12 Years a Slave

Watch the current Reeling broadcast here!
(Previous editions of Reeling can be downloaded from iTunes by clicking this link.)


Laura Clifford 
12 Years a Slave

Robin Clifford 

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Dirty Pretty Things," "Kinky Boots") was a free black man with a home and family in Saratoga, NY.  One day while strolling through town, a friend, Mr. Burch (Christopher Berry, "Django Unchained"), introduces him to two men who are looking for a musician for their circus which will be traveling south to D.C.  Brown (Scoot McNairy, "Argo") and Hamilton (Taran Killam, SNL) shower him with praise and high wages, but on the night he is to return home, he's drugged, awakens in shackles and is sold in the south to spend "12 Years a Slave."

Laura:
Since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival, critics have been falling like dominoes over director Steve McQueen's ("Hunger," "Shame") adaptation of Northup's book (adapted by "Red Tails's" John Ridley), the word masterpiece flung around with abandon.  But the tale should not be confused with the telling.  There are moments of brilliance here, to be sure, and the story is of undeniable importance, a major part of American history which reverberates still, not only racially, as in the Travon Martin case, but economically, compassion obliterated by the greed of the rich (slavery, after all, was a means to early American wealth).  But this film falters enough that it needs to be acknowledged, its passage of time muddled (a problem which undermines the performance of one of its most important supporting actresses), some lesser acting skills distancing, Hans Zimmer's score only occasionally rising above cliched Celtic themes and mournful fanfare.

We first meet Northup, now Platt (having been robbed of his identity in addition to his freedom) standing in a sugar cane field about to receive instruction on how to work it.  That evening, sleeping amidst cramped quarters on a dirt floor, a beautiful woman turns to him, needing an outlet, sexual release, and he obliges her.  With a parallel cut, we're sent back to Saratoga, Solomon facing his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) in their comfortable bed.  This scene and its transporting edit are one of the film's most extraordinary moments, contrasting momentary freedom from the unbearable to happiness accepted as right.  Northup's refusal to let go of this, to have his spirit broken, is both a blessing and a hazard, most Southerners sensing danger when 'property' has a will.

Solomon lives through two owners and is lent out to a third (Bryan Batt, 'Mad Men's' Sal, as Judge Turner, seen briefly but suggesting much).  His first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, TV's 'Sherlock') shows respect for his opinion and innovation, causing much resentment from Tibeats (Paul Dano, "Prisoners"), the uneducated man hired for the job.  Tibeats attempts to lynch him and although Ford shows real remorse for what happens, his 'saving' of the man is also convenient relief on his wallet, settling a debt with a man he knows will bring no good Solomon's way (Cumberbatch shows no venality, however, only the struggle of a conscience giving in to the status quo).

Epps (McQueen vet Michael Fassbinder, giving the film's most intense performance), with whom Solomon will spend ten long years (although his time with Ford never felt like two), is a drunk and a sadist who doles out punishment to those who do not continually improve on their cotton harvest.  The man is morally conflicted by his passion for Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o), whom he dubs 'Queen of the Field' because she can pick almost twice as much cotton, 500 pounds a day, as his best male.  We see Patsey as almost free spirited, sitting outdoors making cornhusk dolls, dancing with her arms in the air, before we learns she is the scourge of the Epps marriage, hated by Epps's wife (Sarah Paulson, TV's 'American Horror Story') because of his obvious infatuation with her.  Mistress Epps takes every opportunity to make Patsey's life miserable and he unleashes his own inner demons on her.  But the woman who asks Solomon to take her life because she hasn't the strength to do it herself doesn't jibe with the almost privileged woman we've been introduced to, the way the film has been structured giving us no sense as to how much time has passed between events.  Nyong'o more than compensates for this later, when an action which has gone without chastisement before is brutally, shockingly punished, a long take establishing the whip wielder (first a forced Platt, then Epps himself) before circling around to flesh scored off the back, then Nyong'o's face expressing the departure of her very soul. (Makeup is artful, not only in Patsey's lashing scene, but in the disfigurements on backs, faces and necks seen on almost every black actor, a constant reminder in times of calm).

If McQueen's untethered time line disrupts Nyong'o's performance, he's allowed another actress to momentarily dislodge his film.  As a formerly privileged mistress now ripped apart from her two young children Adepero Oduye approaches the antiquated language like an amateur attempting Shakespeare, her performance stagey and distancing despite her character's unimaginable plight.  She and Ejiofor are on two entirely different levels within the same scene (watch here and judge for yourself).

Ejiofor begins his portrayal of Solomon as a jaunty, almost naive man, an early run in with a slave in a shop eliciting knowing glances with the white store owner rather than any kind of empathy - he is removed from that world, the scene a canny inclusion on McQueen's part.  Survival eventually brings out his cunning, seen most strikingly when betrayed by a white laborer (Garret Dillahunt, TV's 'Raising Hope') he's trusted (and paid) enough to send a letter (even the knowledge that he is able to read and write would doom him) - he rolls out a convincing lie to Epps, countering each of the man's elaborations with quick wit as we squirm with tension.  But Ejiofor's relaxed, free face morphs into one of furrowed brow, his countenance rarely changing throughout Platt's ordeal.  Fassbinder, on the other hand, is mercurial - we never know just what will erupt from this man.  Also terrific is Paulson, whose quiet delivery enhances the deep-seated ugliness within her character.  She holds herself rigidly, only her eyes darting about, always sizing up.  Alfre Woodard is scarily surreal as Mrs. Shaw, the former slave, now wife of a white plantation owner, whom Patsey takes tea with (and receives advise from).  As Solomon's eventual savior, Brad Pitt is cautious, folksy decency, his Canadian, Bass, able to speak his piece to Epps because it's couched non-judgementally.  (In her sophomore role, "Beasts of the Southern Wild's" Quvenzhané Wallis doesn't have much to do as the younger iteration of Solomon's daughter Margaret.)

The filmmakers use parallels to enhance their message.  When one of the kidnapped men Solomon's been shipped with is rescued when they dock, his 'friend' never looks back to help, further shaking Solomon's world view.  When he himself is finally led away from the protesting Epps, he does look back, at the bereft Patsey, but there is nothing he can do, his hands tied in freedom.  An early image of the imprisoned Northup positions him screaming from below street level in the lower right hand corner as the U.S. Capitol is seen in the upper right. Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt begins with carefully balanced compositions, his characters always framed, closed in, behind 'bars'.  In the south, the scenes open somewhat but even under a big sky, they're often claustrophobic, figures dwarfed by sugar cane, huddled in a circle of huts.  In the cotton fields the expanse is withering under a blistering sun.

"12 Years a Slave's" depiction of the degradation and suffering of human beings will be a tough sit for many, but it's edifying cinema.  It is also uneven enough to be merely very good rather than masterful.

B+

Robin:
1841, Saratoga Springs NY: Solomon Northup is a free black man who is a gifted violinist and is well-thought of by the community. He packs his wife, with their two children, off to the home of a wealthy white family where Anne (Kelsey Scott) works as a live-in cook. She will be away for weeks so, when he is offered a chance to perform in Washington DC at good pay, he jumps at it. It will be a move that Solomon will regret as “12 Years a Slave.”

Think “Django Unchained” but without the dark humor. In many ways, “12 Years a Slave” has many parallels to the earlier Quentin Tarantino film, mostly by way of the violence against the black slaves of that Antebellum era in southern United States. Director Steven McQueen, with his third film, delves into the pain, agony and suffering by those enslaved blacks who are bought and sold, like cattle, to cruel and uncaring masters. It is an epic story that stirs the intellect but not one that stirs the soul. The unrelentingly violent life of a slave is deeply disturbing in a way that makes you look askance.

Scripter John Ridley adapts Solomon Northup’s account of his harrowing experiences (also called 12 Years a Slave, published in 1853) during those titular years. An educated man, Solomon tells his kidnappers that he is a free man and demands to be allowed to leave, earning him a vicious beating from his white captors. He soon learns that an educated and literate black man is unacceptable in the South and, after a brutal, skin-shredding whipping, he learns to keep his mouth shut and eyes looking down.

The story follows Solomon as he is sold to a succession of owner, including the kindly first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who sees Solomon’s intelligence and treats him well. Not so the plantation’s overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), who has murderous intentions for Northup, nor his next owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder), an alcoholic sadist who treats his slaves any way he wants. Solomon meets many people, white and black, free and slave during his 12 year ordeal where justice is just a word for those enslaved.

Chiwetel Ejjofor plays Solomon close to the chest as he learns the difference between being free and being a slave. Solomon is a reactive figure in the film, by necessity, as he must withdraw into himself, suffering his misery and loss of his family from within. It is an intense performance that will earn the actor award buzz. Michael Fassbinder, as the sociopathic Epps, brings it over the top with his brutality and his stupidity as a hateful master. Sarah Paulson, as Epps’s equally sadistic wife, gives a chilling performance as a woman lacking humanity. There are many smaller roles for the huge ensemble cast, including film stars like Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard and Paul Giamatti, playing brief cameo roles.

The production of “12 Years a Slave” is by far the most ambitious work for director McQueen who makes a strong statement against the still-ongoing issue of slavery. The depiction of the treatment of slaves in the South, before the Civil War permanently ended the institution in the United States, is shown with the disturbing reality. The violence that man uses against his fellow man is unbelievable but, sadly, true. No punches are pulled in the telling of Solomon Northup's disturbing story. I give it a B+.
Back To Current Show
Next Show Previous Show
Watch the current Reeling broadcast here!

Home | Reviews and Ratings Archive  | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links

Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.

MRQE Top Critic Badge