Wednesday, October 30, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Film)

12 Years a Slave directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga Springs, NY who in 1841 is duped into traveling to Washington DC to perform with his violin and upon his arrival is instead drugged and turned over to a slave trader who has him transported to Louisiana where he is sold and serves 12 years as a slave until he is finally successful in his bid for freedom and is returned to his home and family.

I will caveat this review with the statement that my sentiments for the movie are in large part due to the fact that I read Solomon Northup’s book, 12 Years a Slave, published in 1853 prior to seeing the movie, and having read Mr. Northup’s personal account, I must say there was a gentility of spirit and humanity in Solomon’s own words, told with such pathos, that in all honesty even the best director or actor would find it difficult to capture the same on film.

12 Years a Slave was a gut-wrenchingly brutal and moving film, but while the film easily taps into our emotions through the sheer power of the images on the screen, there was an eloquence in Solomon’s own words on the page which McQueen was not able to seamlessly translate on film. McQueen relies on our own humanity to easily pluck our heartstrings throughout this evocative tale; for how could you watch a human being be beaten like an animal and not be moved to tears or witness the magnitude of slavery’s injustice and not seethe with anger. The images are truly brutal, making no concessions to anyone’s delicate sensibilities, depicting the horror of the act but also its repercussion; showing the crack of the whip flying through the air, the spray of blood as it impacts against a victim’s cringing back, quickly followed by the gruesome sight of the splayed flesh which bore the brutal punishment.

While the scenes of savagery will undoubtedly become ingrained forever in your mind, there were a number of more simple moments which I found less manipulative and more captivating and poignant, such as the shot which juxtapositions Solomon yelling for help through the bars of his Washington DC slave pen with the U.S. Capitol in the background, hauntingly and memorably capturing the irony of the injustice taking place in the shadow of a structure which was supposed to stand for a nation and government based on the conviction that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Another equally stirring moment was Solomon sitting on the dock in Louisiana waiting to be sold and his flashback to a shopping trip in which he, his wife and children, dressed in fine clothes, strolled down the street of their hometown; a sweet family moment so far removed from his current reality that you feel the memory's bitter sting against your own heart.

As for the acting, Ejiofor delivers a gripping portrayal of a man robbed not only of his freedom, but of his home and family, though not his hope. Through his expressive eyes we can both see his horror, for as a free man the reality of slavery is as new an experience for him, as it is to us as viewers, and his resolute stoic determination. Yet there was an aloofness in his depiction, I’m not sure if intentional or not, which in the moment I found a little cold. In hindsight, I think maybe that was part of his character’s portrayal; a distance established between himself and the other slaves, a defense mechanism against the hopelessness found in other slaves for whom this wasn’t a newfound reality, but sadly one lived the entirety of their lives. Fassbender is brilliant as the sadistic slave owner Epps. He conveys the man’s depravity with such believability that your skin practically crawls when you see him appear on screen. The weak link in the cast as far as I’m concerned was Adepero Oduye as Eliza, a slave and mother of two, who is heartbreakingly separated from her children. There is no more moving a moment in the book than when Eliza is separated from her children; a moment which Northup perfectly compares to the moment a mother looks upon the sight of a casket containing her dead child being lowered to the ground, and the knowledge that she will never see that child again. With those poignant almost poetic words as a measuring stick for her performance, Ms. Oduye falls short in conveying the power of those emotions. The shining light in the entirety of the film is Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey. Ms. Nyong’o did more than perform her role, she lived it, embodied it. Her every scene is profound and powerful; making you cringe, cry and despair for Patsey’s hopeless situation. A true testament to Lupita’s talent is that while the movie is Solomon’s tale, as I walked out of the theater, it was Patsey or Ms. Nyong’o’s face etched in my mind and heart, and her pain and sorrow which made me weep.

Overall, I’d say 12 Years a Slave was a wonderful film, falling short of great only in comparison to the book. A film which will undoubtedly be looked upon as pivotal in educating a new generation of Americans to the truth and horror of this shameful part of our nation’s history.