Saturday, November 9, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Written by John Ridley

Directed by Steve McQueen

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. October 18, 2013 8:15 PM

"12 Years A Slave", a 1851 memoir by Solomon Northup tells his harrowing ordeal of being a free African-American who is abducted and sold in to slavery. This masterful but highly unsettling film is by Steve McQueen, one of the boldest visionaries working in cinema today. The British director began his career as an experimental short film artist with his work dealing with discomforting subject matter. He continued this when he moved into feature-length film with his 2008 debut, "Hunger" which starred Michael Fassbender in his first major role as Bobby Sands who lead the IRA hunger strike back in 1981. The film won the Camera d'Or at Cannes and McQueen followed that up with another critically-acclaimed work, "Shame" with Fassbender returning in the story of a sexual compulsive. Much like his previous films, McQueen holds nothing back in "12 Years" as he displays the harsh and ugly brutality of the shameful time in America when not all men where created equal.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives a comfortable life in upstate New York with his wife and two children in 1841. Making his living as a musician, Northup travels to Washington D. C. to begin a well-paying tour offered by two gentlemen (Scoot McNairy and "SNL" star, Taran Killam). After an evening of drinks and merriment, a groggy Northup wakes up to an unimaginable nightmare. He finds himself chained in a holding cell and about to be shipped off to Louisiana as a slave. When Northup protests, he's beaten savagely and soon learns that in order to survive this, he must not reveal that he is an educated free man.

After Northup arrives in New Orleans, he is sold by a merciless slave broker (Paul Giamatti) to a preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems troubled by the slavery system yet goes along with the program since his fields need to be picked by somebody. While life on this plantation is somewhat tolerable but after a violent run-in with a cretinous foreman (Paul Dano), Northup is sold to another man in order to keep him alive. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) prides himself in ruthlessly breaking in his property. If a slave doesn't pick enough cotton that day, they are punished with several lashes from a whip. One of the slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) has the misfortune of capturing the lustful attention of Epps. She not only has to endure the emotional and physical abuse by her cruel master but is also tormented by his equally sadistic wife (Sarah Paulson) who is bitterly jealous of this powerless slave.

Northup realizes that in order for him to ever escape, he will have to rely on his wits and use any opportunity that comes his way which might be in the form of a Canadian carpenter played by one of the film's producers, Brad Pitt.

McQueen, along with a solid script by John Ridley and the beautifully lush visuals from the director's long-time cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt have together created some unforgettable images that are both equally mesmerizing and horrific. The film glides through in an unhurried pace, lingering on sweaty, weary faces and imposing locations for longer than it might seem necessary but it's used effectively to emphasize the isolation and hopelessness. From long days picking cotton in the unrelenting heat to the savage beatings and psychological torture to children being ripped from their mother's arms and being sold off, "12 Years A Slave" is very far removed from the romanticized version of slavery that has been portrayed in many Civil War era films, most famously in "Gone With The Wind". As we watch this terrible tale unfold, these more accurate depictions of the life of a slave may be too much for most people to bear. It's hard not to be disturbed to see that a human being has been reduced to having no more value than any livestock.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the name to remember (and will need to learn to pronounce; (Chew-wee-tell Edge-gee-oh-for) as he gives one of the best performances of the year. The Brit has made an impression over the years with smaller parts in major films such as "Children of Men", "American Gangster" and "Salt", but with "12 Years", the actor has finally been given a role that rightfully places him front and center.  Mr. Ejiofor commands every moment on screen as his character struggles to maintain what's left of his dignity and sanity. Ms Nyong'o also makes quite an impression in her first film role that will leave you utterly devastated. This recent graduate from the Yale School of Drama handles her part of the tortured slave expertly as Patsey, like Northup, struggles to survive yet ultimately gives up, begging him to help her end the misery. The story may be focused on one man's experience of trying to reclaim his life but Ms Nyong'o's character represents every slave who lived every unhappy day in captivity without ever having an opportunity to make a life of their own.

The conclusion of "12 Years A Slave" may appear like a happy ending but it will leave you even more disturbed and frustrated. Although Solomon Northup may have been finally able to obtain his freedom, he still continued to be tortured and humiliated but this time by a legal system that considered him unworthy of being heard or receiving justice. "12 Years A Slave" is a difficult film to recommend. While it is a tremendously well-made film filled with extraordinary performances yet it deals with an extremely unpleasant subject matter. But like "Schindler's List", "The Pianist" and "Saving Private Ryan" (to name just a few), "12 Years A Slave" is a powerful and moving experience that I am very glad to have seen but could not, in all honesty, ever sit through again.