‘12 Years a Slave’: Tortured history

October 16, 2013


Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is the year’s most powerful film, an arthouse masterpiece which demands to be seen – and which will punch mainstream audiences in the gut.

McQueen may be the most distinctive filmmaker to emerge since Quentin Tarantino. But while this film deals with similar subject matter as “Django Unchained,” you couldn’t find a movie more opposite to Tarantino’s Oscar-winning tornado of a film or a filmmaker with a sensibility more in contrast to Tarantino’s.

Based on the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen’s film tells the story of Northrup, a free black man in Saratoga, NY, in 1841. A musician, he is enticed to travel to Washington, D.C., by the promise of a windfall of high-paying work. Instead, his companions exploit him, then hand him over to slave traders, who kidnap him to Louisiana, where he is sold to a plantation owner.

By luck, his first owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is thoughtful and refined. He recognizes in Solomon a cultured, intelligent person – but he can do nothing for him when Northrup reacts badly to a racist overseer (Paul Dano) and beats him. Though Solomon is spared from lynching (barely), he is marked for death.

Ford’s only recourse is to sell him to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a notoriously cruel cotton farmer. Epps weighs the cotton production of each slave daily, then whips the ones who don’t make their quota.

And there Solomon stays, trapped in brutal servitude, helpless to aid the female slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who Epps uses as his sex slave (as well as a field hand). Northrup must learn subservience to survive, as well as how to handle both Epps and his cruel and jealous wife (Sarah Paulson).

Where Tarantino’s template often seems to be the exploitation film (taken to bizarrely talkative extremes), McQueen’s work is studied and disciplined, distinctive for its relentless patience. At a time when velocity is mistaken for quality, McQueen holds his shots, training his camera on characters long after most directors would have cut away or moved on to the next scene.

The result is intense and incisive. McQueen doesn’t just show us the bloody result of whipping; he first lets us languish in the agony of the act itself, how long it lasts, how each lash revives the victim to new heights of pain, when soothing unconsciousness beckons.

He’ll also linger on Ejiofor’s face, compounding our sense of Solomon’s helplessness, the internal battle between his pride and his instinct to survive. Ejiofor has a countenance seemingly built for close-ups, with eyes that evince the pain, fear and anger he must keep in control. You watch him calculate what he is willing to do to save his own life, as he wonders whether he’ll be able to live with himself afterward.

The casual cruelty of Epps, the sneering contempt his wife has – for both Epps and for the black people who slave for them – these all help recreate the insufferable inhumanity of slavery. Though it is more than 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, the aftereffects of slavery remain. It seems no surprise that the divide in our country politically between progress and regressiveness often splits the country along the same lines as the Civil War.

McQueen has a visual artist’s eye and a sure sense of casting. Ejiofor, a terrific British actor, brings a grim reality to Northrup, an educated man who can’t quite believe that he has been banished to this circle of hell. His face radiates resentment, confusion, rage – even when he is trying to mask his feelings, just to survive.

Fassbender is superb playing a man of unconscionable cruelty, whose appetite for inflicting discomfort is as inhuman as the things he does. Nyong’o, as the benighted Patsey, gives a performances that’s like an open wound, even before she suffers the nastiest whipping the film has to offer.

“12 Years a Slave” is not for the faint of heart – yet it is an important, engrossing and upsetting film. It’s hard to imagine one that will hit you harder.

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