Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Review: "12 Years a Slave"

It caused quite a sensation when it came out, but since 1853 the book “12 Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup has largely faded from memory. The movie adaptation by director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley brings the sin of slavery back into our faces with searing honesty about the brutality and dehumanization of an entire people.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, in an Oscar-worthy turn, plays Northup – an educated and talented musician and engineer from Saratoga, New York, kidnapped and sold into bondage in Louisiana, where he toiled and struggled to survive. Forced to take on the persona of “Platt,” he hid his abilities, including reading and writing, to pass himself off as a field laborer.

Over the next dozen years he experiences untold degradation and torture, having his back flayed until it is little more than a crisscross patchwork of scars. Separated from his wife and children, he can only imagine their own pain and torment. And he must submit to the rule of white Southerners who view him as a piece of chattel to be used and discarded as needs or whims serve.

Ejiofor brings an earnest grace to the role, an ordinary, intelligent man placed in hellish circumstances that defy logic. He holds onto his pride with great care, even violently defying an especially cruel overseer (Paul Dano) who can’t stand that a slave knows more about building houses than he does.
Even though he eventually learns not to make waves, he never loses track of his inner soul. Because of that, hope never truly dies.

If the film has a weakness, it’s that McQueen and Ridley overplay their hand. Northup’s life prior to his ordeal is an idealized existence in which whites and blacks live in perfect harmony -- eating at each other’s tables, shopkeepers enthusiastically offering their handshake and assistance.

Ironically, it’s only in traveling to our nation’s capital (where slavery was still allowed in 1841) that he exposes himself to nefarious types who make a business of carrying off free blacks to the deep South, where they can fetch prices of $1,000. A decent, law-abiding man, Northup at first reacts with disbelief and threats to sue his oppressors. Defiance is soon (literally) beaten out of him, and a host of merchants warn him upon threat of death never to mention his real name or origin again.

At first Northup is placed in the hands of a genteel owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who treats him with respect and makes use of the engineering skills of “Platt.” He even gives him a violin out of patriarchal devotion -- both to soothe the slaves and please his own ear.

But circumstances change, and Platt is sold to a vile man with a reputation for being stern with his slaves.
The film reaches its greatest emotional heights -- and depths -- under the reign of Epps, a plantation master played by Michael Fassbender. Conflating his religious beliefs with his inhuman instincts, Epps is a caricature of a character, frightening to behold but difficult to accept as truthful.

Fassbender is leering and electric, not content to just subjugate his slaves but fawn while doing so. A favorite move is putting his face right into theirs, practically nuzzling Platt or his favorite, Patsey, before putting them to the whip, or indulging his sexual cravings, or both.

Lupita Nyong’o is a terrific presence as Patsey, a slender reed of a woman who can pick three times as much cotton in a day as most men. But she must navigate the tumultuous river of jealousy springing forth from Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who fears that her husband values a slave more than his wife.

“12 Years a Slave” is a mesmerizing cinematic experience, easily one of the best of the year. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that the filmmakers would’ve better served the audience by exercising a little more restraint. By making the villain better resemble an actual human, the crucible of slavery would have had the weight of authenticity, and been made even more harrowing.

1 comment:

  1. Knowing the story's outcome does nothing to lessen the potency of what's shown on screen, largely because of the courageous manner in which McQueen holds certain shots as if he's daring us to look away for even a second.