Friday, October 18, 2013

12 Years a Slave Movie Review

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor (r) in 12 Years a Slave

The Reality of Slavery

'Your story is amazing, and in no good way,' laments Brad Pitt's character to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Steve McQueen's jarring historical drama 12 Years a Slave. I can't think of a better more accurate way of describing perhaps this year's most powerful film. McQueen holds nothing back in this chilling depiction of one horror amidst many; and while it's difficult to watch, it should be seen by everyone.

Rotten Tomatoes Plot: Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, the New York State citizen who was kidnapped and made to work on a plantation in New Orleans in the 1800s. Steve McQueen (Hunger) directs from a script he co-wrote with John Ridley, based in part by Northup's memoir. Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, and Paul Giamatti co-star.

What’s Best: Despite its horrific nature (horror, a resonating theme) there are numerous excellent performances in 12 Years a Slave, led by Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o. Solomon jumps from hero, to spectator, to victim and back again, with seamless ease. Yet there's nothing easy about playing a character who's enslaved, beaten, hanged and tortured with regularity... who still comes across as strong. Solomon is a marvel to behold and incredibly real. Ejiofor's tearful reunion at the end of the film is absolutely mesmerizing.

Nyong'o is sure to garner Oscar buzz for her turn as the "queen of the fields," and it's well deserved. Her character Patsey is diminutive in size, but she manages to consistently pick double the amount of cotton as any of her fellow slaves. Sadly, her apparent "favorite" status is more a curse than a positive, ultimately subjecting her to all kinds of torture... most of which she manages to bottle up inside, except for a single act of defiance (over a bar of soap, and perceived betrayal) that results in a brutal whipping. Nyong'o's facial expressions are raw and spectacular: I can't wait to see her in next year's Non-Stop with Liam Neeson.

McQueen has never been one to shy away from controversy, and it takes a filmmaker of that ilk to bravely catapult his audience into 2+ hours of graphic atrocity. Mind you, it's not all horror; but McQueen is careful not to inject happiness or levity (a la Django Unchained.) Lest you think slavery was anything like Tarantino's fantasy, think again: 12 Years a Slave gets it right.

As for the antagonists of the film, Fassbender and Giamatti deserve special mention for their particularly fiendish portrayals. Fassbender's unhinged Edwin Epps won't soon be forgotten as one of the most rotten characters in the past 20 years (right up there with Ralph Fiennes' Amon Goeth in Schindler's List.) Interestingly, both Epps & Goeth show glimpses of normalcy. That's not the case with Giamatti's Theophilus Freeman (interesting surname) who shows nothing but evil while barking, 'Captain, get these niggers to my cart,' and 'It's very likely he'll grow up to be a fine beast,' while showcasing a young slave to potential buyers.

What’s Not: Make no mistake; sitting through 134 minutes of mostly violent, heartbreaking material is downright exhausting. Call it a necessary evil, but the importance of seeing this for yourself outweighs the uncomfortable feeling you're bound to have. That said, McQueen could have exposed a lot more; but one must be mindful of not alienating prospective customers (moviegoers.)

Most Memorable Line: Unaware of the fate about to befall him, Solomon lauds praise on the two men who are about to betray him, 'Your generosity is extraordinary,' before waking up the next morning in chains.

I won't harp on some of the film's more vulgar language; but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the callous greeting one plantation owner's wife delivers after learning one of her new slaves was separated from her family, 'Get some sleep and something to eat. Your children will soon be forgotten.' Worse yet, she follows that up a few days later with, 'I can not have that kind of depression about,' when hearing the same woman wailing over her lost kids. In the next scene, you see her being carried away (forever?) Chilling.

Overall: McQueen's film appears to brush by the injustice of slavery, while focusing on the cruelty of it all. Bravo. So many movies have touched on this period of U.S. History, focusing on the heroes (often white) who battled slavery. Heroes? What about the villains? It's important to understand what really happened, and 12 Years a Slave does this better than any other film to date. Scary as it sounds, this movie is akin to a "fairy tale" compared to most other stories (almost none of which had a happy ending; yet alone an outlet to communicate.)

Grade: B+