12 Years, Brillant Filmmaking
“12 Years a Slave” is director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography of his kidnapping in Washington D.C as a free man and deportation to Louisiana as a slave. The movie is a brutal and unrelenting tale of Mr. Northup’s ordeal. Mr. McQueen has made a strong film and a unique one at that. There have been relatively few movies that realistically examine the machinery of slavery and its brutality.
It is hard to believe that fourteen years into the twenty-first century there has not been an American film with slavery as the focal point of its story. There have been many films about human destructiveness towards one another, specifically the Holocaust. But the realities of American slavery have not been filmed in such minute detail as Mr. McQueen has done with this film. Part of the problem in a movie narrative is that the gradual destruction of the body and spirit does not make for a movie must-see. Holocaust movies usually lead toward salvation. The bad guys are eventually defeated and the victims are set free.
A movie about slavery does not end in a battle that brings the perpetrators to justice or sets the oppressed free. The beginning of the end of slavery was fought on the battlefield and away from the cotton fields. Afterwards, the rights of black Americans grinded through the malaise of the justice system. Trying to fit in such a struggle within a hundred-and-twenty-minute time frame is a challenge the movie studios didn’t feel a need to take up. In order for an audience to sit through the brutality there must be a pay off at the end. Mr. Northup’s memoir is the vehicle for which we can venture into a world of which we have never really seen up close while knowing by the end there will be an escape.
Solomon is played with equal parts sensitivity, fear and rage by the English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Mr. Ejiofor conveys each moment of his nightmarish ordeal as an educated man who knows he’s the subject of a huge mistake. When he realizes that circumstances are beyond his control he tries to adapt. He learns quickly not to tell anyone he is a free black man with a family in New York. He takes to heart advice given from an escaped slave on how to survive. Solomon is not used to just surviving, he is used to living. But when he goes through the process of having his named changed to Pratt while being sold he alters his goal and keeps his head down, does the work and survives.
Mr. McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridley have provided a rare look at the hierarchy of plantation life. There are slaves who are favored by the whites and that doesn’t sit well with the others. Some of the black women attract the attentions of the plantation owners which in turn provoke the wraith of the white women. It is a complicated maze of which must be navigated prudently. Mr. Ridley has done a nice job of introducing us to this complex world of irrationality without losing focus on the narrative.
Mr. McQueen made the interesting choice of hiring named actors to play the major white roles. I’m sure this had something to do with getting such a film made and distributed but I also think it compromised the emotional impact of many scenes. Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Micheal Fassenbender, Bennedict Cummberbatch and Brad Pitt are fine in their roles. Playing characters who grease the cogs of slavery their scenes should be draining, but their familiar faces keep that from happening. Mr. Giamatti may have done everything Mr. McQueen asked of him- treating his prisoners like cattle- but in his scenes his familiarity is a distraction. The same could be said of Mr. Dano as an overseer. There is no familiarity with any of the slaves- with the exception of Alfre Woodard (but her scene wasn’t written for emotional impact)- and that increases the stakes of their scenes. Even Mr. Pitt becomes a distraction against the realistic set-up that Mr. McQueen has done a wonderful job of creating.
The actress Lupita Nyong'o plays the slave Patsey and she is the most authentic part of the film. Her hope, fear and sadness take over each of her scenes. The same works with Sarah Paulson, who plays Mistress Epps, the Lady of the plantation. Mrs. Epps’ jealousies over her husband’s attention toward Patsey causes her to unleash her cruelty on the slave. Her scenes work because Paulson’s face is not as familiar as her co-stars.
Surprisingly, Mr. Fassbender does not elicit the same emotion. He has a role comparable with that of Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List.” The difference, although both men are caricatures of evil, is that whenever Mr. Fiennes is on the screen he elicits fear. There is a moment in the film when he believes it’s more powerful to forgive than to kill. Uncertainty hovers around him in every scene. Mr. Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, on the other hand, flies into a rage in every scene. There is no complexity surrounding him.
Nevertheless, “12 Years a Slave” is a memorable film. It is a film that’s been a long time coming. It tells a very American story that reexamines a time most would like to forget but mustn’t.