12 Years A Slave

November, 2013, Drama


12 Years a Slave

 In 1840, an African American musician by the name of Solomon Northrup left his home in upstate New York to perform in Washington D.C. at the invitation of two impresarios who promised him two weeks of work there. He awoke one morning shortly after his arrival to find himself in chains, sold into slavery. That much is history, reported in Northrup’s autobiography nearly a decade and a half later.

 Now British artist-turned-director Steve McQueen (Shame,Hunger) has taken Northrup’s story and, with the help of novelist & screenwriter John Ridley, (Red Tails, lots of series television) fashioned a searing indictment of American slavery as practiced in the antebellum South, assaulting audiences with scenes of unremitting violence, abuse and humiliation. The result is a visual diatribe of appalling ugliness that constantly teeters on the brink of exploiting the very excesses it excoriates, becoming in the process a devastating polemic masquerading as history lesson.

 Northrup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a distinguished English actor of Nigerian heritage with memorable performances in over 2 dozen films from comedy (Kinky Boots) to drama (Children of Men) to thrillers (DirtyPretty Things). He provides a compelling picture of a decent man plunged into a life of unimaginable misery. Northrup progresses from anger to resentfulness to terror at what he sees and is forced to do; Ejiofor’s expressive face vividly conveys the degradation this dignified and innocent man suffered as he descends from master of his own fate to a piece of property totally controlled by a succession of owners. It’s a powerful performance, counterbalancing what could otherwise have been a lurid depiction of the movie’s subject matter.

 But it’s the villains that 12 Years presents who linger in the mind like a lurid nightmare: the casual venality of slave auctioneer Paul Giamatti, chatting away with his gawking customers as he sells a mother to one bidder and her two young children to another…Paul Dano’s venal plantation overseer, jealous of Northrup’s innate dignity and cowardly even in his viciousness… Benedict Cumberbatch’s Southern gentleman, hiding spineless timidity behind his courtly manners as he reads from the Bible to those who work in his fields… Sarah Paulson’s childless wife venting at her husband’s infidelities by physically abusing and mentally humiliating the very woman he repeatedly rapes...

 Yet these human malignancies pale when compared to Edmund Epps portrayed by Michael Fassbender. This 36-year-old German-born Irish-raised actor, who seems to be in scores of movies simultaneously, (13 in the last 4 years, with 3 more for release next year and a pair currently being filmed) creates a satanic portrait encapsulating the evils of the very institution Epps so brutally and vehemently defended. It’s a chilling performance that would be considered an example of scenery-chewing melodramatics were it not for the actor’s ability to simultaneously convey his character’s rapacious appetites and bottomless self-loathing.

 McQueen’s southern Louisiana locations offer cinematographer Sean Bobbitt the opportunity to imprison both slaves and owners alike in the fertile but hauntingly ominous bottomlands surrounding the Mississippi Delta while Hans Zimmer’s score owes as much to the sound of clanking manacles and abrasively grating paddlewheels as it does to the Negro spirituals sung over freshly dug graves.

 Only Ridley’s script keeps this film from being as highly regarded critically as it might have been; his awkward phrasing and often stilted dialogue seems oddly out of place when compared with the elegance of mid-19th century expression found in Tony Kushner’s screenplay of Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln.  

 Nevertheless, this bristling exercise in polemic filmmaking wasn’t made to entertain – but to illuminate an ugly truth, which is does with searing creativity.

 The Verdict? A shattering confrontation with a part of America’s past most audiences would much rather gloss over if not forget entirely. And it took a British director and two of England’s best actors to make us cringe in recognition…

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