Monday, November 18, 2013

12 Years A Slave - Movie Review

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Adepero Oduye, Garret Dillahunt, Michael K. Williams, Bryan Batt, Taran Killam, Scoot McNairy and Quvenzhane Wallis.
Directed by Steve McQueen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender

Probably the best movie on slavery since Roots. But very difficult to watch.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) stars in the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man living in 1841 New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.  Solomon is an educated man, well off from what we can tell as a violinist for hire.  He is our window to the experience, and it's a shrewd way to let us in.  Solomon is not a slave, nor is anyone in the audience, and so it makes easier to relate to the horrors thrust upon him, as opposed to someone who just grew up with it as their lot in life.

I've read some articles recently on trauma and PSTD, both what it does to children and to adults, but then there's the entire spectrum of damage done by slavery.  What does it do to generations beaten and imprisoned their entire life, family routinely removed from them, dehumanized daily.  What does it do to generations to raise them believing these humans over here aren't really humans so you can torture them and degrade them all you like.

Some of us descend from psychopaths who were okay with treating other people worse than animals.  Some of us descend from those other people who lived their entire lives at the mercy of those psychopaths.  How can a nation heal from such origins?

There's a scene where Solomon, on his way to the store, runs into some white men about to hang two black men.  And it's all treated so casually by everyone else in the scene.  The white men are just doing what's done, the black men know they can't do anything to resist, and Solomon has to walk away in despair as he hears the death throes of the slaves behind him.

Director Steve McQueen has an unflinching eye in the brutality.  There's another scene where Solomon is strung by his neck and his toes can barely touch the muddy ground.  We keep hoping the scene will cut away to something else, but it stays on him, and we hear him choking, and in the background, we see the other slaves ignore and go about their day. This is just the way life is.

Solomon spends most of his 12 years under a mentally unstable alcoholic named Epps (Michael Fassbender).  Epps has a mantra that "a man can do whatever he likes with his property." Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson), in ways, is as evil as he is, for when she gets upset, she wants to see some slaves beaten.  Slavery in all its brutality could only happen if there were women in on it.

I view it similar to Passion of the Christ, in that it's very violent, but it also leaves you with a lingering sense of the scope of suffering.  I was impressed with the pacing of it, and the way each event led to the next.  This is sure to get award nominations for Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor (Fassbender) and Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o, as slave-girl Patsey who unfortunately is liked by Epps).

One other note: there's a scene when a supervisor played by Paul Dano starts singing "Run N----r Run" to the slaves. It shows off his own deranged joy at keeping slaves in their place, but it also seems relevant to the headlines of today with Richie Incognito and others are still using the word. Let's just say I agree with Isiah Thomas's take on it.

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