Sunday, October 20, 2013
"12 Years a Slave" review
*light spoilers ahead, but really, none of these details will affect your viewing of the film*
"12 Years a Slave" is an immensely powerful film. It's not a film that somebody really "loves" because it's too brutal to be loved. But it's also too important to ignore and gives us the most definitive perspective on America's ugly past with slavery thus far. So many of us sat through history class where we certainly were told about slavery, but it was never an emphasized portion of history. It was moreso, "this is something that happened, but it doesn't happen anymore" and it's often left at that. "12 Years a Slave" refuses to leave it at that and, quite frankly, it disturbs me the way a few detractors treat this film. This is a conventionally made film with a very unconventional approach to its treatment of violence and subject matter. It's conventional in its formalism, but unconventional in how it absolutely refuses to turn away from the violence it depicts. I'll admit, this makes for a very uneasy watch, but that doesn't make it a problematic film like some may say. Far from it. The fact of the matter is that we should be forced to see these violent acts, we should be seeing the film in this manner. Not only for what it means to us, but for what it means for the lead character, Solomon Northup.
Based on a true story, in 1841, Solomon Northup lives in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children. He's a talented violinist and is lured into a touring gig by a pair of men while the rest of his family is out of town. After a drunken night out with these men in Washington, DC, Solomon finds himself alone, chained in a room he cannot escape from. He will soon find out that he has been kidnapped and sold into slavery, along with a couple of other young black men (as well as a woman and her two children) who are in similar situations.
And from there, the film begins its uneasy, uncomfortable journey into this darkness that is the American South. Yes, "12 Years a Slave" forces people to see what slavery actually entails. Human beings being made subservient to other human beings where any slip up or act of defiance and they can wind up dead. If they try to escape, they're dead. If they grieve for their children, who have been taken away from them, they're dead. If it is found out that they can read or write, they're dead. "12 Years a Slave" is about all that, yes, but most importantly, it's about how one man was able to endure all of this. He was able to endure all these horrific thoughts as a slave, trying his best to play the part to avoid certain death and yet, for some reason, he insists on surviving. Most importantly, he escapes. Then, amazingly, after all he goes through, he's able to write about his experiences. "12 Years" is, in many ways, about human endurance. It's about our natural propensity to want to live in spite of everything. It's about how, no matter how many horrific stories there are about slavery, about the holocaust, about any of these terrible events in this world, there is that one story about a person who is able to escape. That story reinforces the importance of the human condition, what makes us unique is our innate ability to survive despite seemingly impossible circumstances.
There's no sugarcoating or forced sentimentality in this film. Again, "12 Years a Slave" is a conventionally made film where its conventionality is juxtaposed with this horrific violence which not only reinforces the brutality that occurred in this era, but later, makes Solomon Northup's eventual escape that much sweeter and emotional. When he's finally able to escape and gets to see his wife and children for the first time, you won't find a more emotionally earned moment in cinema. It's an incredibly well-earned emotional scene because, man, we saw everything that he went through. Everything. We were right there with him.
We were forced to watch when he fought for his life while a noose tightly hangs around him. Thanks to the "good fortune" of having his feet being able to touch the ground, Solomon prevents certain death and keeps his toes tippying on the ground, keeping himself alive. But why? At that point in his life, why? Why continue living? Where other people may cry foul or call this particular scene gratuitous, I would have to whole-heartedly disagree. This is the single most important scene in the film. Not only does it show Solomon's inexplicable ability and will to survive but it also shows just how ordinary such an act is to the rest of the plantation. While he suffers, everyone else on the plantation just goes about the rest of their day. The scariest thing about "12 Years a Slave" isn't its depiction of brutality, it's how everyone else in the film responds to the brutality. It's incredibly unsettling to us and yet completely normal to all these other people. And in a way, that scene puts the camera on us. Why have we been able to deal with this dark period of our history with such indifference? And I'm not talking about "white guilt" or anything like that, I'm simply talking about those people who insist on saying that "slavery happened a long time ago" and that it's not even a conversation worth having with people. That today's African-Americans should refrain from even bringing it up because it happened so long ago. But when you're a young African-American and you're brought up into this country and you come to find out some of the horrific things your ancestors had to go through, how the hell are you supposed to act? How are you supposed to feel? What right do we have to tell them how they're supposed to feel?
"12 Years a Slave" would not be nearly as successful if not for the incredible acting all around. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an incredible performance. He always plays the role with just the right balance that the role calls for. The whole film rests on him, too. If his performance doesn't work, the film is nowhere near as effective, but because he absolutely delivers, it elevates the film. Michael Fassbender is also very unsettling as Edwin Epps. What makes Fassbender such an amazing actor, and it's on full display here, is the sheer unpredictability. You can never pinpoint how he's going to react at any second and yet he gives this role such a focused, and at times, quiet intensity. The film is also well-served by great performances from Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
I do have a few minor grievances with the film. Two, really. The first one would be the score from Hans Zimmer. While I did appreciate the unique approach to the instrumentation at times, I ultimately felt the score was too overbearing and overpowering at times when it wasn't really necessary. For me, the visuals were so powerful that it either didn't need such a big musical score behind it, or it could have been complemented with something more subtle that didn't call attention to itself. There were too many occasions where I felt that the score called attention to itself and didn't really add much more drama to what were already incredibly dramatic scenes. Sometimes a big musical score can be great and can help add emotion or layers to a film, but "12 Years a Slave" is already so inherently layered, that it just wasn't warranted in this case.
The other main grievance is the appearance of Brad Pitt. For me, Brad Pitt was more than a little distraction. He doesn't appear until the very end of the film, and while his role is important to the story, because he's such a big name actor and his role is so small, it did distract me. I greatly respect Brad Pitt and I know that his production company helped get the film made, but I think we could've done without his appearance here. He just didn't really add anything to the role that warranted his inclusion.
Steve McQueen has really turned into a special filmmaker. In just his third film, he's created such a clear through-line in his three works. All three of his films now, "Hunger", "Shame", "12 Years a Slave," are about men who go through unbelievably great trauma in order to achieve a certain goal. The goal isn't always positive or noble, especially in "Shame," but I think each film explores the sheer amount of abuse (physically, emotionally, sexually, physchologicall) we can take in order to prove something. Not to other people, but to ourselves. In "Hunger," it's a man going through a horrifying hunger strike to stand up for his convictions. In the end, who is he doing it for? In "Shame," it's a man who's need for sexual satisfaction leads him down a path towards self-destruction. He has an insatiable thirst for sexual stimulation. It's not something he wants, it's something he needs. It's pure, unadulterated, unemotional, animalistic sex. It's a film that explores just how inhuman sex can be when put through this lens.
And finally, "12 Years a Slave" is about a man's inexplicable need or desire to stay alive despite the fact that all hope is essentially lost. It's all there in the title. 12 YEARS. That's an entire run of education for most people, from 1st grade to high school graduation. After year 5, why would he insist upon himself that he must keep living? And when he finally does escape the plantation, it's not without the thought that he's leaving behind dozens of people who will remain enslaved until they die. They have no hope. They have no plausible method to escape. There's no way for them to become free. But, after 12 years, he can't weep for them. He must find a way to find some solace in his freedom. And thankfully, by writing about his experiences, his story will live on forever. His story, a reflection on so many similar stories that don't have happy endings, is a happy ending. Finally, he's able to justify his actions because he made it. His need to continue living will not be for nothing.
I deeply respect and admire the way McQueen handled this film. A director who, in his first two films had the tendency to be a little too self-indulgent, shows remarkable restraint here. He lets the story speak for itself and yet, at the same time, this is very much his movie. Not just in the way it relates thematically to his other films, but the fact is his unflinching style is very much still at play here. This is a story that played perfectly into Steve McQueen's strengths as a filmmaker who is absolutely unafraid to keep the camera running when the audience demands that he cut. "12 Years a Slave" is absolutely essential viewing because it approaches its subject matter with absolute fearlessness. There are many times throughout the film that you will want to turn away, but you shouldn't. Because, at the end, when Solomon Northup is finally free and you get to feel what he feels? What an unbelievable rush.