Friday, February 28, 2014

Catching Up: "12 Years a Slave"

 4.5 / 5 

Is 12 Years a Slave a great movie?  Yes.

It has the unfortunate reputation of a film that's either too difficult to sit through for its subject matter or its inherent violence.  It has been given the too-polished air of an elitist, liberal-minded art film that is "good for you" but not necessarily a good movie.

I'm guilty of falling into the trap of believing those things.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hasn't made it easy to be engrossed in the Oscars by allowing up to 10 films to be nominated as Best Picture -- most Americans don't see half that number of movies in a theater each year.  But 12 Years a Slave deserves to be one of them.

It's not "deserving" in the sense of being an emotionally wrenching view of a long, shameful chapter of American history.  It's not "deserving" because it's a prestige film with big-name actors being noble.  It's deserving because it's a mesmerizing story told wonderfully, a movie that uses the language of cinema in ways I thought filmmakers had forgotten.

Director Steve McQueen knows when to keep his camera, his actors and his story still -- and when to get them moving.  He grasps the beauty of the film's Southern U.S. settings, and the painful irony of such an ugly story taking place in such beautiful locations.

The experience of slavery can't possibly be told in a single film.  No movie could capture the pain and anguish that human beings experienced while being treated as property, being abused and tortured, being spat upon and lashed, being denied humanity.

12 Years a Slave doesn't pretend to be the definitive film about slavery, abolition or the Civil War.  It tells instead a specific story.  And while that was exactly the problem I had with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln -- it was just too laser focused on one moment in time -- 12 Years a Slave benefits greatly from its focus on one man's experience.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a real man whose astonishing story begins when he is duped  by slave traders and kidnapped from his New York home.  Ejiofor creates a rich, fully realized character, brings us into Northrup's mind and emotional turmoil.  If the mark of a truly great performance is that you forget you're watching an actor you've seen dozens of times in other roles, Ejiofor doesn't simply hit the mark -- he amazes.

Other actors, especially Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a slave Northrup meets on a large plantation owned by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), known for his reputation as a "n---er breaker."  Fassbender, though engrossing, has less of a rounded character to play: His plantation owner is just a bad, bad guy.  He's been nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but is less nuanced in his role than either Benedict Cumberbatch (as Northrup's original owner) and Brad Pitt (as a Canadian who opposes slavery) -- but in general, the plantation owners and white men are of substantially less interest to McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley and the film itself, which is as it should be.

This isn't a story about a black man rescued by white guys.  It's a story about how a human being survives the unsurvivable, about how intelligence, hope and a resolute refusal to give in to despair can save the soul.  Its meaning goes beyond slavery -- but for those of us who were primarily raised on Gone With the Wind, Song of the South, Roots and The Color Purple, the unflinching presentation of slavery that McQueen provides is indeed eye-opening.

But, again, the film isn't meant to be a simple damnation of slavery -- it's meant to be a damnation of anyone who would deny basic rights to other human beings, and a damnation of an America that allowed such suffering.  12 Years a Slave only briefly addresses abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War and the end of slavery -- and never directly addresses lingering, festering discrimination and anti-black views that still exist in many parts of the country.

But it doesn't need to -- and, besides, it does something better: It makes viewers reflect on what they might already know, it drives an interest in learning more about what happened after the plot of 12 Years a Slave ends, it rends the heart and expands the mind.

It also keeps the audience entirely engrossed throughout -- this is a story that propels itself along effortlessly, beautifully, masterfully.  McQueen is a rare director, one who composes a scene within the frame of the camera, rather than covering shots with dozens of angles and hoping to edit all the shots together to make sense.  12 Years a Slave is a gloriously traditional film in that way -- one that's been criticized for being "slow" because of it.  But it's not; it's perfectly paced, requiring the attention of viewers and their work to look at the entire screen and examine what's happening in a shot -- like a multi-layered novel, McQueen expects you to do a little work … but even if you don't, it's still a fine, fine film.

As one character says, "It's an amazing story, and I mean that in no good way."  But I do.  It's an amazing story.  It's engrossing, it's compelling, it's infuriating and nerve-wracking, it's shocking and yet still, in its way, beautiful.  12 Years a Slave certainly is one of the best movies of the year, not because it "deserves" to be honored, but just because, well, it is.  12 Years a Slave is indeed one of the great movies of 2013.

Viewed Feb. 28, 2014 -- On DVD