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.

Related Links
Shame by Steve McQueen

The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks  to provide for his lover and their newborn child. This decision puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective. The sweeping drama unfolds over fifteen years as the sins of the past haunt the present days lives of two high school boys wrestling with the legacy they’ve inherited.

Ryan Gosling gives the silent minimalist performance as the motorcyclist Luke Glanton. It’s slowly becoming to be his trademark, and justifiably so because he’s great at it. Bradley Cooper appeared on Inside The Actor’s Studio as a guest, where it was said he was the most promising acting talent of his graduating year at Pace University. Bradley Cooper is officially starting to show that talent now. It wasn’t displayed in his previous projects. Dane DeHaan is a promising versatile talent. He really sells torture well. I look forward to seeing him as Harry Osbourne in the next The Amazing Spider-man movieBen Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta both sell slimy well. It’s a good cast and they all deliver, but they all have accomplished similar roles in other past projects.

The Place Beyond The Pines‘s core theme, due to the nature of the plot structure, will not be clear to the audience till the latter half. The story makes a shift and changes its central character. In that very moment, to really enjoy the film, the audience has to let go, take a step back and view the film on a larger canvas. Characters becomes archetypes and plot becomes saga. The sins of the father pass onto the son and we see the cause-and-effect echo from generation to generation.

For me, I took that step back and all of a sudden I was pondering on bigger themes. Instead of thinking about bank robbers stealing money or police battling corruption, I thought about karma, the butterfly effect and the idea of violence perpetuating violence. At the final shot of the film, I was moved. It was a poignant, beautiful and poetic ending. I was impressed how the narrative touched me with its subtext by completely divorcing it with its supertext. This gambit the film plays on the audience is probably what will divide them. It doesn’t help that the supertext of the film utilizes familiar genre conventions; at times it’s a heist movie, other times it’s a police corruption movie. That might throw some people off but that’s what I loved about it. It was a bold narrative move and it was well played. Derek Cianfrance, well done!