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12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) review

November 21, 2013

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written by: John Ridley

produced by: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Michan & Anthony Katagas

directed by: Steve McQueen

rating: R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)

runtime: 134 min.

U.S. release date: October 18, 2013 (limited) and November 8, 2013 (wide)

 

For his third film, British writer/director Steve McQueen remains a consistent cinematic auteur, once again offering a concentrated and uncompromising vision that challenges viewers. Just like “Hunger” and “Shame”, his latest “12 Years a Slave” is a harrowing and unsettling watch, one that engages and alarms with powerful imagery and exhausting physical, mental and emotional suffering. It’s understandable that some have grown tired and/or offended over the depiction of slavery on film, but McQueen isn’t just about provocation here. His artfully crafted film manages to evoke in the audience an uncomfortable feeling of witness and participation, unlike any other film I’ve seen on the shameful subject.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living a content life in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1841. He is an educated, well-spoken family man and a talented violinist, living with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and two children (one of them played by Quvenzhané Wallis of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”). He travels to Washington, D.C. after accepting a gig with a couple flattering circus producers (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) who seek his talents as a musician. Solomon wakes up shackled, kidnapped and tossed on a boat to be sold with others as a runaway slave.

 

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Solomon is renamed “Platt” and is purchased in New Orleans by a somewhat benevolent plantation owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who often preaches to both the workers and the slaves from the Bible. At first, still in shock at his situation, Solomon doesn’t shy away from showing his intelligence and talents. He helps  Ford construct a waterway and entertains guests with his fiddling, earning the resentment and cruelty of John Tibeats (Paul Dano), now the go-to for petulant whiner roles). Due to rising tensions between the two, Ford washes his hands of Solomon and sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, reteaming with McQueen) a volatile and cruel fellow planter, who despite his blatant racism, lusts after a young slave girl named Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), which is made obvious to Mary (Sarah Paulson, a broad one-note role), the cruel wife of Epps, who becomes volatile the more she becomes aware of her husband’s desire for Patsey.

As the years pass, Solomon’s soul is crushed as he watches his fellow slaves endure unspeakable pain and is at one point forced to beat another slave. While he remains a shallow husk of the man he once was, Solomon holds on to the image of his family even though escape seems impossible. He is eventually released from slavery though. Lest we forgot the film’s title, which is taken from the 1852 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northrup. That’s right. This horror happened, probably more often than we know.

The book and Northrop’s ordeal caught the attention of McQueen a few years back and he teamed with screenwriter John Ridley (“Undercover Brother” and “Red Tails”) to present a cinematic experience unlike any other on the subject. In adapting Northrup’s account, Ridley created an intoxicating dialogue that has both a lyrical and literary quality to it. It draws attention to itself but doesn’t distract. Just like “Gravity” sucks us in with its outstanding visuals, “12 Years” has a screenplay that is equally immersive, which turns out to be an unsuspecting asset in a film filled with incredible qualities.

 

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McQueen, working with editor Joe Walker once again, gathered some fine talent in their respective categories here in order to create such a captivating picture. There’s the exquisite cinematography by Sean Bobbitt (who lensed McQueen’s previous films as well as “The Place Beyond the Pines”) who juxtaposes the beautiful geography of The South with human pain and suffering. Bobbitt’s crisp photography accentuate the rich production design by Adam Stockhausen (“Moonrise Kingdom”). Also noticeable is the hypnotic score by Hans Zimmer, which is actually understated, abstract work, a change for the composer. Worthy of recognition (and certainly destined for a nomination) is the attentive work by veteran costume designer, Patricia Norris. McQueen is the maestro conductor, drawing all these players to work in an impressive synchronicity, while focusing on communicating a palpable sense of disorientation and shock from our devastated protagonist.

Ejiofor has a face that moviegoers recognize as “that guy” from his character roles in previous films. Not many have seen his lead role in David Mamet’s “Redbelt”, so Solomon Northrup may be the first time viewers are seeing him as a lead. His screen presence is commanding and affective. We need only look at the expressive eyes that he gives Northrup, in order to know what is going on internally. We see this as he studies his surroundings – from a dinner in a fine restaurant to witnessing the brutality of the white man – his attentiveness runs an emotional gamut from examination and rage to withdrawal and resolution.

The two female slaves that affect Northrup the most contribute greatly to his character arch and are played by two unforgettable actresses. As Patsey, Nyong’o has an expressive face as well and while diminutive frame may make her as a target, she portrays a stubbornness and resilience that is a lesson for Northrop and a threat to Epps.  Adepero Oduye (“Pariah”) plays Eliza, an enslaved woman Northrup meets early on, who expresses audible grief due to her children being taken from her by ruthless slave driver, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti, as a caricature villain). The role of slave requires the actors to convey volumes in understandable silence, but Eliza’s pain is an open wound and she refuses silence, despite Solomon’s attempt to quiet her exhaustive crying. It’s as if her tears are annoying or embarrassing for Solomon, or maybe they’re a clanging reminder of his own separation from his family. Both women have their own heartbreaking despair to endure, just as unbearable (if not more) than what Northrup ultimately faced, which is probably why they were unforgettable to him.

Since the story here is told from the perspective of Northrup and the slaves around him, it’s understandable that Ridley isn’t going to offer much indepth characterization for the whites here. We get the most out of the two slavers played by Cumberbatch and Fassbender, characters who each have their own twisted views of Christianity. Cumberbatch’s Ford may display moments of kindness and possibly guilt, but he’s too accustomed to his social standing to do anything about Solomon’s freedom. As the main  antagonist, Fassbender exudes a complex evil. Epps is unpredictable in his actions, partly due to his alcoholism, but mainly because of his insecurity and carnal desires. He lives off the role of Master and holds on to his “property” as if they are the only thing he owns in life. He’d rather they die or he kill them, then sell them off or free them. In his unrelenting performance, he gives Epps a pathetic and revolting screen presence.

 

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There is one more noticeable white role in “12 Years” and it comes in the slightly distracting form of Brad Pitt (who co-produces, as well). He plays a Canadian, disgusted by the American slave system and sympathetic to Solomon’s plight. While it’s a pivotal character, it’s also one that slightly took me out of the film due to the actor’s star power. After all the time I developed a connection with the enslaved characters, seeing Pitt show up was kind of jarring.

“12 Years a Slave” should earn an emotional response from viewers. It certainly did for me, but not until the absolute end. Sure, I cringed seeing Patsey’s back get whipped into raw hamburger, but seeing Solomon reunite with his family  after all that time, had me in tears.

McQueen doesn’t make films you think you can watch again, but there’s almost a compulsion to revisit them anyway. It could be due to the undeniably artful filmmaking as well as the mesmerizing performances. I’ve heard many say they won’t – they can’t – watch a film with such brutal matter and while I can appreciate that, it’s still important to be reminded of these atrocious horrors in American history.

That being said, I anticipate returning to “12 Years a Slave” for another viewing. To take in McQueen’s choices more closely, witness Ejiofor’s amazing work again and to be reminded that there was a time when a black man could be accepted as an upstanding member of a community in one area of America and also physically and psychologically beaten in another part of the country at the same time.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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