12 Years a SlaveReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/18/13 08:27:53
There is a scene that occurs roughly halfway through "12 Years a Slave," the eagerly anticipated and highly touted drama about the horrors of slavery, that is both destined to be one of the film's most talked-about moments and a perfect encapsulation of why it ultimately fails to work in the end. In the moments leading up to the scene in question, our hero, educated man-turned-slave Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has finally been pushed too far by a hateful plantation foreman and proceeds to beat the daylights out of him. In retribution, the foreman and a couple of others drag Solomon over to a tree and begin to string him up when someone else points out that it isn't the foreman's place to decide to lynch Solomon--that privilege belongs solely to the owner of both the plantation and of Solomon and he is away and will not be returning for a few hours. In a series of agonizing extended shots, we bear witness to Solomon as he is left hanging there--his toes just barely touching the ground and preventing him from suffocating--waiting for his owner's return while the other slaves go about their chores in the background without ever acknowledging his plight lest they wind up suffering a similar fate themselves.On paper, this sounds like a powerful screen moment that sums up both the physical and emotional cruelties of slavery in a manner that is all the more grotesque because of the stark simplicity of the image on excruciating display. It clearly seems to have struck a chord with most viewers as I have hardly seen a piece on the film that doesn't at least mention this particular sequence as one of the most memorable scenes. And yet, as I was watching this particular moment, I did not find myself overwhelmed by the horrors that were being depicted. Instead, I found myself increasingly aware of just how hard the director was straining to try to capture this image in cinematic terms--I could practically hear him on a bullhorn calling out to the other slaves to avert their eyes from Ejiofor--and how his technique was running roughshod over the emotional core of the story. This weird sense of remove from the proceedings is on display throughout all of "12 Years a Slave" and as a result, what should have been an enormously moving experience instead comes off like a feature-length multimedia book report produced by someone who has all the technical skills necessary to reproduce the words he has read but none of the emotional finesse to suggest that he knows the feelings they are supposed to convey.
The book in question is Northup's 1853 memoir of how he went from being a free man living in the North to a slave bouncing through a series of Southern plantations. His story begins in 1841 when Solomon, an educated man with a wife, two children and a facility for playing to violin, leaves his home in Saratoga, New York for a couple of weeks after being contracted by a couple of friendly sorts who promise him a music gig in Washington D.C. that will get him back home before his family returns from a trip. All goes well but on the night before he is to return home, he passes out and wakes up in shackles and discovers that he is being shipped to New Orleans to be sold into slavery. His pleas that he is a freeman fall on deaf ears and he soon falls into the hands of a slimy slave dealer (Paul Giamatti) who puts him on the market. Solomon quickly realizes that if he is to have any chance of surviving his ordeal, he not only has to stop protesting that he is actually a free man, he has to cover up all traces of his intelligence so as not to call undue attention of himself.
With his first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon more or less hits the slave jackpot by being purchased by someone who seems decent enough--once you factor out the whole buying-and-selling-of-human-beings thing, of course. Before long, Solomon allows his owner to catch glimpses of his intelligence, is rewarded in kind with the gift of a violin and even finds himself angrily defending Ford to another slave who won't stop crying just because was just separated forever from her two young children. However, this is where the previously mentioned foreman (Paul Dano) comes in and while Ford does step in to rescue Solomon, he does nothing further to help, even after Solomon reveals his true origins. Sure, Ford likes Solomon enough at all but Solomon is, after all, a piece of property that he has invested in and to simply let him go would be throw away the money that he has already spent on him as well as the money he stands to earn off of his labors.
Instead, Solomon winds up on the plantation of the far less agreeable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and struggles to acclimate himself to the far harsher atmosphere. To make matters worse, he finds himself increasingly dragged into the psychodrama that has developed between Epps, his wife (Sarah Paulson) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a teenaged female slave that Epps has become erotically fixated upon. Patsey is trapped in an unendurable position in that she is forced to endure both the unwanted attentions of Epps and the cruelties of his wife, who knows exactly what is going on at takes out her anger at her husband's betrayal on Patsey herself. At one point, Patsey begs Solomon to help her commit suicide to escape her pain but he turns on her angrily even suggesting such a thing. Despite his best efforts, however, Solomon cannot fully stay out of this and at one joint, an angry and jealous Epps forces him at gunpoint to whip Patsey in front of the whole plantation. Eventually, however, a chain of events almost as unlikely as the one that led to Solomon's enslavement develops that could allow him to finally go free and be reunited with his family at long last.
"12 Years a Slave" was directed by Steve McQueen, the British filmmaker behind the acclaimed dramas "Hunger," which dealt with imprisoned IRA member Bobby Seale and his life-threatening hunger strike, and "Shame," which followed a seemingly ordinary man caught in the depths of sexual addiction. Like those previous efforts, he depicts people struggling to find some measure of control--or at least the illusion of such--over a situation in which they have none and like those films, he depicts their struggles in a deliberately detached style that prefers to observe things from a cool and reserved distance. The problem with "12 Years a Slave" is that while that approach worked to some extent in McQueen's earlier films (though I must admit that I do not value them quite as highly as some of my colleagues), it just does not work here. From a formal standpoint, the film is stunningly composed but the stylistic concerns quickly dominate the proceedings until the compositions themselves come across as more important than the events that they are depicting. As a portion of some kind of visual art installation of the sort that McQueen began his career with, this might have been interesting but it quickly grows tedious here. McQueen never demonstrates any real interest or passion for the subject at hand other than as an excuse for creating tableaus of cruelty using an exquisite visual aesthetic. Say what you will about the likes of such infamous slavery-related films as "Mandingo" and "Django Unchained" and their more conventionally exploitative sex-and-violence-filled approach to the subject--they at least showed more interest in exposing the horrors of slavery than "12 Years a Slave" and the kind of overheated craziness that could help perpetuate the idea that this was somehow normal.
The detached approach also extends to the character of Solomon himself and like the rest of the film, it also proves to be an odd and unsatisfying choice. As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor is as good as can be but is hamstrung by having to play a character who is just as much of an enigma to us at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. Because he is so sketchily developed, it is hard to develop much rooting interest in him beyond the obvious sympathy for someone in his situation. We get very little sense of his regret and mourning for the life that he has lost or the effort that is required to keep both his real identity and his intelligence at bay so as to have a better chance to survive. As a result, what was presumably designed to be one of the film's key scenes--the one in which Solomon angrily refuses to help end Patsey's never-ending torment by assisting her in her suicide attempt--doesn't quite come off because the stakes just don't seem to be there. Even a sure-fire scene like the big finale doesn't quite work because of the general lack of interest in Solomon as a person--while I appreciate the efforts of McQueen and screenwriter to scrub the sequence of the usual cheap catharsis that makes for a good-looking Oscar clip, they haven't replaced it with anything else. This is a moment that should be overwhelming but thanks to the opaqueness of Solomon, most viewers will come away feeling only moderately whelmed at best.
Beyond Ejiofor, the casting is all over the map. On the one hand, McQueen has studded the film with familiar faces in smaller roles with varying results. Paul Giamatti is very good as the quietly hateful slave dealer and Benedict Cumberbatch is also excellent as the slave owner who almost makes his actions seem entirely reasonable and logical to Solomon. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt, who drifts in during the final scenes as the world's dreamiest Canadian abolitionist/carpenter, is flat-out embarrassing and highly distracting while Alfre Woodard and Qvenzhane Wallis are barely around long enough to make any sort of impression one way or another. At the same time, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o makes the most vivid impression possible as Patsey and her scenes are among the few that break through the emotional barricade that McQueen has erected and truly resonate with the audience.The best performance, however, is the knockout work contributed by MIchael Fassbender as Epps, who somehow manages to take one of the most hateful characters ever depicted on film and find an unexpected sense of empathy that allows Epps to come off like a real, if deeply flawed,person instead of a one-note ogre. His performance is so striking, in fact, that I have a feeling that a more interesting movie than this one might have been made from his perspective than that of its putative main character.This marks Fassbender's third collaboration with McQueen--he previously starred in "Hunger" and "Shame"--and as with those other efforts, his contributions are far more intelligently conceived and executed than those of his director. When he is on the screen, "12 Years a Slave" shines but it seems to me that if you come away from a movie about slavery buzzing about the slave owner, something has gone terribly wrong along the way.
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