Saturday, November 9, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Alternate Title:  Slavery, a Life

One sentence synopsis:       A free black man is kidnapped by slavers and dragged into plantation slavery for twelve long years in the Antebellum South.

Things Havoc liked:  It is not easy to condense the sins of history into a film. Be it the Holocaust or other genocides, human trafficing or child labor, attempts to deal with subjects so harrowing and yet so complex in our understanding must walk a tightrope between short-selling the subject and overdoing it to the point of atavistic rejection. Some films succeed in walking this tightrope and some do not, but once in a while, one sees a film that deals with a difficult subject in such a profound way that it instantly renders all other previous efforts obsolete. Twelve Years a Slave is such a film.

In 1841, Solomon Northop, a free black professional musician, was lured to Washington DC under false pretenses and clapped in irons by kidnappers to be sold in New Orleans. He spent the next twelve years in chattel slavery in the deep south, working at various plantations as a fieldhand, and occasionally a laborer for other projects. Some of his masters were sadistic, evil men, and some were conscientious and sought to do what they thought was right, but none could see past the institution of Slavery, which permeated every micron of the Antibellum south like a miasma. Freed at last after managing to get word to his friends in the North, his ordeal was recorded in the fiery abolitionist book which he wrote in its aftermath, a book which forms the basis for a film by British director Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor). Front and center is Chiwetel Ejiofor, of Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity, and Children of Men, who here delivers a performance easily superior to every one I've previously seen him give. Solomon Northop suffers horrific abuse, and witnesses plenty more, but Ejiofor never indulges in bombastic, melodramatic speeches or overdramatic cries to God. He plays the character in a highly realistic fashion, allowing us to experience the horrors that surround him as he does, without stopping to explain why he acts as he does. The movie omits the tired scenes we've seen from similar films, such as the strong-willed hero valiantly resisting the attempts to break his will on the part of the slavemasters. The film instead forces Northop to adapt and bend before the horrific evils he is subjected to, accepting, to some degree, his newfound identity as a slave, recognizing that frankly-put, to resist the slavemaster in the 1841 South was to die.

Or was it? The vast bulk of the film consists of Northop's interactions with his masters, overseers, and fellow slaves, as well as a number of free white workers who come and go at the plantations, and every single one of these relationships is complicated in the extreme. Some slaveowners are brutal, callous psychopaths, such as Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose lust for cruelty and blood rises and falls with his mood, and with the bitter war he wages with his wife (Deadwood's Sarah Paulson). Epps beats his slaves, "breaks" them, abuses them, particularly his constant rape-victim Patsy (Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o in a standout, award-worthy performance), yet slaves are valuable property, and he can only permit himself to go so far with them. Even when his wife demands on pain of divorce that he sell or kill one, he calmly replies that he would far sooner do away with her than one of his most productive slaves. Other masters, such as Baptist Minister William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) attempt to treat their slaves better. Ford preaches the gospel to his slaves weekly, attempts (feebly) to keep their families together, and even listens to Northop when he proposes engineering improvements around the plantation, over the objections of his overseers, and rewards him when they bear fruit. Through these interactions, and those with the other whites in the film, we see that, slave or no slave, men must live together somehow. When an overseer pushes Northop too far, and is beaten by him in self defense, Northop is not made an example of, but has other overseers come to his defense, even standing down the first one at gunpoint lest he lynch Northop on the spot, for it is apparently understood that while overseers have the power of life and death, provocation is still provocation. Yet when push comes to shove, Ford is a slaver still, and will not countenance freeing a slave simply because of the circumstances in which he was made one, unable despite his best intentions to see past the horrific slaveocratic society in which he, and everyone else is mired.

Indeed, this is the entire film, a series of characters and incidents that may be surprising or may be as horrifically brutal as we all know slavery to have been, but always feels real. The slaveowners do not generally behave as cardboard cutouts, but as real people, who can get drunk, and angry, and attack a slave, who will push them off or demand that they stop, and be listened to (sometimes). They may imagine themselves the aristocratic lords of the manor, but the movie knows that they are merely putting on airs, and that the pretenses of civilization they clothe themselves in are simply that, something several of the slaveowners realize to various extents. We meet one plantation owner who has quite publicly set up his favorite slave (Alfre Woodard) as the lady of the house, a wife in all but name, with slaves of her own, though she retains enough self-awareness to comment on the catastrophe that she believes god will one-day inflict on the plantation-class (given history, we all know how that turns out). Others turn a blind eye to their own crepulance, or revel in it, or even seem unaware, only to be called out by their fellows. Yet all are guilty of the same original sin, and crucially, all but those blind to basic human empathy (Fassbender's character for instance) seem to know it. As such, while I'm no expert on the subject, the treatment of slavery in this film certainly feels more like the reality of the situation than any other I have seen before. All its horrors, all its banalities, all of it is displayed here, not with stridency or some need to ram down agendas, but simply as what was.

Things Havoc disliked:  19th century speech is hard to wrap one's modern head around, complicated by the fact that the movie's director, writers, and most of its cast (black and white alike) are all British, which makes some of the dialogue sound rather like the Lord of the Rings. I know that people spoke differently back then, and that this film may well be somewhat accurate to the point, but when everyone, from the meanest slave to the richest landowner speaks in flowery, complex rhetoric, it renders the entire exercise a bit sterile, like we're watching a manners drama instead of a re-enactment.

There's also the matter of Brad Pitt, whose role in the film is quite small but merits a comment. Pitt plays a Canadian laborer and abolitionist, hired as a carpenter by one of Northop's masters, and serves as effectively the only white character in the film not completely immersed in slavery, and who sees it for the evil it is. I have no problem with the existence of such a character, as the abolitionist movement, for which many a man would die even before the civil war, was in full swing by 1853, and moreover the character was a real one who really existed. What I object to is Pitt's performance. He's not awful, but he delivers his sermon on the evils of slavery like he's delivering a speech, and seems to evidence no particular passion for the subject, wryly grinning when threatened as if in the knowledge that slavery will all be over soon, and everything will be fine. I would have anticipated that an abolitionist willing to deliver such speeches to a slaveowner's face to have more fire and outrage in their rhetoric, or at least to make a plea beyond "well, you see, slavery's just plumb bad." I would also, frankly, expect a slaveowner of the sort he delivers the speech to, to murder him for it, or at least cease employing him as a carpenter.

Final thoughts:   But frankly, the only reason this stood out at all was because of the overall stellar quality of the rest of the film's cast, direction, and writing. Brutal when it needs to be, banal when it needs to be, and overall rivetingly real, 12 Years a Slave is an incredible film, though admittedly not one I'm in any hurry to see again. Like Schindler's List, a movie I expect it to be compared to often, it unflinchingly presents the horrors of its chosen subject matter, without the need to go past that into pastiche and surreal monstrosity. The reality of slavery was horrific enough, and presenting it as it actually happened can only make it more so.

Slavery was the original sin of the United States, one that can never be properly atoned for, only acknowledged for what it was. Our relationship with it, black, white and otherwise, is still complex and incomplete, and may forever remain so, which may be why it took a foreign director and his foreign cast to make a film this definitive on the subject. But politics and national wounds aside, 12 Years a Slave is fully deserving of the universal acclaim it has thus far received, and while it is not my policy to make Oscar predictions here on this little experiment of mine, it would not surprise me at all if come next March, we get to hear about this film all over again.

And if so, it will be time well spent.

Final Score:  8.5/10

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