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12 YEARS A SLAVE (DIR: STEVE MCQUEEN)(SCR: JOHN RIDLEY, BASED ON THE BOOK OF THE SAME NAME BY SOLOMON NORTHUP)
In the closing of her opening monologue for the Oscar awards broadcast of 2014, host Ellen Degeneres got off her best line of the night: "Possibility number one, 12 YEARS A SLAVE wins best picture. Possibility number two, you're all racists." Behind the laughter the joke raised lots of questions. Would Oscar voters award director Steve McQueen's historical drama because it seemed like the right thing to do? Was it really the best film of the year, or just one that people felt good about supporting? These feelings were underlined when some voters anonymously admitted after the awards that they voted for the film without actually seeing it, admitting that it felt good to vote for it, while citing the film's violent nature as their reason for not watching. It does seem that there was a perfect kind of symmetry at work, as the Academy awarded the first film directed by a black director a best picture honor seventy five years after awarding GONE WITH THE WIND, an unabashedly romanticized look at the antebellum south. All political correctness aside, I personally think that 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a great movie, with wonderful performances and an excellent, unblinking look at a brutal past injustice; of all the films I saw in 2013, it was the only one that moved me and stuck with me long after I saw it. It reminded me, in some ways, of Steven Speilberg's SHINDLER'S LIST, another powerful historical movie; both films are often violent and brutal, but they were also accurately recording past events. If they didn't show that violence and brutality, they would be downplaying history and doing a disservice to the people who suffered under these terrible events.
Before it was a film, it was a narrative published in 1853 in which Solomon Northup related the horrifying story of how he, a free man living in New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Released just a short time after Harriet Beecher Stowe's equally anti slavery book, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, 12 YEARS A SLAVE became a best seller and a galvanizing force in the anti slavery movement. Unlike Stowe's book, however, Northup's tome was mostly forgotten, although it was reprinted twice in the 60's and was turned into a PBS television movie directed by Gordon Parks in 1984. In 2008, England born black director Steve McQueen met writer John Ridley during a screening of McQueen's first feature film, HUNGER. The two decided to work together on a movie set in America during the time of slavery, but had trouble finding the right outlook until McQueen's longtime girlfriend Bianca Stigler gave him a copy of the book, which he found "stunning" and he made it his mission to bring the film to the screen. Eventually, movie star Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Productions funded the film for around $20,000,000. McQueen and Ridley worked with historical scholars to make sure the film was accurate, and although some liberties may have been, the film was mostly praised for its realism. Chewetel Ejiofor was cast in the lead, while Micheal Fassbinder, who had worked with McQueen on his first two films, was brought it to play the brutal slave owner Edwin Epps. And in a surprise bit of casting that worked out beautifully, mostly unknown Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o was brought in to play the extremely difficult role of the horribly abused slave Patsey. After training the actors with a dialogue coach to make sure they sounded right for the time, McQueen went into production. The film was mostly shot on actual historic plantations in Louisiana near where the actual Northup was held. The film finished on time and on budget, and with overwhelmingly positive reviews, it would go on to gross around $56,000,000 in the US, and make around another $100,000,000 world wide.
It tells the tale of Solomon Northup(Ejifor), a free man and violin player living in New York with his wife and two children. After offering him a job in Washington DC, two men drug him and sell him into slavery. Living in Lousiana and moving from one plantation to another, Northup eventually winds up at the plantation of Edwin Epps (Fassbinder), who treats the slaves brutally while raping one of them, Patsey (Nyong'o) repeatedly. Eventually, Northup is able to appeal to Canadian worker Bass (Brad Pitt) to bring to New York a letter about his kidnapping. He does so, which leads to Northup being reunited with his family.
From Hans Zimmer's dramatic percussive score to the beautiful but foreboding swampland locations, to the long, bravura tracking shots, McQueen directs this film for maximum effect. Nearly every horrific aspect of the slave trade is depicted: from Solomon being shoved into a ship's hold in chains to a slave auction in which people are presented like cattle and families are torn apart, along with the casual brutality, the beatings, the back breaking work and the sadistic plantation owners who rape any female slave they desire. Yes, MCQueen pulls no punches, but he also shows the camaraderie that can form between people caught in a terrible situation, as when Solomon and his fellow slaves bury an older slave who died in a cotton field.
My favorite moment in the film is an impressive shot which starts with the newly shackled Solomon screaming as realizes his situation, and then the camera pulls back and goes upward, to show that he is being held a short distance away from the White House. It's the kind of shot that is open to a number of interpretations, from the irony of a beacon of freedom being so close to someone in chains, to a reminder of the race of the current White House occupant.
Chewetel Ejiofor was at first reluctant to play Northup when McQueen first asked him, but then he went into the role whole heartedly, studying the Louisiana plantation culture and learning how to play the violin. He's great in role, with his good looks and immediate likabilty making him a compelling screen character even in the flashback scenes before tragedy befalls him. Often Ejiofor expresses himself only through his eyes, showing not only the pain his character is going through but also the internal calculations he has to make whenever he speaks to the plantations owners, fully realizing that these people have complete control over him and could kill him at any given moment.
In a nice success story Lupita Nyong'o went from unknown actress to Oscar winning (for best supporting actress) start practically overnight, and it's totally deserved. As the lovely, tragic Patsey, Nyong'o is truly heartbreaking. Like Ejiofor, she does much of her acting through her eyes, but unlike him, she isn't afraid to show plantation owner Epps just how much contempt she has for him without saying a word. In a memorable scene, he tries to have sex with her in a tender way, and she responds with silent indifference, fully aware of how enraged that makes him.
As for Micheal Fassbinder, he had worked with McQueen twice before and his comfort with the director is obvious in his completely fearless performance. His Epps is a truly repulsive character, a drunken sadist who loves the control he has over his slaves and who pathetically thinks that he can make Patsey care for him as repeatedly rapes her. He sees being a slave owner as his god given right (he quotes the bible to justify his brutality) and can't even understand the unjust nature of what he's doing, raging that a "Man does what he pleases with his property" during a particularly savage beating.
If the film has a flaw, it's in the entrance of the Brad Pitt character Bass; although Pitt isn't bad in the role, it's distracting in such a realistic film to have one of the world's biggest stars show up in a small role. It also shows producer Pitt's ego by giving himself the most sympathetic white role in the film, with his character not only risking his own life to save Solomon, but also giving lofty, unnecessary speeches about the horrors of slavery to Epps (that said, I do like the way Fassbinder plays offs him in their scenes together). Still, this is a minor flaw in an otherwise great film.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
I think it's obvious that I love this film, and that while fine films like Richard Linklater's BEFORE MIDNIGHT and David O Russel's AMERICAN HUSTLE were also released in 2013, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is clearly the year's most powerful and best film. In this case, the politically correct choice was also the right one.