'12 Years a Slave,' brutally emotional
"12 Years a Slave," the latest film from auteur Steve McQueen, is a film of raw, brutal emotion. Its subject is the enslavement of a free black man in 1841 and his journey through a hell of oppression amid the fields of American slavery. It is history on film laid bare dropby bloody drop.
The film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free-born black man in upstate New York who earns a living and reputation as a highly talented fiddler. When Northup is approached by two white men claiming to be traveling members of a circus, he is drugged and sold into slavery.
Thus begins a horrendous odyssey during which Northup endures both the physical and mental anguish of bondage. He is confronted by the cruelty and sadism of the culture of slave plantations, which is best embodied by the character of Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, a sadistic slave owner who runs his plantation like a police state.
Amid a gallery of men in despair, Northup has to find a way to survive, keep his sanity and find his way home.
McQueen does something special with this film by brushing away the conventional, safe Hollywood interpretations of racism in American history. This is not a feel-good movie like "The Help" or a heroic, muscular hymn like "Amistad." It's a gritty record of a particular moment in U.S. history.
Northup was a real individual, who wrote a book about his experiences. Yet McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridley never fall into the trap of turning him into an over-romanticized saint. This is a man trapped in a terrifying situation over which he has little control.
Like McQueen's previous films "Hunger" and "Shame," there is a universal spirit about how imprisonment is mental and physical.
The script has a delicate sense of making all the characters feel human. There is a truth to their behavior that gives the film an immediate, authentic feel.
For example Northup is not above lying to get out of a tough situation where his life might be at risk.
A slave owner named Ford is played by rising star Benedict Cumberbatch, who is known for "Star Trek: Into The Darkness." He appears, at fist glance, to be the quintessential saint who will save our hero from his plight. Although he turns out to be kinder than the average slave master, he never sees Northup as more than mere property, albeit smarter and more educated property.
"12 Years a Slave" is an antidote to a movie like Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," another movie about the Civil Rights era that has been released in the last few years. It is skillfully shot in a B-flick style that fantasizes about a freed slave blowing away white racists. That was a vision of what we wish could have happened but didn't.
McQueen instead challenges the viewer not to look away from what the experience of slavery really entailed. In "Django," there is a scene where the freed slave Django stops a whipping and whips a white slave overseer with total ferocity. In "12 Years a Slave," there is a horrifying moment when a slave woman is to be lashed and Northup is forced at gunpoint to do the lashing.
There is no cheap heroism here, just the despair and heartbreak of the situation.
The screenplay also has the unique touch of telling this story primarily and always from the point of view of the slave. One of the most recycled gimmicks in modern Hollywood is the perceived need to 'balance' a story about racism.
This holds true in the recent "The Help," where the only hope for urban black house maids is a white writer with a heart of gold. And in Spielberg's most recent offering, "Lincoln," black characters are virtually invisible while Daniel Day-Lewis poses like a statue in nearly every scene and recites almost mystical folk jargon. And while this year's "The Butler" attempts to tell a story about overcoming racism from a black character's point of view, it still drips with a safe romanticism in its comedy and use of melodrama.
However, "12 Years a Slave" offers the viewer a different angle. It feels like good cinematic vitamins; it might not make you laugh, but it's still good for you as a viewer.
As pure cinema "12 Years a Slave" is beautifully done. McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt frame every shot with painterly care and make the heat and sweat of a plantation feel palpable.
The violence is gruesome and raw, but not exploitative. Violence here is used as an observation of the physical terror of slavery.