I Saw A Film Today… Twelve Years A Slave
It needs to be noted that recently my laptop ceased to operate. Which, to be fair, the thing did boot up a year longer than I expected it to. But regardless of the longevity of my previous mediocre laptop, it does leave me in a sticky spot. That little Compaq CQ whatever was my primary/only way of running this website, as infrequent as it was at times. And it looks like it may be a little while before I would feel comfortable with my finances to purchase a new one. With all that under consideration, running this website will for the foreseeable future be difficult to run, but I will continue to do so. So now that we’ve dealt with that business, onward we march.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man in 1840′s Saratoga Springs, New York. While his wife is away, Solomon accepts a job playing the fiddle from two white men. After having a drink with the men one night, he awakens the next morning chained to the floor of a cell. It takes little time for Solomon to come to the terrifying realization that he has been robbed of his freedom.
As a Slave, Solomon is transferred around the South to many plantation owners. He first stays with benevolent William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who eventually must transfer his debt to violent and vicious cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). As the years pass, Solomon comes to terms that he may spend the rest of his life as a slave, but can a Canadian laborer (Brad Pitt) change his future?
Twelve Years A Slave is probably the starkest and most honest portrayals of the horrors of slavery in the Southern United States during that point in time. But the brilliance of Steve McQueen is he handles these matters and moments of brutality with care and grace. For what Roman Polanski’s The Pianist exploited the horrors of Jewish oppression in Europe during World War ll, McQueen has done the same for blacks in the 1800′s.
But where Polanski liked to use gory and shock value, McQueen displays instances of brutality with both truth and class. Yes, there are plenty of moments of pure squirm-inducing agony and pain, but he makes it feel manageable for the viewer. Makes watching the film easy to watch, as if these things are not out-of-place. Which is more terrifying than any outright gore could accomplish.
One of the complaints I’ve heard from some white critics and movie goers is that this film is “anti-climatic”, which is udder bollocks to be blunt with you. Spoiler here for those without deductive skills when it comes to films title, Solomon Northup becomes a free man again after being a slave for twelve years. A man who is free and to be stripped of that to only fight his way back to his freedom is far from anti-climatic. The climax, the tight shot of Solomon being taken away from the Epps farm, was such a release that brought tears rolling my eyes, unashamedly. I’m sorry that there is no nugget of redemption for white people here, but then again this film is not about you. Shocker, I know.
This notion of anti-climatism also made me ponder why certain white American Southerners have paid admission to see this film. To note, in my rural area of East Tennessee, Twelve Years hasn’t been a big seller. Maybe the audiences made treks to nearby Memphis theaters that were playing this film weeks before my local was screening it. But regardless, I noticed nearly half the people who went to see it were old, white people. Which, I wonder cautiously, what their intent is in seeing it. Are they genuinely interested in the subject or do they have some morbidly sick lust to see slaves being beaten and abused?
Maybe this notion is farfetched. As a white man, there are things I will probably never understand about oppression the way others will or have. But then again, I do daily see the still bent and corrupted southern culture that likes to project itself as “courteous” and “sophisticated”. People like to relish about all the rosy “virtues” of being a southerner, but when you bring up the blemishes and scars of history the reaction is always the same. A little “Dammit man, it happened. Let’s just forget about it” or a “What are they complaining about now?” always seems to crop up.
Nearly all the performers in this work are Oscar-worthy. Michael Fassbender is unflinchingly brutal and down right terrifying at times. His chess match with the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor is a terse exchange to behold. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is great as Patsey, the subject of most of the abuse in this film. I look forward to seeing more of this young woman, as long as she doesn’t take some stupid rom-com role which seems to happen so often to freshmen. The supporting cast, if it is even right to call the talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and Scoot McNairy supporting, are great as well.
Ultimately, McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave will be remember for it’s view on American Southern slavery, but what may be overlooked is the central theme of this film. Survival. The lengths one is willing to go for what seems an impossible hope. Now that’s what makes a good film great.
Verdict: See it.
*Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity, and brief sexuality. 133 minutes. Directed by Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger).
** Thanks to my friends Cody and Monica for seeing this with me.
*** Poster by Daniel Norris.