Friday, May 9, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen.
2013. Rated R, 134 minutes.
Lupita Nyong'o

It's 1841 in Saratoga Springs, New York and Solomon Northrup leads a somewhat idyllic life. He is a free black man living with his wife and children and interacting with whites as a near equal. He is also known around town as a excellent violinist. When a couple of out-of-towners offer him a job playing in their traveling show, he takes them up on it. Assured they'll go no further south than, Washington DC things seem to be going well when he goes to a celebratory dinner with his new benefactors. However his world is turned completely upside down when he wakes up in chains, is taking below the Mason-Dixon line and sold into slavery. Based on the real Solomon Northup's autobiography of the same name.

There is one word that I've seen used repeatedly to describe this movie. That word is visceral. The reason I keep seeing it is because it is an entirely accurate description. Every epithet hurled and whip cracked is both physically and emotionally jarring. Each indignation is repulsive. The shame of it all is that this is as much American history as any story that could possibly be told. It depicts the roots of problems we're still dealing with all these years later and it does so unflinchingly.

To make it all work, we need totally committed performances. There can be no a moment where any actor appears even the least bit unsure of his/her character's situation in this world. Throughout the movie there are none. As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a man who cannot hide his sophistication in spite of his circumstances, and is powerless to change them. His frustration bleeds into every frame, none more than when he is forced to administer the punishment of a fellow slave. However, he still tries to see the good in people and appeal to that side of them. As you might imagine, the results aren't always pleasant.

As good as Ejiofor is, the performance that makes the movie is Michael Fassbender's as Master Epps. For quite a bit of the film's run time, everything that happens is either his own action or a reaction to him. He is a man who fully believes what he is doing is divinely right. Without even a hint of doubt, Fassbender brings this across with such assuredness that is downright frightening. Playing a less empowered, slightly less scary version is Paul Dano. That he is less scary is not a function of his acting which is excellent, but of his role as someone a bit further down the food chain.

Of course, we can't conclude any discussion of the acting in this movie without giving serious consideration to the work done by Lupita Nyong'o. She became a media darling even before winning the Best Supporting Actress for her work here. She plays Patsey who is something of a star slave on Epps' plantation. She picks more than twice as much cotton as any man on a daily basis. As such she is his favorite. Her reward? He oddly dotes on her and rapes her from time to time. In his own very twisted way, he cares for her. This makes the cruelty she endures feel even worse than it does when suffered by others. Nyoug'o masterfully brings this to life. It is actually Patsey, not Solomon, who gets the lion's share of our sympathy. What happened to Solomon is undeniably cruel and unjust. What happens to Patsey is even beyond that. Much of it is done upon the encouragement of Mary, Epps' wife, in an under-appreciated performance by Sarah Paulson. She has a coldness that permeates the screen whenever she appears. what makes her such an important figure is that she is the one person who bends Epps to do her bidding. She holds a demented moral authority over him. Paulson completely owns this every time she comes into the picture.

Enabling these actors to disappear into the roles, and more than believably reconstructing the world as it was in the mid-nineteenth century, is director Steve McQueen. I've already mentioned how he doesn't let his camera flinch. More impressively, he places it in very intimate positions. The viewer is not just seeing the atrocities take place but feeling them. Making us feel them, no matter how uncomfortable we might get is clearly the goal. This is why he frames the story in a manner that forces us to deal with Patsey's plight, as well as Solomon's. Even as the movie ends, McQueen's still hasn't let us off the hook. It's an effective move. A friend of mine, both of us African American, watched 12 Years a Slave weeks before I did. He immediately texted me that he didn't like it much. Its not that he thought it was bad. It just put him in a bad place. He was infuriated by the visual reminder of the unbridled cruelty of slavery. My response? Dude, that's kind of the point.


  1. Good review Dell. I wasn't as hot on this as everybody else was, however, I do respect it as a movie that has a vision, a very bleak one at that, and doesn't back down from it at all.

    1. Backing down is one thing it certainly doesn't do. Thanks!