Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Recent Watches: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

I never know what to say about a movie like “12 Years a Slave.” It’s not a film you can evaluate under the usual perimeters of “Did I like it?” “12 Years a Slave” doesn’t set out to entertain. After watching it, I honestly felt like shit. You’re supposed to feel like shit. The film rubs your noses in man’s inhumanity to man. It displays the cruelty and horror of the slave-era, as close to a historical document as one can get.

The story should be well-known by now. Born free and living in upstate New York, Solomon Northup is a violin player living with his wife and two kids. When joining a group of entertainers touring Washington D.C., he is drugged and sold into slavery. Thus begins a twelve year cycle of abuse amidst New Orleans cotton plantations. He is first sold to a plantation owner named Ford, a quiet fellow who reads from the bible and treats his slaves relatively well. But they’re still his slaves and when Solomon angers a white worker, he is sold to the sadistic, mentally unbalanced Epps. At Epps’ hands, Solomon is witness to, and suffers himself, alarming cruelty.

Director Steve McQueen, previously noted for no-holds-barred depictions of Irish prisons and sex addiction in “Hunger” and “Shame,” never shies away from portraying the horrors of the time. The moment he awakens in the world of slavery, Solomon is tortured, viciously whipped with a wooden board. One a boat to the South, he sees another black man stabbed to death for attempting to protect a female slave. That same woman is, sobbing, sold separately from her children. While on the Epps’ plantation, workers are whipped every day if their cotton production doesn’t meet expectations. An attempted escape is shunted when he walks in on two slaves being executed. The most nauseating moment occurs when a female slave is so brutally whipped that her skin smokes from the lash wounds. And why? Because she wanted a piece of soap to wash with. Despite the wave of critical recognition and award season buzz the film has received, there is no “safe” layer of prestige shine protecting the audience. The movie is stark, horrifying, and uncompromising in its portrayals.

McQueen’s direction is engineered to give every moment of torture maximum effect. In the first act, he frequently cuts between Northup’s new life as a slave and his happy former life as a family man, making the sudden moments of cruelty more jarring. The most terrifying moment is when Solomon is punished for speaking directly with a white worker. He is hanged from a noose, feet dangling inches above the ground. He stands on his toes, barely holding off strangulation. This is presented in a tortuously long take that goes for only a few minutes but feels like hours. The unbroken shot has a purpose, forcing the audience to relive every agonizing minute along with Northup. Ultimately, that is the most horrifying thing about “12 Years a Slave:” These things happened. McQueen never bows to misery porn self-consciousness. There’s no sentimentality or mawkish appeals for emotions. He is honestly presenting the awful conditions as they were.

I’ve heard “12 Years a Slave” referred to as “inspiring,” which is a somewhat misleading statement. Is Northup’s will to survive inspiring? I suppose so. Early on, we see another slave torn apart by misery, weeping endlessly. Northup never gives in to such crushing despair. Though the film’s events present him with little reason to, he continues to survive. However, this isn’t an inspiring story of the human will to endure. When finally free and reunited with his family, there’s no steering music or emotionally uplift. Solomon cries uncontrollably, apologizing repeatedly for his absence. He may have survived but the mental and emotional scars will haunt him forever. A post-credit note informs us that those responsible for his kidnapping were never punished. Northup never received justice. It almost plays like a metaphor for our country’s relationship with its past. Slavery may have ended but we can never right those wrongs.

It’s cynical to say that “12 Years a Slave’s” critical recognition has less to do with its brave, ceaseless depiction of ugly history and more to do with its tireless professionalism. The movie’s production design and ringing Hans Zimmer score are excellent, of course. Chiwetel Ejiofor is fully committed to the material. Ejiofor is more of a character actor then a leading man and never lets any actorly ego get in the way of the performance. He is as brave and visceral as the movie around him. The same could be said of unknown Lupita Nyong’o, who never flinches when depicting the sad life of Patsey, the object of Epps’ psychotic affection. As Epps, Michael Fassbender is properly unhinged, playing an unpredictable man completely free of any sympathy for his fellow man. (Nyong’o and Ejiofor should both win Oscars but seem likely to loose to flashier performances in more audience-friendly films.)

Sometimes, however, the star-studded cast proves distracting. Paul Dano still seems much too fresh-faced and young to take seriously as a cruel plantation worker. Paul Giamatti is far too recognizable an actor for the small role he is given, drawling a lot of attention to himself. Benedict Cumberbatch is fine as Ford and I love that the film doesn’t let his character off the hook, despite being comparatively kind. The worse moment of stunt casting comes when producer Brad Pitt steps into the film. Sporting another ridiculous accent, Pitt plays a kindly Canadian crucial to freeing Northup. That Pitt would give himself such an important part smacks of ego. His presence is deeply distracting, a movie star in a movie otherwise unoccupied with crowd-pleasing decisions. Aside from that, the script’s dialogue sometimes comes off as over-written, sprouting in flowery directions at times. It’s a minor quibble.

(Sadly, without those big names in the cast, it seems unlikely that the film would have received so much attention from the Academy. Many Oscar prognosticators still list the film as the favorite to win. It might. At the same time, it’s such a vicious, uncompromising affair. I can easily see it making the Academy uncomfortable, forcing them to wimp out and give a bunch of awards to, god forbid, “American Hustle” instead. Actually, I can see that happening clearly, like some weird psychic vision, and it’s really disappointing.)

On one of the many film sites I read, a comment about “12 Years a Slave” said it should be shown in high school history class. I agree fully with this. I’ve lived in the south all my life and people here are far too willing to dismiss this country’s bloody, horrible history. The damage to our collective psyche can never heal and it’s a burden every American should carry. “12 Years a Slave” will now reside on my personal list of films too traumatic to watch more then once. It’s forceful and unforgettable, a powerful, desperate plea to never forget and never make excuses. [9/10]

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