Saturday, November 16, 2013

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is the film we have waiting for about slavery, and in an important way it is the film we deserve as well. We are used to screen stories about African-American life that follow arcs of hardship followed by easy uplift, or those that push well-meaning whites into the foreground while making supporting characters out of those who need their stories told the most. Director Steve McQueen, working from a rich screenplay by John Ridley that is itself a work of art, has refused to accept shopworn notions about the ways Americans are willing to look at their history on screen. McQueen’s hand is almost invisible here; we are not invited to feel empathy for and certainly not to pity the slave characters but rather simply to be with them and acknowledge both their humanity and the brutality of their captors. 12 Years a Slave is drawn from the memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), which was published in 1853 after Northup had been freed from slavery. Once a free man with wife and children in New York, Northup is kidnapped after being tricked by two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) who profess to admire his talent for the violin. Solomon is transported to New Orleans and becomes the property of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man with no real appetite for what slavery entails who comes to appreciate Solomon (mistaken for a Georgia runaway and renamed “Platt’) and his intelligence. After things go wrong at Ford’s Platt is sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a brutal master who owns him for the rest of years in slavery.

John Ridley’s script is clear-eyed about the mechanics of slavery in a way I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. It isn’t for nothing that McQueen includes shots of the boat churning away as it takes Solomon and others newly kidnapped south to be sold. There is also a stunning overhead shot of newly kidnapped slaves stuffed into the back of a wagon like the product they are. The auction at which Ford buys Solomon/Platt is conducted in the home of a middleman (Paul Giamatti) and would almost be funny for its dry gentility if it didn’t echo with the sounds of a mother pleading not to be separated from her children. There are multiple levels of control even at Ford’s plantation, a place presented as an outpost of relative civility. Platt runs afoul of a low-level white boss (Paul Dano in the film’s most shaky performance) and Ford can only sell Platt  to Epps because, as he tells Platt, “You’ve made a reputation for yourself.” Platt’s value as property is down, and not even Ford considers him in any other light. It is this sobriety about the way that the human economy of slavery sustained the culture that might be the most valuable gift of 12 Years a Slave. Ridley and McQueen don’t view slavery as an obstacle against which dignity must be maintained but rather as a systemic imposition on that dignity. The meagerness of the psychic comfort available to the slaves  - mostly singing, there’s no laughter even in their interactions with each other - is recognized and faced squarely.

When Platt arrives at the Epps plantation his already difficult life becomes even harder. There are daily whippings for those who can’t pick a consistent amount of cotton and Epps drags Platt and his other slaves into the middle of his tumultuous relationship with his wife. (Sarah Paulson). It is impossible to know how  to divide responsibility for the conception of the Epps character among McQueen, Fassbender, and Ridley, but it is with Epps that 12 Years a Slave loses some of its footing. Epps is a religious man saddled with what looks to us like a welter of  psychological problems from alcoholism to manic fits, and these are compounded by his erotic fixation on the young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps’ attachment to Patsey and his conflict about it lead to the single most difficult to watch scene in the film, when Platt is dragged into the middle of Patsey’s punishment for getting a bar of soap from a neighboring plantation. The problem with all of this isn’t that masters didn’t sometimes take sexual advantage of their female slaves, we know they did, but that Patsey exists in the movie only to sexualize Epps’ behavior. Nyong’o is obviously a talented actress but she has little to do other take the brunt of her master and his wife’s abuse. Patsey’s biggest scene involves a speech where she pleads with Platt to kill her; Nyong’o brings a terrific ferocity to it but she should have been made more than a symbol. Adepero Oduye fares somewhat better as the mother who lost her children and in a remarkable one scene role Alfre Woodard brings home the horror of an outwardly comfortable woman who has sacrificed much to avoid the work of a slave. The existence of Woodard’s character alone is argument for  fuller treatment of Patsey. It is as if the filmmakers weren’t comfortable treating the sexual politics with the same dispassion they bring to everything else, except perhaps in the moment where Mistress Epps hits Patsey with a bottle. I’m not sure that making Epps a man in conflict between his God and his sexuality adds to our understanding of or horror at the institution of slavery in any way, it merely makes for a louder film.

12 Years a Slave never seriously considers the possibility of Platt running away, it is made clear that to attempt escape would mean death. Ridley’s script doesn’t pause to note time passing but rather piles day upon day upon indignity. The circumstances that lead to Platt becoming Solomon again involve an itinerant handyman played by Brad Pitt, who gets a scene about how slavery will one day pass away that feels forced and overwritten. Yet it is appropriate that the moment where Solomon reunites with his family is the one moment where he shares his emotion both with them and with us. Even Hans Zimmer’s spare score becomes something more than accent here. I wasn’t a fan of Steve McQueen’s last film Shame, a study of sex addiction which I thought draped excessive stylization over recognizable human behavior, but in 12 Years a Slave McQueen is working at full mastery. He is helped by an excellent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who like his director never asks for a emotional reaction when he can play the full complexity of a situation. Though they stumbled at moments over modern questions of motivation, the artists behind 12 Years a Slave have succeeded in producing an important work of great specificity and sincerity. 12 Years a Slave is an essential American film.

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