Wednesday, November 20, 2013
12 Years a Slave (Limited Release Date: 10-18-2013)
(I'll give you a second...)
All right, time's up. By now, I'm guessing you've listed off Schindler's List, The Pianist, and Life is Beautiful, with Sophie's Choice, Defiance, The Reader, Downfall, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas and The Diary of Anne Frank possibly rounding out the list, depending on how far back your movie fandom reaches.
Now, let's try the same thing for movies about slavery in America.
Roots and Django, right? Maybe Amistad? We're coming up on 150 years since slavery was finally abolished in the US, and filmmakers are still gun-shy on the subject, preferring story-lines that work around it, not within it. How afraid is Hollywood of approaching the topic in earnest, you ask? Just last year, we saw Django Unchained (gloriously) fly off the handle straight into fantasy, just as Lincoln found a way to detail the abolition of slavery with nary a slave on screen. Thereby, it should come as no surprise that 12 Years a Slave, a film unafraid to look at the deplorable institution for exactly what it was, is a British import, with only a few Americans involved on any level. It's been a long, sordid trudge for this gut-wrenching movie to finally light up silver screens, but thank god it did. Brutal and difficult as it may be to watch, the world needs 12 Years a Slave.
Director Steve McQueen's third feature tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African American living the life of a free man in pre-civil war New York until he is drugged, abducted, and sold into slavery. Educated with skills as a carpenter and a violinist, Northup is forced to hide almost every vestige of his intelligence and autonomy on a hellish journey that takes him through the antebellum south. The horror show eventually sees him sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) an alcoholic mess of Christianity-fueled contradictions who harbors a twisted, unrelenting lust for Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), a stoic servant constantly subjected to her master's impulses.
While I usually rally against pictures that are championed on account of concept alone, the trappings and importance of 12 tempt one to into the land of superlatives. Thank god, then, that the execution here is wholly worthy of the tale. Relatively undiscovered cinematographer Sean Bobbitt takes us on a visceral, almost hypnotic trip, captured on gloriously grainy film, colors exploding off of the screen. His use of extended takes, as seen previously in McQueen's other two films, Hunger and Shame, is employed to mesmerizing effect here, detailing the mania of slave auctions, refusing to turn away from moments of jaw-dropping suffering. Hans Zimmer even offers a typically bombastic score, pulling bullets of sweat from your temples with hair-rasing grandiosity. Suffice to say, this isn't your standard, prepackaged, 'important movie,' fair; if you come in expecting nothing more than a dusty history lesson, you're about to get leveled.
Impressive as its achievements may be, the film is not without fault. The scenes in which Solomon is a free man, witnessed at the movie's opening, and then periodically through-out, play like dream sequences. They neglect to observe the racism that Northup likely faced even as a liberated individual, and, perhaps more damningly, fail to truly establish Ejiofor's character before casting him down into the individuality-eviserating plague that was slavery. As great as the actor is in the film, it isn't until Solomon hits rock bottom that we really understand what he's about, making him a semi-passive bystander for much of the film's runtime. Finally, the movie shows a strange infatuation with stunt-casting, pulling you out of McQueen's all-encompasiing grip with faces belonging to Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire), Taran Killam (of Saturday Night Live fame), and, most distractingly, Brad Pitt. Many of these actors end up justifying their presence, but certainly not all.
These drawbacks are, of course, a small price to pay when one considers the film's many riches. As previously alluded, Ejiofor is terrific, exuding grace and honor even at his lowest points. Many of the film's most entrancing moments occur when McQueen and Bobbitt simply leave the camera on the thespian and let him work, chilling bones by simply looking off into the horizon, an ocean of feeling in his eyes. Nyong'o is every bit his match, a vision of strength and pride, emotions ever simmering just beneath the surface, only rarely (and explosively) revealed. Then there's Fassbender, the protagonist of McQueen's previous two films, stepping off to the side to play a monster of a man, lighting the screen ablaze every moment he's on it. His character's offenses wouldn't be as vile if we couldn't see the mirth on the actor's face, that twitch of pleasure at having such complete, irrevocable control over another human being. A shot in which his sky-blue eyes, often emphasized in the film, silently bore into Solomon's soul is almost too much to bare.
12 Years a Slave is a classic on arrival, a sprawling epic and a hero's journey that possesses more than a handful of scenes and moments that will forever more be entrenched in my brain. Its craft alone merits the praise the film has received thus far, but I want to come back to its cultural importance for a second. Movies matter. Really, they do. As the most comprehensive artistic medium there is (sight, sound, photography, technology, etc.), the imagery and feelings elicited by film, for better or worse, come to shape how we perceive events, especially those set in the past. There's a reason that people who don't read about such things think they know how the British Monarchs of old dressed and behaved, or why those who don't remain abreast of world news now know at least something about the Rwandan genocide. Crazy as it may sound, there's little doubt in my mind that the images witnessed in Schindler's List deeply effect the way that most Americans think about and relate to the Holocaust.
Lament the state of our age if you feel so inclined, but, for most people, film is an easy and extremely impactful method of relaying information. Numbers in text books, the vessel through which history is often relayed to young minds, just don't have the same traction. 12 Years a Slave gives a face to the abundance of suffering that slavery wrought, a visual for which our generation was absolutely starved. Here's to hoping that films detailing other under-examined American crimes, such as the treatment of Native Americans, or the employment of Chinese internment camps, might some day force those who think we've primarily moved past racism and extensive injustice to reflect on their callous perspectives. The past may be the past, but some blemishes don't just wash out.