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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Trojan Horse Storytelling, Character Investment and 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Something we spoke about on this week's Cinema in Noir got me thinking: does 12 YEARS A SLAVE capture an individual experience or the era? Neither works to the film's detriment, but I do think there is a distant feel to the film as its panoramic view highlights the atrocities and institution of American slavery--the business, the barbarianism, the overwhelming sense of emotional depletion--without honing in on a personal story. For me, it's the difference between my being thoroughly moved by the film and rather admiring its superb technical and artistic achievements instead.

It's easy to say that Solomon Northup himself (beautifully portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the main character of the story and therefore becomes its sole focus by default. But I'd argue that Solomon is more of a pawn, the eyes through which we can witness the larger story that envelopes him. To put that in trendier terms, he's essentially the Trojan Horse of this slavery-set saga. And like most stories that use this Trojan Horse effect, Solomon's character introduces the audience to a far more complex environment, with characters like Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) who easily becoming the two most compelling in the film. Surprisingly, Mistress Shaw is in the film but only a few minutes yet manages to add a whole new layer to the story that, if fully explored, could have taken the film in a new direction. On the other hand, Patsey is in a great deal of the film, but we never truly know her outside of the fact that she is a victim of extremely intricate circumstances--suffering mental, sociological and physical abuse from both Mistress and master Epps (Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbender).

But what makes Patsey an interesting character to watch is mostly due to the way Nyong'o portrays her--solemn yet driven, her dejection mounting to the point of withered consciousness but keenly alert about about her circumstances. While she's not fully fleshed out--we don't really know her story or pretense--but we care about her just the same as we do Solomon (whose narrative springboards the film). The way she carries herself, how she interacts with the other slaves tells us everything we need to know about her. Where Ridley's screenplay slightly marginalizes her, Nyong'o pushes her off the written page and humanizes her. She makes Patsey known to the audience, becoming the soul of a movie that profoundly highlights America at its most soulless and most dispiriting.

In a year that gave us films with poignant personal stories (Dallas Buyers Club, Cutie and the Boxer, Mother of George, Captain Phillips, Gravity, etc), the high-profiled 12 YEARS A SLAVE stands on its own as it pulls back the layers of a blanketed--yet increasingly effective--view of American society squeezed into a tight 2-hour+ film. While we rarely feel short changed by its wide intent, it does wedge a gap between the audience and the story. Which begs the question: do we have to feel personally connected to a film in order to consider it great? Is personal investment a measure of quality? As you can see from my review of the film last fall, I think it's cinematically excellent. But I can't latch on to any one aspect of the film that makes me want to re-watch it.

What are your thoughts about 12 YEARS A SLAVE and its wide versus singular themes?

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