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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Steve McQueen Delivers An Unflinching Account Of An American Tragedy With 12 YEARS A SLAVE

There is a scene in director Steve McQueen's new film, the historical narrative 12 YEARS A SLAVE, during which a character named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is strapped to a tree, naked, being  whipped several times by first a fellow slave (Chiwetel Ejiofor) then deliriously so by her master (Michael Fassbender) to the point where her skin rips open up in several places on her back. It can't be more than a few minutes long, but it is so powerful, so maniacal, with Hans Zimmer's score intensifying with every lash, that it is incredibly difficult to watch. 

During this time in the film, I started to look around at the theater audience. To my left was a Caucasian woman sobbing uncontrollably, so badly that the person sitting next to her felt compelled to put an arm around her. To my right, I heard another person say, desperately with a hint of annoyance, "Oh my God, I can't take this anymore." As for me, I sat there, dry-eyed and transfixed by the scene before me, growing angrier by each passing minute. I was enraged by the indelible mark that slavery made on U.S. history that still affects us today, and fascinated that the response to seeing this depicted in film sparks feelings of what may be described as guilt, grief or exasperation.

But it's hard not to feel something while watching the film. McQueen delivers an onerous, unflinching account of not only U.S. slavery. John Ridley's screenplay (adapted from the book of the same title) is much more focused than that; it is about one man. It specifically unfolds the true story of Solomon Northup (mercifully played by Ejiofor), a free-born man, somewhat of an aristocrat, living with his wife and two children (his daughter played by Quvenzhané Wallis) in upstate New York in 1841. While his wife (Kelsey Scott) and children are away, Solomon meets and is lured by two men with a promising job offer in Washington D.C. From there, he is drugged, abducted and sold into slavery in New Orleans. With the help of Sean Bobbit's stunning cinematography, McQueen frequently shifts the film from Solomon's home life in New York to the contrasting atrocities he witnesses and of which he is a victim on a plantation for the following twelve years.

The filmmaker helms a gargantuan cast of actors (from the aforementioned to Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, and Brad Pitt, to name a few) to tell the particularly grueling story of a man born free like many of us, whose life was turned upside down in the blink of an eye. Along his journey from freedom to servitude (then eventually back to freedom, but with a new perspective), Solomon quickly sinks into his new position as one element in a myriad of senseless horrors yet still holds on to his dignity, his hope as and his strength as wonderfully captured by Ejiofor.

In illuminating his story, McQueen casts a spotlight on other characters, some who interchange between victims and villains, who play other important roles in Solomon's journey--slaves like Patsey, the long suffering object of her master's brutal attention (exquisitely played by Nyong'o), Paulson's detestable Mistress Epps (akin to Dano's ahorrent and weak character), Oduye's mournful performance as a mother separated from her children, and Woodard's uppity post-servitude condescension as Mistress Shaw. But it is Ejiofor, Fassbender (as Master Edwin Epps) and Nyong'o (in only her first feature role) who anchor the film. While Solomon and Patsey provide the heartbreaking human aspect of the story, Fassbender's portrayal, which supplies the film's welcoming break in tone in one scene, is the beastly, hateful standard you've seen before in the genre, but with an almost berserk streak with carefully placed twists in the head rag he wears to block the sun in the relentless heat. He is vile and calculated at the same time. 

Ambitious, honest and horrifying all at once, 12 YEARS A SLAVE may not be the easiest film to watch more than once, but it will stay with you forever once you see it.

Rating: A (***** out of *****)

12 YEARS A SLAVE is in select theaters Friday.


Murtada said...

I want to see it again already. I'm still haunted by Ejiofor's performance - it ends on a note of catharsis that is so powerful.

Courtney Small said...

I have not stop thinking about this film since I saw it at TIFF last month (was my favourite film of the festival). Few films have left me so emotionally raw and beaten (in a good way) like this one did. I did not think McQueen could top Hunger so early in his career but here were are. Wonderful film.

Have you read Armond White's review of it yet? I am curious as to what you think about him labeling the film torture porn. While I can see how the film can be view as a horror film (often the reality of history is more scary than fictional monsters), I think calling the film torture is a bit of a stretch.

Candice Frederick said...

thanks for your comment! nope, i haven't read his review. i really dislike phrases like "torture porn," "slavery porn," etc.

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