man. His violin and fiddle skills draw the attention of Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam), who work for a carnival and offer Solomon a hefty payday to join them in Washington, D.C. to perform with them. While in D.C., they get Northrup drunk and sell him to a slave trader, who then sends him on a riverboat to New Orleans. Solomon is sold to the ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), a slave dealer whose mercy "extends only to the end of a coin," and who renames Northrup "Platt." Thus begins his odyssey of life as a slave, in a world where no one cares Solomon was (or is) a free man, and where dignity is often punished.

 "Platt" spends the next twelve years with three owners: the first is the cowardly William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who recognizes that Solomon is more than merely a slave but who is too afraid to stand up against the societal norms in the South. He appreciates Solomon's ingenuity and gives him a violin, but when Ford's carpenter Tibeats (Paul Dano) takes exception, he does little to curtail his abuse of Platt. When Solomon can take no more and lashes out at Tibeats, he's strung up and left hanging, with just the tips of his toes touching the ground, and would be dead save for the fact that Ford is summoned. Nevertheless, if the movie to this point hadn't driven into you how callous life is for slaves (including the point where Liza J. Bennett, as Ford's wife, sends one of the women away because being separated from her children is making her cry), the long sequence of Northrup hanging, desperately trying to keep his feet on solid ground, will. As Solomon slowly rotates, life on the plantation continues as it would any other day, and all of the other slaves do their best to ignore him hanging there. It's better that way for everybody.

 When Ford finally returns and cuts Solomon down, he's less relieved to have saved his life and more frustrated at what "Platt" has done. Now he has no choice but to sell him in order to prevent Tibeats from bringing a lynch mob to his home, and the only man that would take a renegade slave is the loathsome Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder). Like Ford, Epps considers himself to be a man of God, who quotes the Bible to justify his right to own and to hold dominion over his property. He beats his slaves, demeans them, and takes a special interest in Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), much to the disgust of his wife (Sarah Paulson). Patsey becomes a pawn in their increasingly harsh war of words, and Platt discovers that life under the vindictive Tibeats was nothing compared to what Epps is willing to subject his property to daily.

 There is no respite, no moment of calm in 12 Years a Slave that is not followed by something more horrible than the last. Solomon finds no one he can trust, including a shamed worked named Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) who takes Platt's earnings from a sugar plantation owner (Bryan Batt) and promptly tells Epps. When it appears he might be free from Epps and in the hands of the more moderate Judge Turner (Batt), who also appreciates his violin skills, Northrup is pulled back into the mind games and brutality of the Epps farm, and for nothing greater than a bar of soap is forced to do something unthinkable to Patsey, in what is arguably the most difficult scene to watch in 12 Years a Slave. By the end, we feel a sense of relief, but not of joy so much as of emotional exhaustion, as Mr. Moon (Tony Bentley) finds him in the cotton fields and takes him home, while Epps curses them for stealing his "property." Even the final title cards rob us of any actual satisfaction of having endured this plight, based on the actual experiences of Solomon Northrup: the last card tells us that no one knows the details of where, when, or how Solomon died, only that his legal case against Brown and
Hamilton was unsuccessful because he was forbidden to testify in Washington, D.C.

 I suggested in last year's review of Django Unchained that perhaps the film's popularity had something to do with a "white guilt revenge fantasy" on the part of Quentin Tarantino, and I'm still not sure that isn't the case. 12 Years a Slave is a stark contrast from the perspective of a British filmmaker, with a a cast whose leads are primarily non-American. Much had been made leading up to the release of the film about whether that contributed to the frank portrayal of slavery, without many of the contrivances one would expect, but I would chiefly attribute that to John Ridley's screenplay and McQueen's direction. If you are in the least bit familiar with Hunger or Shame, you should know going in what to expect of his depiction of slavery in the South.

 The cast is uniformly impressive, even though half of them play the most disgusting examples of humanity you'll see on screen. Chiwetel Ejiofor is on screen most of 12 Years a Slave, and his quiet desperation to cling on to Solomon's dignity, to not give up or cave in, is something to marvel at. When he finally cracks, the scene is heartbreaking, but he pushes forward. Cumberbatch has moments of a spine as Ford: he calls out Freeman's callous decision to split up a family but goes no further to stop it, but his role in the film is minimal. Dano specializes in playing petty, weasel-y scumbags, and he's so good at it that you hate Tibeats the moment you see him.

 Much of 12 Years a Slave is a three person drama between Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong'o, with Paulson on the wings, waiting to interject in critical scenes. Fassbender is a study of horrors, a righteous, libidinous mess of a man, who bellows and beats and emotionally manipulates as is his wont. He's a study in contrast from his quiet desperation in Hunger and his charming but hollow Lothario in Shame. As Patsey Nyong'o is asked to shoulder much of the suffering in the mid-sections of 12 Years a Slave, and does so admirably without resorting to overacting. She plays it right down the middle, afraid to say too much but with enough boldness from Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) to end up where she does over a bar of soap. Her last scene with Solomon mirrors an earlier scene where "Platt" watches a man he befriended leave Freeman with his "rightful" owners, and we as an audience shudder to think what lies in her future with Epps.

 If there's a false note in the entire film, or at least one that stands out among the other excellent performances, it's the presence of producer Brad Pitt as Bass, the Canadian carpenter who agrees to deliver Solomon's letter to his family and the authorities in New York. It's not that Pitt does anything wrong, to speak of, but his presence draws attention away from the story. With Legends of the Fall hair and an Amish beard, Pitt's Canadian has a strangely Southern drawl and represents the only character in the film opposed to slavery. While Samuel Bass was a real person and he did, in fact, help Solomon Northrup deliver his letter to Saratoga Springs, the sudden appearance of Brad Pitt late in the film does disrupt the verisimilitude McQueen works so hard to establish.

 Beyond that, I have no qualms about saying that 12 Years a Slave is a powerful film. Difficult to watch? Absolutely. There's an intense effort to avoid any sentimentalization of Solomon's plight, to eschew any of the uplifting beats an audience would need to feel comfortable watching this story, and the pervasive despair is palpable. I disagree with Armond White's dismissal of 12 Years a Slave as "torture porn" (a position that ended with the long time contrarian reviewer being expelled from the New York Film Critics Circle earlier this month), in large part because there is no relish to be taken in the violence of this film. This is slightly closer to a reality often washed over, or as close as any Hollywood version of slavery could be. It's a reminder of where we've been, and like Hunger, where we are now. Sometimes, it needs to be difficult to face that, and sometimes that difficulty is what makes it necessary for us to do so. 12 Years a Slave comes highly recommended, but you should come in knowing that it won't be a pleasant two hours, and that's a good thing.

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