12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen

 

Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, it recounts the story of Northup, a free black carpenter and musician living in upstate New York, who gets kidnapped and illegally sold as a slave to the south for twelve years.

Solomon Northup is the role of a lifetime and Chiwitel Ejiofor delivers it in full, leaving the viewer in moments of shock, fear and awe. Solomon’s inner conflict between resisting his new slave identity to the sad eventual acceptance is all communicated through Ejiofor’s face and body, as he is forbidden to speak. And it is in witness of terrible things, we see Solomon grasping tight onto his own values and dignity that makes his situation all the more endearing. It is impressive how we can see what Ejiofor is thinking in every moment. There is noteworthy long take where Solomon quietly contemplates his own fate, his eyes slowly look towards the camera and it struck me dead still. Even though Matthew McConaughey is still my pick for the Oscar this year, it’s going to be ultimately between McConaughey and Chiwitel Ejiofor.

Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is one of the most despicable evil onscreen characters in recent memory and probably for the ages. Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and Benedict Cumberbatch all give fine supporting performances. What dark nether place the Caucasian actors are going mentally to breathe life into playing slavers is unfathomable. It is quite a sight to behold that level of evil being performed.

As producer, Brad Pitt didactically shows up in a small part to say the entire point of the story. While good in the part, Pitt’s appearance seems for more political reasons than purely for story reasons. It is not big enough of a problem to say he is miscast, but some may find it hokey or jarring.

Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is spectacular as Epp’s most prized slave Patsy, capable of picking five hundred pounds of cotton per day, but the achievement brings her more harm than relief. What happens to Patsy is even more heartbreaking than Solomon’s situation. Because of this, Nyong’o becomes the heart of the story in the latter half, as she represents the majority of slaves who were never free to begin with and never will be. Nyong’o is my pick for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.

The physical violence is hard to watch. However, the non-violent scenes offer an insight not prevalent in other slave films, answering Quentin Tarantino’s proposed question “Why don’t slaves just kill their masters and escape in the middle of the night?” from Django Unchained. Steve McQueen gets beneath of how slavery works psychologically and shows its emotional violence. The way the slaves are sold posed completely naked, shower in groups outdoors like animals, and dance and sing in the middle of the night to amuse their masters, the power of slavery is not the threat of the whip but the overwhelming sense of human degradation that weighs them to the eventual surrender of one’s humanity.

Needless to say, 12 Years A Slave is an intense and upsetting experience. The story is masterfully visualized by McQueen, showing the horror of slavery through how society deemed it normal and acceptable. The awards recognition it has gained is well deserved and has nothing to do with the fact that it is a film about slavery or playing to the white guilt in Oscar voters. The majority of audiences will probably only be able to stomach the experience once, as the gut-wrenching nature of it may not be friendly to watching it again. My suggestion: go see it once, but see it in full with your eyes wide open and soak it all in for what it is. It is a work of social and historical significance.

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Shame by Steve McQueen

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Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Before I review this movie, I have to talk about exposition in screenwriting. If you already know what exposition is, please skip ahead.

Exposition is the facts that you need to know to follow and understand a story. As film is a visual medium, the general rule in giving exposition is that you should always “show, don’t tell”.  i.e. You should never have a character say he is deadly killing machine, instead you show him taking out 10 people at the same time in a scene.  The best exposition is done as invisible as possible. The viewer should not be aware of it. At the worst of times, it disconnects the viewer because all of sudden they are shown the nuts and bolts of the story. It is simply not engaging or entertaining.

As a screenwriter, I wrestle with the idea of exposition. First of all, you have to get certain information across for the story to work. So you have to do it. Second of all, you have to make exposition interesting. What constitutes as interesting? Where is that line? My personal favorite example is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where they have a character named Basil Exposition whose sole purpose is to give exposition. So he’s giving you the exposition but because of the “wink wink” postmodern factor it is interesting again. So where is that line between interesting and uninteresting exposition? In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, often characters are explaining what’s going onto each other. Can we justify that it was interesting because Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was teaching Ellen Page’s (whose character is representing the audience) how the dream world works? Was there another way to show the audience what’s going on without the dialogue?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a drama pasted on top of a horror movie skeleton. It is about a young woman named Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who has just escaped an abusive cult in the Catskill mountains to stay with her older sister  Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by Hugh Dancy). As she recovers, Martha deals with delusions and paranoia from her dark past.

Elizabeth Olson is an engaging actress and carries the film competently, she plays a naive innocence against massive trauma and we experience the inner turmoil she is hiding from everybody. What can I say? I like underplaying performances. John Hawkes is great as the leader of the cult. It’s a very subtle performance that is quite creepy. I have noticed him in several movies (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice where he played an informant) and even a Canadian short film where in the opening sequence he sets his arm on fire (I cannot remember the name of it). He’s a fine screen presence. I hate that there is not enough of just normal dudes on film. Hawkes will probably have to work his way up through playing disheveled creeps or crazy people to get a starring role like Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. I wish him all the best.

So how is it horrific? It is how Martha acts and what she says that suggests remnants of an odd warped view of the world (from the influence of being in the cult) that contrasts with societal norms represented by Lucy and Ted. Martha is taciturn about her past, she never directly tells Lucy what has happened (No exposition! Hurrah!). However the audience knows as we switch between the past and the present, the story shows pieces of what happened and leaves plenty of space for us to imagine the in-between. The horror forms out of everything between the cracks.

Non-linear storytelling is the trend this year with the likes of The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and We Need to Talk About KevinMartha Marcy May Marlene contains the best justification of the non-linear storytelling device this year so far.

It’s well-written, disciplined piece of drama that knows the subtlety of it’s own punches. And you know what? Basil Exposition is nowhere to be seen and I was rather marveled by that accomplishment.