Thursday, October 24, 2013

12 Years a Slave

An incessant clanking blares from within the musical score. An extremely tight shot of a ship’s propeller slowly pans up to reveal the rippled water the ship is leaving behind. We cut to below the ship, where slaves are chained and bound. There’s talk of overtaking the white crew. There’s remorseful chatter of freedom lost and innocence stolen. More clanking. Another shot of the water. Back down below, a white man comes to rape a female slave, his motions calm and routine. A male slave attempts to stop it, and as a result, will not live to see the next morning. More clanking. Another shot of the water.

This isn’t the first scene of 12 Years a Slave, but it’s the one where I knew for certain that I was in the midst of a masterful film. The scene occurs shortly into the picture, moments after freed and famed musician Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery. During his hellacious boat journey to the south, Solomon angrily describes his confusion while Hans Zimmer’s thundering music underscores the horror, and Joe Walker’s repetitive editing make it clear that there is no escape.

And this is what director Steve McQueen does so well. He uses music, circling editing, Sean Bobbitt’s exquisite composition and unrestricted acting to paint a portrait of hell. Whether that hell is the shit-stained walls of Maze Prison in Hunger, the backroom of a dangerously red-lit gay bar in Shame, or the wet and shackled cabin of a slave ship, McQueen shows men at their most desperate and unforgiving.
Once Solomon’s boat is docked, so begins the epic and unflinching portrayal of exactly what the film’s title suggests. Initially, Solomon is purchased by seemingly kind plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), but even Ford can’t stop the horrors that Solomon suffers. You see, Solomon is an educated man. He can read and write and exercise deductive reasoning. All things that make him worthless in the eye of a slave owner. Slaves were meant to be workers, not thinkers. Intelligence was a threat, and threats were destroyed. Solomon learns this quickly. He knows to keep his mouth shut and his head down, and do the work he’s told. But, occasionally, his intellect gets the better of him. He mouths off, fights back, and demands respect, only to bear the punishment later.

Soon, Solomon is taken to a place one can only describe as hell on earth, the Epps Plantation, run by the sadistic and unpredictable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a truly repulsive man, void of rationality and predictability, constantly hazed by drink. He’s a man riddled with his own complexity, which Fassbender brings to life with shocking effectiveness.
Epps is clearly in love with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), one of his best, most productive workers. This love proves to be a source of great confusion for Epps. How can a man who believes black people to be animals fall in love with one of the animals he owns? Epps has no idea, which causes him to commit unspeakable acts of violence toward Patsey. If this were any other movie, those acts of violence would go unseen. But turning away doesn’t interest Steve McQueen. The man set out to tell an honest and unflinching story of slavery, and that’s exactly what he’s done.

By this point, Michael Fassbender is an extension of Steve McQueen. The actor has appeared brilliantly in all of the director’s films, each time demonstrating that his inhibitions know no bounds. Like Bobby Sands in Hunger and Brandon Sullivan in Shame, Edwin Epps is a dangerous character that, if played wrong, could ruin Fassbender’s career. But Fassbender knows just how much humility to give these characters. He never plays Epps as a one-sided monster, but rather a confused and malicious man. With Epps, Fassbender proves yet again that he is the finest actor of his generation.

McQueen has likened his search for Patsey to finding Scarlett O’Hara. He saw hundreds of actresses for the part, but when he came across Nyong’o, he knew he had his girl. Patsey is Nyong’o’s first film role and my god, what a raw talent she is. Her arc in the film makes for some of the most devastating moments in the picture. Get used to Nyong’o’s name, you’re going to be hearing it a lot these next few months. 
Let me tell you how good Chiwetel Ejiofor is. Chiwetel Ejiofor is so good, that he can act in silhouette. He’s so good, that even the image of his shadow merits awards attention. As Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings to life a character of utter importance. Not just on a cinematic level, but on a human level as well. This is the kind of work that will be studied for decades. The kind of work that teachers will show their students, that parents will show their children. This is a performance of such power, such desire, that it moved me to tears many times over. It’s the finest performance of Ejiofor’s already fantastic career. Watching his work, it’s so very clear why he was McQueen’s first and only choice for Solomon.

I often remark on how good a film is, but rarely do I have the opportunity to call a film important. But that’s just what 12 Years a Slave is: an important, true tale of America’s darkest hour. It’s the best, most important film about slavery ever made, and it was helmed by Steve McQueen, a British man who isn’t afraid to tell stories that no other filmmaker would dare tell. Watching 12 Years a Slave is like watching history horrifically unfold before your very eyes. It’s a film that demonstrates film at its most powerful, and certainly its most important. A

36 comments:

  1. Glad you dug it man. I skimmed your review, but I want to go in as blind as possible on this one. I'll be back to read it once I check out the film. :)

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    1. Hey man, I don't blame you at all. Definitely better to go into this one blind. It is something else though, my friend. Something else.

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    2. Wonderful review! I loved the film. (Seeing it again today actually.) Brilliantly executed with phenomenal performances. I'd love to see it clean up at the Oscars.

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    3. Oh me too. Do you think it has a fair shot? I honestly fear that, even in 2013, the film will scare too many Oscar voters away. But can you imagine McQueen and Ejiofor winning? Heaven.

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    4. I can see several films winning Best Picture, but I still think 12 Years can do it. If there's a narrative (outside of the film) for an unconventional contender, the Academy usually goes for it, like No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker.

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    5. Yeah, I agree with you for sure. It'll be a tough race. I'm excited.

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    6. Hi! I came across this cuz i was looking for an actor to play someone in a story I'm writing and Chiwetel Ejiofor would be perfect for the part (I thought). Anywho, I haven't seen this movie yet, but I really want to--and your beautiful review makes me want to even more! It sounds fascinating and heartwrenching and I can't wait to. So thanks, and keep on writing!! :D

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    7. Thanks so much! This is a very fine film, and Ejiofor is superb in it. So cool that you're writing something you think he'd be good for!

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  2. Brilliant review, Alex! This is one of my most anticipated films of the year, and I can't wait to see it for every mark you've made. McQueen and Ejiofor were in New Orleans for it's premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival, but it sold out almost immediately...would have loved to hear their remarks on this!

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    1. Thanks so much! Ah, I bet that premiere would've been amazing. Really interested to hear your thoughts on this one. I loved everything about it.

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  3. I found out yesterday that it will be playing at my nearest multiplex this weekend as I am definitely going to see this as I do love Steve McQueen's work so there will definitely be a review of the film in the coming days.

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    1. That's great news. Can't wait for your review.

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  4. I have to wait until the end of freakin' January to see this, and one of my friends saw it when he was in New York *cries and watches Hunger again*
    Great review, man :)

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    1. Thanks!

      Ahh such a bummer. I remember it took you all MONTHS to get Shame when that came out. But trust me, it is well worth the wait!!

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  5. Beautifully written! I cannot wait to see this one. How was Sarah Paulson?

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    1. She was a vile, vindictive, horrible fucking bitch, and she played it perfectly. Didn't have a chance to mention her in my review. This cast is too big to touch on them all!

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    2. After seeing the movie I must say she impressed me the most - she really acted her ass off and elevated the script. You could feel her wounded pride and feeling of rejection under the layers of cruelty.

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    3. Yep, she really nailed it. I loved what she did with the part. An exceptional actress.

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  6. yes, ejiofor even in his silhouette! the entire cast (don't forget adepero oduye) were terrific. hope to see a few names during awards season.

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    1. Oh my, Oduye was so good. Utter perfection. Really hoping for some acting noms here too.

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  7. Outstanding review Alex. A thoroughly good read and a film I really can't wait to see. Hunger and Shame have already entered into my favourite film category and I'm hoping for the same here. It sounds like I might just get it.

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    1. Hey Mark, thanks so much for the kind words. These truly is a great, great film. Can't wait to hear what you think about it!

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  8. What a great review to describe a great movie. Saw this this morning and was just entranced by it. Like you said in response to another comment, the cast was too big to mention them all, but aside from all the typical names mentioned, I thought Dano did a great job. That scene where he and the two hands tried to lynch Solomon and were stopped by the overseer, and then Dano's response to him being caught (along with those low horns droning from the score)... shit that gave me goosebumps. That lashing scene (OH MY GOD!!!!) was one of the most brutal scenes I've seen in quite a while. McQueen proved himself to me with Shame (I think I still love Hunger the most out of all three films though) but this movie just establishes him as one of the most unique and visionary filmmakers of his generation.

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    1. Thanks so much man, I was actually happy with the way this review came out. Wasn't sure if people would dig the soft lead, you know?

      Anyway, really happy to hear that you liked it so much. I agree, Dano played his part to perfection. His best work since TWBB. Such a slimy asshole.

      McQueen is a god. The man can do no wrong. Shame is still tops for me, but that film is probably in my Top 20 of all time. Hunger is a grade A+ from me as well, and I'm sure by years end, 12 Years a Slave will be too. Whatta film.

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  9. I need to see this so bad (December is the date for us apparently). Hunger and Shame are perfect. Steve McQueen is such a perfect filmmaker. Gaaaaaah, I need to see this right now! Great review!

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    1. Thanks Stevee! I really think you'll appreciate this one. It's an amazing film. Awesome that you're getting it in December!

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  10. It is not an angry movie or a judgmental one, and this just-the-facts approach brings home the heartbreaking reality of slavery in America.

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    1. I completely agree. That is precisely why I loved it so much. Just the facts.

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  11. One measure of a great film is how long bits of dialogue and images stay fresh in the mind. I saw this over the weekend and I'm still parsing it. McQueen style was a refreshing change of pace for a subject matter often approached with too much sentimentality and outright distortion. (The Butler, for me, fell into this category as well.)

    I won't go into all the things I appreciated about this film, but one I've been thinking about today is Alfre Woodard's performance. In a few minutes, she laid bare the contradictions of her station. Her character is warped, yes, but her matter-of-fact judgment of all plantation masters (including her own?) was crystal clear. She's a wonderful study in contradiction.

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    1. I totally agree with you. Staying power is huge for me. This one has still not left my mind. It haunts me in the best way possible.

      Love what you said about Woodard's performance. Not enough attention has been given to her work in the film.

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  12. Excellent review, I really need to see this film.

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    1. I recently watched it and it was an immensely powerful movie. I reviewed it if you're interested.

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    2. Awesome man, will give it a read soon.

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    1. My biggest flaw as a critic is giving too much praise too quickly. So I wanted to hold a little back for this review. Although, since a year has passed, I still feel comfortable giving this an A.

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