12 YEARS A SLAVE Review: Limited Engagement
ME: I wish I could be as enthusiastic as some of my colleagues and friends. Here’s my review of LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (the link was posted here)
TWEEP: The whole ‘ white guilt ‘ thing is betting (sic) old .
TWEEP: 42 , Django , The Help ….
ME: And your point is ………..
Of course I knew what his point was. I just wanted him to say it out loud but he didn’t have the onions to own his own racism. And it’s racism. Anyone who suggests that the “white guilt thing is getting old” and cites only four movies released over a two-year period (!) isn’t complaining about white guilt, he’s complaining about black characters and black themes and black story lines. Idiot.
Is Hollywood making more high-quality films that feature strong black characters/themes/stories? I don’t know; I don’t have numbers. Anecdotally, it feels that way, and frankly, I’m glad. I want more of these movies. I want more movies with different perspectives and different characters. We need more movies from and about homosexuals, and women, and African Americans (and other racial minorities), be those movies dramas, comedies, biopics, or documentaries. And we need them to be good.
We got a good one … a very good one … in director Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years a Slave.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man who earns a comfortable living as a violinist, circa 1840, in Saratoga, New York. While his wife and two children are on an annual trip out of town, Northup is approached by two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) who offer him a lucrative, short-term musical touring deal. Northup accepts, but is drugged by the men at the celebration dinner. He awakens in shackles (having been kidnapped) and is no longer in possession of the paperwork that documents his freedom. Before he knows it, he is on the block and being sold by Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to the highest bidder.
Given the name “Pratt” and transported to New Orleans after being purchased by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup learns quickly to keep secret his true past, his true self. He also learns to curry favor with Ford, who treats him well (a relative statement, I know). Violent circumstances involving Ford’s field boss, Tibeats (Paul Dano), force Ford to transfer ownership of Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a vicious cotton plantation owner. Again Northup survives by demonstrating his value to his owner – and also his owner’s wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) – all the while trying to figure out a way not to escape, but to get word to his family and friends in the north that he has been enslaved, so that they can save him.
There’s a scene early in 12 Years a Slave that tells you everything you need to know about Solomon Northup and how well Ejiofor plays him. Northup is a slave at the time (the film opens in the middle of the story and catches up via flashback before moving forward). He is sleeping on the floor of a squalid shack with dozens of other slaves. The woman sleeping next to him looks at him lustily. She silently grabs his hand and places it on her breast, moving it in circles. He doesn’t react. She slides his hand between her legs and moves it around there as well. He remains stoic. Having been rejected she stops, lets go, and turns over in tears.
The look on his face is remarkable, and his actions – or lack thereof – are never explained. Yes, we can assume that he wants to remain faithful to the wife he was taken from (Kelsey Scott). But the look also says two other very important things. It says that having sex with this woman does nothing to help him regain his freedom. So singular is his focus that despite the hardships he has faced, and without guarantee that he will ever be free again, he passes on even a moment’s pleasure. That brings us to the second thing: for Northup to partake in that pleasure would be for him to surrender. If his life as a slave has even one comfort he had while free – even the comfort of another woman’s flesh – he is one (large) step closer to accepting his lot in life and becoming comfortable with it.
Ejiofor’s performance is the best in a film full of great performances. Fassbender as Epps is like no plantation owner I’ve ever seen; he’s not some Southern millionaire like so many others seem to be (including Cumberbatch in this film). In fact, despite the fact he owns the place, he more closely resembles middle management in today’s Corporate America, obsessed with slaves’ picking performance (measured by weight) and punishing those who don’t perform to average. He even has a season when his crop is ruined so he must (essentially) layoff his slaves until the next season (another plantation owner “borrows” them).
Also excellent are Paulson as Epps’ viciously cold wife and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a young slave who is the object of Epps’ extramarital desires. Brief appearances by Giamatti, Dano, and Alfre Woodard as a neighboring plantation mistress who takes a liking to Patsey are all excellent and could have gone on for pages of script. The only acting blemish, really, is handed in by Brad Pitt as a carpenter hired by Epps. I like Pitt a lot, and I’m sure his producer credit earned him a role, but he is take-you-out-of-the-scene bad in this.
Despite powerful performances from its actors (lead and supporting alike), and despite incredibly intense and unsettling scenes depicting unspeakable acts of cruelty (Patsey’s whipping near the film’s end grows increasingly unbearable to watch without looking away or squinting), there was never a moment when I felt fully engaged in this film.
I thought that maybe this detachment was borne of being unable to relate to the subject matter. As a white male who was raised in an upper-middle class household, and whose knowledge of slavery is limited to whatever parochial schools and Hollywood have taught me, I couldn’t be further away from deeply understanding the atrocities an entire race of people suffered and the lingering effects of those atrocities that are felt today.
That isn’t it.
As I look at some of the best films of this year, there are several that engaged me immediately and held me throughout despite my inability to relate to them personally. I’m not a teenage lesbian, but I was engaged in Blue is the Warmest Colour. I’m not an astronaut, but I was engaged in Gravity. I don’t sail, but I was engaged in All Is Lost. And before you decry these as purely fictional works, or even works with no racial charge, I am no female black backup singer, but I was thoroughly engaged in the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Here? No engagement at all.
McQueen’s previous directorial outing, 2011’s sexual addiction drama Shame, is an entirely engaging film, but his 12 Years a Slave feels more like a piece of art you might find in a museum: beautiful to look at yet detached from the viewer.