Sunday, October 27

REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen
2013 Drama
2 hours 13 minutes
From Fox Searchlight

Chiwetel Ejiofor
Michael Fassbender
Lupita Nyong'o
Benedict Cumberbatch
Sarah Paulson
Paul Giamatti
Alfre Woodard
Paul Dano
Michael B. Williams
Brad Pitt

It is not a film you could leave and say that you enjoyed it.  It is certainly not a fun time in any way imaginable.  It is terribly sad, harsh, at times extremely difficult to watch.  I think the question is how it will stand up against other films on the subject of slavery or will it get lost in the sea of such films.  You may form another opinion from mine but I say it not only rivals the best of such films, it bests them in a number of ways.  The finest tribute I could give it is to say it stands right up there with the granddaddy of all slavery movies, the acclaimed TV miniseries, Roots

This is not only based on a true story but it comes out of a biographical memoir written in 1853 by Solomon Northup, a free married father from upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery and kept in bondage for a dozen years in Louisiana, all before the Civil War started.  The film is a harrowing account of this man, not born into slavery, but stolen from a loving family and a prosperous life with a bounty of advantages.  His dialogue as a slave is minimal but his shock, pain and grief is fully visible and we ache for him.

There were some moments during the most vicious beatings I have perhaps ever witnessed on the screen that I had the desire to bolt, shrieking as I left that I couldn't take it anymore.  I am glad I stayed in my seat, secure in the belief that I was seeing something great.

The chief reason I could stay put is the same reason I went in the first place (I mean besides Michael Fassbender)... I love the outside-the-box directing of Steve McQueen.  He never makes films for the masses and this film doesn't change that.  He shows strengths and weaknesses in all sorts of people like no other these days.  He's never afraid to explore what's really goin' on.  His lead characters in all his films (frequently played by the aforementioned Mr. Fassbender) go on gripping psychological journeys.  And McQueen always understands how to add just the appropriate mood for us to take our own front seat on his journey.  If some end their journey saying they never want to travel with McQueen again, they sureinthehell know they got bounced on their asses a few times along the road.  And they know they've recovered.  I like McQueen's seering honesty on the subjects he picks.  I don't mind feeling a little pushed around now and then because he knows how to challenge my regard for certain things.  That's ok, too.  It all certainly makes me hungry for his next work.

By this point, I think most of the really good actors want to work for a bold storyteller like McQueen.  And he has worked already with some of the current crop of good or great actors with Michael Fassbender leading the way.  It's dangerous, I think, for an actor to take on a role such as this one.  Some people will never forget what a vicious, contemptible, white creep he was and they may not want to see his work again.  What a shame (pun intended).  We shall not think of those people anymore.  Let's add that the actor is nothing short of mesmerizing in this role.

Like McQueen, the star of this film, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a black man from England.  Perhaps both brought a different sensibility to such an American piece of history.  Their collaboration was aided by the work of a number of other non-Americans in the cast.  Ejiofor has a wonderfully expressive face.  Those big soulful  eyes can just break your heart.  He is a standout in a role in which he also stands out alongside others who are less educated in matters of world or social matters.  He is told that if he tells anyone he knows how to read and write, he will suffer for doing so. He's not only smarter and wiser than the other blacks but the whites as well.  One of his character's greatest difficulties was to be less than he was.

Ejiofor I have forgotten to mention in my praise of some young black actors I quite enjoy these days.  I don't know why he got left off the list and I make my apologies.  I first saw him in Amistad though admittedly my focus was a bit more on Djimon Hounsou.  He was most impressive in Dirty Pretty Things, as he was in Four Brothers, Kinky Boots, Inside Man, Children of Men and American Gangster.  I am, as we speak, enjoying him as a 1930s bandleader in England for Starz' 6-episode production of Dancing on the Edge.  And with all this, I am pretty perky about his next film, Half of a Yellow Sun dealing with a struggle in Nigeria with Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose as his costars.

Lupita Nyong'o was fascinating as his soul mate-friend during their ugly time together.  Her role required an actress of great depth for she would have to hit all the emotional and physical highs and lows.  Her character experienced great suffering and there's no way that any loving folks could not take this character to their hearts and the actress along with it.

The two Pauls... Giamatti and Dano, were slimebags of the first order.  The former was smarmy and slick and the latter so sadistic one wanted to run to the screen and beat it.  Sarah Paulson hit a bulls eye as a steely, jealous and vindictive plantation wife.  Not all of the whites were horrible, just most of them.  One of the better ones was Benedict Cumberbatch who showed that his brain and heart were still in good working order.  Brad Pitt, one of the producers of the film and great admirers of the work, echoes the thoughts of all intelligent and caring people in his small role at the end.

It's not all beatings and whippings, degradation and human suffering.  Through fairly liberal use of flashbacks, we see Solomon is his comfortable life before his abduction.  Personally, I quite enjoyed watching a black family maneuver during those mid-1800s in upstate New York.  Those scenes were done very well and frankly, an admitted temporary relief from the hardships suffered down south.

An illustration from the 1853 book

As is pretty much always the case with great movies, all the technical credits that I can think of were superb.  Set and art direction were outstanding, camerawork was brilliant, the music just right for every scene.  The film was edited quite well... the flow and the focus just right to keep it all moving along at the right clip.

Let's wrap this up with addressing what these last few paragraphs are really about.  Oscars!!!  And there better be plenty of them, certainly for directing and the film itself, but for any number of actors.  I thought it was an insightful and well-executed drama of an egregious but important historical moment in American history.  Hear the noise of that applause for all of you involved.

Review of All Is Lost

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