November 11, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen, 2013

Solomon Nothrup is a free man living in Saratoga. A skilled fiddle player, he is convinced by a couple pf men to travel to Washington to perform. Soon after he arrives, he is Shanghaied and sold into slavery. His requests to be freed on the account of being a free man from the north fall on deaf ears.

McQueen's adaptation of the Solomon Northrup memoir is an honest one. A true account of a tragic story. A very raw display of one of the true American horrors. McQueen is a skilled filmmaker and the technique involved in this picture is very deliberate. A lot of close to medium shots. Long takes, a lot of hanging on a shot, longer than one would expect. It's all intentional. He wants to enslave the audience, and he is effective at that. The tendency to cringe at what you are seeing, amd you do. The urge to look away, and you try to. It is also a film that wants to be heard, with Hans Zimmer providing the score. And so the pieces come together and the result is an ominous construct of deception. And the film is not over-stylized like Tarantino's very popular Django Unchained. That makes it feel more personal. While there is plenty of disturbing imagery in the film (possibly some of the worst you'll ever see), what makes the film truly upsetting is the truth behind it. You are seeing what your fellow man is capable of doing. What humanity is capable of. That's what makes it truly horrific. Manipulation, deception, betrayal, heartache, loneliness, theft. And not just theft of a person's livelihood. Not only a theft of a man's name. Theft of the human spirit. Northrup is living an honest life in Saratoga. A threat to no one but a set of fiddle strings. A family man, one who pays his taxes, has an honest job. The separation of North of South feels quite skewed when there is a threat of a southerner making their way up only to double-cross an honest man only because of his skin color. And so he is Shanghaied. He is not stripped of his freedom but his existence.

Great performances throughout. Chiwetel Ejiofor is well equipped to play Northrup. He will likely earn an Oscar nomination, and the praise is well-earned. Paul Dano plays the chilling Tibeats. Avenging after being undermined, he holds a grudge and doesn't value any real principles. Paul Giamatti plays a horrible slave trader Freeman, pawning off humans as if they are livestock, even if it involves separating mother from child. McQueen once again works with Michael Fassbender, who has appeared in all three of his feature films. Fassbender is so wonderfully despicable here. Hidden under the false charm of his Southern regalia, he puts the slaves in strict competition over cotton volume and on lonely nights forces them to dance to his own amusement while he stands around in bare-feet and loose garments. His temper is short and can be triggered by his repellent wife (played by the great Sarah Paulson). 

A story of perseverance, personal fortitude, but also one of shame. Germany may have the scar of Nazism on its face but we will always have slavery on ours. While the title of the film may give the ending away, it's not only about whether or not Solomon Northrup is eventually freed. There is no happy Hollywood ending to this piece. Taking 12 years away from a man not only strips him of time he cannot get back, it strips him of a certain freedom for the rest of his life. And what justice can be made for such time? Hard to quantify it. That's what makes it such a true American tragedy.

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