Friday, November 15, 2013

12 Years a Slave: A brilliant, timeless drama

12 Years a Slave (2013) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rating: R, for grim violence, brutality, nudity and brief sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.15.13

Some films transcend their big-screen confines.

The story is so compelling, the direction so deft, the performances so persuasively real, that we cease to see the screen or the acting, and simply become immersed in the experience.

As Epps (Michael Fassbender, center) expresses far too much appreciation for the
cotton-picking skills of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gradually
recognizes the unpalatable, one-sided "understanding" between this master and his
attractive slave ... but, of course, can neither do or say anything.
12 Years a Slave is such a film.

I remember, years back, getting wholly caught up in a stage production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. At one point, the fragile Laura Wingfield stepped outside the front door and onto the porch of the simple but effective set, and I grew concerned; she wasn’t dressed warmly enough, and surely she’d get cold out there, late at night.

That’s how invested I was in British director Steve McQueen’s sensitive, unflinching and utterly mesmerizing handling of this film.

John Ridley’s note-perfect screenplay is adapted from Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave, a rare 19th century memoir by a man who lived what he wrote — no, make that endured and survived — and what we now see on the screen. Northup’s saga is brutal, horrifying, even unbelievable at times. We civilized, 21st century citizens of the world cannot comprehend men — and women — behaving so callously, so cruelly to their fellow men and women.

Horrific times, we think, seeking solace. Nearly two centuries ago. Surely, we’ve become better in the meantime.

But then I reflect on the Nazi persecution of the Jews, with the often willing participation of “good Germans,” and I reflect on young Malala Yousafzai, nearly killed by Taliban thugs who’ve promised to keep trying, just as they bomb schoolchildren and continue to maim and behead others who’d encourage education, and I realize what McQueen clearly intends to demonstrate.

This film isn’t a portal to another time, another place. Sadly, it’s a mirror to the here and now.

The year is 1841, in pre-Civil War United States; we meet Solomon Northup (a simply astonishing performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a dignified gentleman living with his family in Saratoga, N.Y. He walks assuredly among his white peers, treated with respect whether on the street or conducting business in a shop.

Although, even here, we get a flash of underlying tension: a flicker of ... something ... in the eyes of one white aristocrat who registers Solomon’s presence, his station, and says nothing, but silently speaks volumes.

Among his various refinements, Solomon masterfully plays the violin; this skill brings him to the attention of two glad-handing gentleman who promise work, at decent wages, in a traveling show touring Washington, D.C. The offer seems too good to be true. We briefly wonder if Solomon’s wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott), might have counseled him not to take the position; alas, she and their children are briefly away.

And, so, after a night of good food and too much good wine, Solomon wakens in shackles: horrified to discover that everything has been a ruse, and that he has been kidnapped. Now assigned the new name “Platt Hamilton,” he has been “identified” as a supposed runaway “free slave” — surely one of the world’s cruelest oxymorons — from Georgia.

In short order, Solomon — and other kidnapped black men and women like him — is beaten into submission, bundled into a ship’s hold and ferried south. He eventually falls under the wing of a ghastly “auctioneer” named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who orders his new charges washed and then displayed, buck-naked and standing at attention, in the various rooms of his stately home.

As classical music plays in the background, and appetizers are proffered in an atmosphere redolent of a State Department cocktail party, dignified Southern gentlemen examine the “merchandise” with the dispassionate detachment of somebody pricing a table lamp.

At which point, Solomon knows that he’s in hell ... and it’s about to get worse.

Even here, though, not all Southern “gentlemen” are created equal. Solomon’s eventual purchaser, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, sporting a dead-on Deep South accent), chafes at the financial limitations that prevent him from including the two children belonging to his other new acquisition, Eliza (Adepero Oduye). And, so, to Eliza’s horror — and ours — this young boy and girl never are seen again.

Solomon, thinking of his own young son and daughter, identifies all too readily with what has just happened. But he’s helpless and — even now, this quickly — too pragmatic to say anything. Instead, he impulsively lightens this tension-laced moment by seizing a violin and playing. Music, we realize, is his emotional balm.

Pay attention, then, to how McQueen employs music, as this saga continues. Note, as well, the moment that music no longer is heard at all.

Although a product of his environment, the God-fearing Ford is a fair and perceptive man, quick to recognize Solomon’s intelligence and skill. Not so Tibeats (Paul Dano), the ignorant, spiteful carpenter who oversees Ford’s plantation. Tibeats, somehow sensing Solomon’s education, worried that this slave is smarter than he is, foments trouble at every opportunity.

When the dust settles, Ford is forced to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and brutally efficient plantation owner who whips the slaves who fail to meet their daily quota of picked cotton. But Epps isn’t merely cruel; he’s unpredictably savage, his every move apt to terrify the slaves caught by his gaze.

Bad as Epps is, though, in some ways his wife (Sarah Paulson) is even worse. We’re led to believe that she wasn’t born to this refined environment, and thus carries the insecurity of one uncertain of her status. She therefore overcompensates by exhorting her thuggish husband into ever-greater acts of violence against his slaves, most particularly the attractive Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who improbably picks cotton twice as fast as the strongest man.

And, sadly, frequently ignites Epps’ lustful desires.

McQueen never shirks from the grinding, day-to-day details of slave life; neither does he exploit them. The approach is matter-of-fact, and therefore more horrifying for the humdrum routine depicted. Ridley, in turn, laces his script with ironies, most notably the ownership privilege that white men use to justify raping black women ... despite a view of slaves, as Epps insists at one point, that compares them to baboons.

Does he therefore consort with baboons?

Elsewhere in the story, jarring disconnect arrives in the form of Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who has been elevated, via genuine love, to the de facto status of wife by her owner. Mistress Shaw takes pity on Patsey, and invites her to tea whenever possible. Patsey, in turn, is foolish enough to accept such invitations; we can anticipate Epps’ eventual reaction.

Ejiofor came to my attention in 2002’s noirish Dirty Pretty Things, and then demonstrated his acting range in lighter fare such as Love Actually and Kinky Boots. But his dramatic chops remained visible, as well, in tougher entries such as Children of Men and American Gangster. His work here is galvanic: instantly unforgettable, from the moment we see Solomon’s frightened and then comprehending eyes, when he wakens in shackles and realizes that his world has changed forever.

I can’t catalog all of Ejiofor’s powerful moments; they’re too numerous. The most tragic come during Solomon’s disappointments: the apparent opportunities for improved status, perhaps even salvation, that inevitably are snatched away. We’re sickened by the debasement this man endures, made all the worse by memories of the happier life from which he was snatched.

Ah, but then comes the truly worst moment, with Ejiofor’s expressive features conveying equal blends of horror, terror, and — horror of horrors — sick resignation. The act to which he is driven represents a turning point. Nothing will be the same.

We can be grateful that, grim as these proceedings are, McQueen doesn’t dwell on them. His film is difficult to watch, but not unduly gruesome; we cannot look away. He achieves the same razor’s-edge balance that Steven Spielberg delivered with Schindler’s List: an impressive achievement.

Fassbender, well remembered in McQueen’s Shame, throws himself with equal abandon — mental, physical, spiritual — into a truly heinous role. Epps has virtually no redeeming qualities; he’s a self-indulgent monster with capricious and often nasty impulses, wary of any who’d dare challenge his authority. He despises and yet fears his wife, and Fassbender’s most subtle acting comes in her presence.

This is as memorable a portrait of cold, human evil as Ralph Fiennes presented in Schindler’s List, as the brutal Goeth.

The supporting players are striking in their own right, starting with the hapless women played to heartbreaking perfection by Nyong’o and Oduye. Paulson, the flip side of that coin, is a vindictive shrike from our worst nightmares; Dano, succumbing to his own growing stereotype, is the pluperfect little worm.

This is, perhaps, McQueen’s sole flaw: a tendency toward stunt casting. Ejiofor, Fassbender, Nyong’o and Oduye fully immerse themselves in their parts. In slight contrast, we cannot help the flicker of recognition — and therefore expectation — upon seeing Giamatti, Woodard, Dano, Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes? In this setting?) and most particularly a late arrival who serves as the much-welcomed Voice Of Reason.

Such familiar faces pull us out of the drama, however briefly.

Not an issue, though, since McQueen and Ejiofor have us, heart and soul.

Hans Zimmer’s score is spare, evocative and deeply moving, often employed as a counterpoint against source music: most notably a ghastly slave ditty sung by Dano’s Tibeats. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is lush, suggesting the simmering humidity of Epps’ cotton plantation; Adam Stockhausen’s production design unerringly evokes this 19th century setting.

12 Years a Slave is a film for the ages: proof positive that some movies are, indeed, high art.

You won’t soon forget it.


  1. Good review Derrick. I didn't love this like everybody else seemed to, however, I respect it more than ever. I realize that it's a snap-shot in our country's history that we like to take a look at, but never fully go as deep and as involved as McQueen does here. And for that, I give the man more credit than ever. I just wish the movie was more than just a series of really bad events, happening one-after-another, after-another.

    1. I had a similar reaction. Didn't love it, but respect it, and all the more after reading so many reviews (esp this one, thanks). I was moved deeply, however, by Ejiofor's performance.