When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it.
5 Things You Need to Know About…
12 YEARS A SLAVE
12 Years a Slave, the critically-applauded and a more than safe wager to be a 2014 Oscar night power player, is at times as excruciating to watch as anything I have ever seen on film. Steve McQueen’s historical biopic of the harrowing kidnapping and dozen year enslavement of Samuel Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, NY in the wrong place (Washington D. C., or more accurately, the United States for the first century of our existence) at the wrong time (in mid-nineteenth century America or when money-grubbing kidnappers are afoot), shoots the moments of slavery’s ugliest manifestations (of which there are an infinite number) as though time stood still. Each shot of a beating, raping, or lynching feels several minutes longer than we asked for. The message is clear: slavery is unthinkably horrific and 12 Years a Slave is prepared to leave the viewer with this message steadfastly imbedded for years to come.
In a similar thread, there is a scene that depicts the lynching of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s (a courageous and career defining performance) Samuel Northup that is halted by the conflated magnanimity and cruelty of Michael Fassbender’s plantation slaveowner. Although Fassbender’s disturbed Mr. Epps saves Northup’s life, Northup is left hanging, feet tip-toeing the ground of survival from sunlight to darkness. If there is a set of images that you will remember from this cinematic achievement, it is the aftermath of this lynching: Northrup is alive, but fighting for life, with normalcy surrounding him. Fellow slaves go about their “chores” and plantation hands go about their business while Northup waits for someone to cut him down. I looked around the theater (both curious and in need of a break myself) to see the majority of my fellow moviegoers covering their eyes with a “let me know when it is all over” aversion. I have rarely experienced a communal viewing experience that was as revolting and off-putting to watch. In this one scene, McQueen delivers the most striking 12 Years A Slave anti-slavery pronouncement.
The acting in 12 Years a Slave is so superb across the board that I foresee it may affect how I view certain actors in future performances. Ralph Fiennes impeccable and chilling performance as a Nazi in Schindler’s List has made it difficult, now twenty years since, to see him as anything but an evil villain (his casting as Voldermort was always an easy sell). I anticipate that I will be able to shake Michael Fassbender’s Mr. Epps because he has already had a plethora of defining character portrayals (how much longer do we have to wait for X-Men: Days of Future Past?). Paul Giamatti, one of the best character actors in the business, has enough of a diversified track record to allow his slave auctioneer to be quickly shaken. Unfortunately, I fear that Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood didn’t help) and Sarah Paulson (nor did her performance in Deadwood), two of the most evil of offenders over the course of the picture, may be much harder to shake from their 12 Years a Slave roles. I am not sure I will ever be able to see them the same way.
12 Years a Slave is a masterwork, will be a career-defining picture for all of those involved (especially Ejiofor and McQueen), and will be the toast of the 2014 Oscars. However, my strongest critique is that the picture focuses a little too much on the horrors of slavery rather than on the compelling and informative story of Samuel Northup. Northup’s pre-enslavement period is rushed to auction (Quvenzhané Wallis, we hardly knew you!) before we have time to understand the richness of identity and profundity of this man’s day to day existence. By the time Northup finds his long coveted freedom, it feels like a long two hours since we saw him entertaining Taran Killam. The outcome is a more universal anti-slavery story when a more personal telling of the Samuel Northup story would have created a slightly more unique movie experience.
12 Years a Slave is a motion picture that will sit next to Roots as one of the two definitive cinematic depictions of American slavery. Its prolific form is only matched by its unyielding, unrelenting, and unafraid delivery of this horrific stain on this nation’s history.
One thought on “5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW: 12 Years a Slave”
You twice mention Michael Fassbender in number 2, but the events from the movie, listed in this paragraph, occur while Samuel Northup is owned by the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, not Michael Fassbender. I was also confused by the synopsis included within these two sentences (Although Fassbender’s disturbed Mr. Epps saves Northup’s life, Northup is left hanging, feet tip-toeing the ground of survival from sunlight to darkness. If there is a set of images that you will remember from this cinematic achievement, it is the aftermath of this lynching: Northrup is alive, but fighting for life, with normalcy surrounding him.) in spite of having seen the movie. I do like the words “feet tip-toeing the ground of survival from sunlight to darkness” but I think these sentences as written, confuse the reader.
Northup is nearly lynched at the hands of an assistant overseer, but seemingly saved from certain death by the arrival of a more superior overseer. However, instead of cutting the lynching rope (as the audience expects), Samuel is lowered to the ground, just so that his “feet [are] tip-toeing the ground of survival from sunlight to darkness.”
Also, in addition to those actors listed in number 3, I hope that Lupita Nyong’o is remembered when it comes time to single out those actors deserving special recognition.