BY TRENT ALLYN BOYER
Solomon Northrup has had a rough night. After dining with supposed friends who allegedly wanted to utilize his talents as a violinist, he wakes up wrapped with chains inside of a slave holding pen. The film is “12 Years a Slave” and the time period is 1841. It is a savage time for the United States, and no film to my knowledge has shown just how truly unmerciful and horrific the slave trade was. We journey along with a New York born-free man, Solomon, on his penultimate voyage to a Louisiana plantation, and witness the ten years he endures before he is finally released.
“12 Years a Slave” is a masterpiece and has been trumpeted as such by major award Associations and film critics. It is the number one pick for the best American film of 2013 in publications like Rolling Stone,
Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, BBC and The Washington Post. This review will not be concerned with trivial ratings or rankings compared with other movies that happened to have been released the same year. The year, 2013, will surely go down as one of the landmark years for redefining movies such as “Gravity” (Curan), “Her” (Jonze) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (Scorsese). “The Wolf of Wall Street” shows the cinematic reach of indecency to indicate how wealth has become the measure of man. “Her” finely demonstrates the direction our culture is heading towards as well as how technology redefines the way we seek relationships and ultimately see ourselves. “Gravity” portrays just how unique the medium of film is as a technological means to evoke metaphysical ideas and see environments that most of us can only dream about. But, in the opinion of this viewer, it is “12 Years a Slave” that fully exalts in the transformative, emotional and cathartic power that the film industry can deliver when all the puzzle pieces fit together perfectly to reveal mosaic beauty.
The film is unquestionably well-acted by Chiwetal Ejiofer who plays Solomon Northup. It is written with a dynamic tempo and down-to-the-last detail focus by John Ridley based on Solomon’s own account. Hans Zimmer’s musical score lifts every scene to something transcendental. The film is photographed by Sean Bobbitt, whose camera lens can equally capture both the exquisite beauty of the Southern landscape as well as the visual disgust and discomfort of slavery treatment. The man who brings all of the pathos together behind the curtain is director Steve McQueen. I have not had the honor to view Mr. McQueen’s two other features, “Hunger” (2008) and “Shame” (2011), but I eagerly anticipate seeing them as soon as I get the chance because of this movie alone. Incidentally, McQueen is a British film director-, but he is the most important force behind the theatrical spectacle that is the most seething, sobering and humorless examination of slavery in the U.S. I have ever witnessed. But here, enough with the accolades because that would distract from the real points I want to make about “12 Years a Slave.”
I believe the movie works on multiple dimensions. On its atmospheric, about to leap from the celluloid screen level, it is a meditation on slavery during the 1800’s in the U.S. south. The premise itself gathers criticism as being an excuse to extol white liberal guilt and demands for slavery reparations. But it should also ask each viewer how many times Hollywood had made serious attempts at exposing the nation’s darkest crime and sin: “Amistad,” “Roots” and “Django Unchained?”
The film, “12 Years a Slave,” is the long awaited response or maybe purging is a better word.
The simple fact is that our culture’s consciousness has not yet been flayed with a modern, accurate visualization of what it meant to be a slave (or an indentured servant or even the wife of a wealthy white plantation owner who is ultimately shown to be a pawn of the white-male dominated hierarchy). What this movie effectively shoves down our pupils the beatings, degrading insults, rapes, whippings and death threats at the plantation of Edwin Epps (played with superb ruthlessness by Michael Fassbender). Edwin Epps may be one of the vilest characters ever exhibited on the silver screen. We do see some indication of inner conflict in the boozing, philandering and predatory behavior of the racist to the core of Epps, but it is restrained and repressed. In one especially excoriating scene I became stunned as he relentlessly whips a young woman named Patsey (played with devastating believability by Lupita Nyong’o) for getting a bar of soap from a neighboring plantation owner.
On a more peeled under layer, the film works as a story of a man who ultimately is not invested in fighting the evils of his time until he experiences them first hand. As we see in flashbacks early on, Solomon, while not oblivious to the plight of slaves, is not disposed to fight on their behalf in the white-run society that has opened its doors to him in upstate New York. It is only revealed after the credits that he joins the abolitionist movement after his time as a slave. This I believe is the real theme: Solomon’s rebirth so to speak from suffering the literal lash of the society that he was shielded from in his comfort and conformity in white culture. Stripped of his former identify and class status, he no longer has the choice of merely looking away from the greatest political problem of his time.
What “12 Years” renders so effectively is showcasing a man who is somewhat distant, intellectual and guarded, as he struggles to retain his humanity despite the objectification he is forced to endure and see all around him. Ejiofer is all downcast eyes, a stern serious expression that seems to hold his very spirit together and solemn violin playing. He is a rare kind of actor who can be intense, and subdued all in a matter of seconds, moving us in almost every frame.
Then, as it is a film dealing with an undeniably huge issue, especially for American audiences, it unsurprisingly has an underlying, urgent political edge in its soul; it seems to be asking us about the classic, ethical question of how much injustice and suffering we are able to take and witness before acting upon it.” We might merely make excuses like slave owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), or we might make a dangerous act of courage and heroism as abolitionist Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) does which could change the course of history in slight and substantial ways.
The film does not seem to be trying to evoke Marxist ideas about the nature of the reality being shaped by economic forces or how slavery gives way to feudalism which gave way to capitalism, but it is hard not to think about these ideas or ask questions as we watch the credits unwind. The many are still not sitting at the master’s table, not only in Louisiana, but all over America and the rest of the world. “12 Years a Slave” is a movie that will manifest itself in conversation, in tears of rage, in argument and appear as a great example of teaching history with a pulse. It is more than a political or ethical statement; it’s why we should go to the cinema in the first place.
Directed by Steve McQueen, Screenplay by John Ridley
Distributed by Fox Searchlight
English. 134 minutes