Friday, January 30, 2015

Film Friday: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

12 Years A Slave is an historical drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a New York-born free black American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South in 1841. Like Lone Survivor, this is an excellent and intense film which I would prefer never to see again.


12 Years A Slave begins by introducing Solomon Northup’s life in New York. This moment of the film is perhaps a little idealized with the whites around him being too colorblind compared to their historical counterparts, but the film nevertheless conveys the foundation of a smart, talented and competent man -- a man who would in other contexts be considered the type of solid American who made America great – who has established a happy, respectable family life in New York. Helping this presentation is the truly compelling screen presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. Ejiofor is an actor who easily conveys emotion and inner thoughtfulness.
Northup is a musician and finds himself approached by two men who claim to be looking for a musician to accompany them to Washington. Northup could use the money and it’s only for two weeks, so he agrees. Things appear to go well until Northup wakes up in a cell in Washington, D.C. He has been drugged and he wakes up with several other blacks who appear to be runaway slaves or, like him, kidnapped freemen.

Helpless to free himself, Northup is smuggled to Louisiana where he is sold to his first slave master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup is forced to go by the name Platt, and has been warned never to share the truth of what happened to him or he would never escape.
Northup impresses Ford with his intelligence and wins him over. He tells Ford what has happened, but Ford is unable to free him because of debt concerns. Unfortunately, Northup also makes an enemy of a white plantation enforcer (Paul Dano) at this point and Ford is forced to ship Northup to another plantation to hide him. He believes he has chosen well, but the new owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is a sadistic owner who believes that he has a Biblical obligation to own slaves.

On the surface, Epps seems respectable, but things are not as they seem. He repeatedly rapes one of his slaves and eventually has a child with her, despite the fury of his wife. He also abuses the other slaves out of frustration at his inability to stand up to his wife’s abuses of the slave with whom he is sleeping.
Finally, Northup meets a Canadian builder (Brad Pitt) who convinces him that he can contact Northup’s friends in the north and have him freed. I’ll leave the rest up for you.

Why This Film Works

This film works on many levels. It is an excellent period piece, done in such a way that it truly feels like you are getting a glimpse into a world long gone. It has beautiful cinematography. Indeed, some scenes are shot as beautifully as if you were watching a National Geographic Channel travelogue. It has an excellent ensemble cast who actually fit their roles for once, rather than being wedged into roles just to get their names in the credits.
What ultimately makes this film work, however, is the excellent way this film presents its material. First off, there is nothing in this film that anyone who is aware of slavery doesn’t already know. So the film is not relying on presenting something new or fresh. What it does instead is present things we already knew about in a way that is both realistic and graphic, and thus very visceral. However, the director also smartly uses cutaways to shield the audience from much of the horror. This makes the horror more palatable.
In fact, these cutaways are genius. By cutting away at these points, the film seems to spare the audience by telling the audience that they don’t need to see this play out to understand how horrific it was. Yet, at the same time, cutting away openly reminds the audience of how horrible this was and it is essentially telling the audience that what they would see would be too graphic for them to take. In effect, in appearing to spare the audience and avoiding a charge that the violence was gratuitous, the director actually ingeniously highlights the violence and makes it seem all that much stronger. Indeed, as an aside, while the film doesn’t show much of the horror, you still hear it and will see it your mind. We’ve noted before how powerful this technique can be.

The other thing the film does, and perhaps the most important point, is that it seems to make no comment on what is going on. The film tells the story as it happens, lets each character speak his or her mind, and then leaves it up to the audience to decide whether what is going on is evil or justified, and whether these people are good or bad. Even with the slaves, the film doesn’t do the Politically Correct thing and make them all angelic as it demonizes the whites. To the contrary, the film makes it very clear that there are good and bad people all around and that, many times, those people get swept up in events.
The end result of this approach is a truly gripping and compelling film. As with Lone Survivor, this film produces an incredible array of strong emotions. You feel true hatred for the people who have done this and anger that they did this in our country. You feel despair for the hopelessness of some people. You feel contempt for some who would not do what they could to help. And in the end, you feel a great deal of pride that Northup survived this ordeal, that others did stand up to help him, and that we went to war to end slavery.

All that makes this film worth seeing: great actors, great direction, gripping emotional script, and a film that rises far above the generic crap being put out today. But again, as with Lone Survivor, this is a difficult film to watch because it is so disturbing to think this really happened and that people can treat each other this way, and I would not like to see the film a second time.



tryanmax said...

While I can't comment directly on 12 Years a Slave what you say about this being an excellent movie that you would not watch a second time resonates well with me. The film that comes to mind is Requiem for a Dream, a haunting, visceral film about the horror and tragedy of drug addiction. Like 12 Years, it offers no commentary, eschews tropes, and spares the viewer the worst images while making them understood. So I follow precisely everything you've describe. I look forward to seeing, then never seeing again, 12 Years a Slave.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, "I look forward to seeing, then never seeing again, 12 Years a Slave." That's perfectly said! :D

I had the same reaction to Requiem. Again, it's a movie that is excellently made, has a dramatic impact on you, leaves you thinking about it for days, but is not a film you really want to experience again even as you sing its praises. It's the same thing here. And you are right, both films leave their politics at the door and let the actions speak for themselves, which is very powerful.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, to be super clear, I highly recommend this film to all. This is a very powerful film that gives you a much stronger understanding of how horrible slavery was, even without it beating you over the head. And it does so without a political agenda, which is very refreshing. This is just a story of an amazing man and what he endured, and in telling that story, it digs deeply within us and should awaken our sense of morality and why freedom is so precious for us all.

Tennessee Jed said...

It might be interesting to compare this film to, say, Django Unchained. The only similar type of comparison coming quickly to mind (perhaps because we recently discussed it) would be Dr. Stranglove vs. Failsafe. I am not hinting about comparisons relative to each film's quality, just that both sets approach their relative subjects from opposite genres (drama/comedy).

While I feel like I did have a pretty good understanding of the horrors of slavery, it does need to covered in film from time to time. And there is no question that whether the subject is violence, brutality, sex, the modern era of film broaches them in a much more visceral and real manner. I am extremely happy to see the film itself is of high quality, and does not feel the need to go overboard to get a message across. The same could probably not be said of Django.

Still, there was a part of me that always looks at anything Hollywood produces as suspect. It has a history of allying itself with liberalism and the Democratic Party, and this White House, perhaps more than ever has blurred the distinction between entertainment and politics. I hate to be so cynical, and I suspect I will see it, but don't be surprised if we don't see a blockbuster on the plight of poor Hispanic illegal immigrants just in time for Billary to show up at the premiere.

As an aside, is it just me or do most of the best actors these days seem to be Brits. I mean Cumberbatch as a southern overseer? Really? I'll bet he is great, though. Just like his companion who played Watson was in the Fargo t.v. series.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I share your displeasure with Hollywood's attempts to politicize everything, which is one reason I was so surprised by this film. I kept expecting there to be some "vote for Obama and the Democrats" moment, but it never came. Instead, they just told Northup's story, and they did it very well. So that was welcome.

You raise a very interesting idea in the comparison of this film to Django Unchained. On the surface, they feel like they should be very comparable. Both are modern ensemble films, both deal with the same topic, and both are well shot. But then you get this one huge difference: Tarantino treated Django as his own personal joke on the topic, whereas 12 Years was done with a clear desire to enlighten and with considerable reverence for the humanity of the subject matter. So whereas Tarantino is trying to push you to the point right before you roll your eyes while filling the screen with gratuitous blood, this film has a very different intent. That makes a direct comparison really hard.

On the British thing, I think it has to do with the British being less appearance conscious in choosing their actors. So their focus is more on talent, whereas Hollywood's focus is on looks first and acting secondary (that can be "fixed" in editing after all, right?). The end result is when you need someone who can actually carry a role, you need a British actor.

Kit said...

When I saw the ads for this I thought it was going to be pretentious and silly, But your review has me wanting to give it a look.

If you want a great documentary on a similar topic I recommend the PBS 3-part documentary series The Abolitionists.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I did not have good expectations. Ensemble casts bother me. I assumed this would be written on the principle of identity politics. I assumed there would be a huge plug for the left. I didn't think there was much to be said about slavery. Etc.

But it grabbed my attention very quickly and it truly impressed me. This is one I would add to your "must see" list of films. It is a very powerful film that brings out real emotions, and that is truly rare these days.

ScottDS said...

I share your displeasure with Hollywood's attempts to politicize everything

It ain't just Hollywood. But that's another story... :-)

I have yet to see this film and I wasn't really in any rush, despite my friend's nagging. It's funny you describe it as a great film that you never want to see again. I've said the same thing about Requiem, too.

There are, of course, other movies that could fit the bill. I have no need to see Benjamin Button again, not because it's brutal, but because I'll probably get misty-eyed all over again, and who wants that? :-)

So yes, I'll add this to my overflowing "I'll get to it!!" pile.

And like Jed says, some topics need to be revisited. One could make the argument, "Another movie about [insert issue here]?!" But every filmmaker has a story to tell. After all, no one complains about "another World War II movie?!"

P.S. I replied to your last e-mail... just some recap stuff.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - you can compare them, and you did so beautifully. While i admit there were some truly funny lines, Django, for the most part, turned me off as being so far over the top. That is my criticism of Tarrentino these days. He seems to try and "out Tarrentino" himself.

I may have to get the Blu-ray of Twelve Years. I understand what you mean about films you only want to see once. I was glad I saw Passion for example,but could not watch it again. Still, anything you put on a must see list would have a good chance making it into my library (assuming it is in my genre wheelhouse so to speak) :)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, You should see it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, That's been my complaint with Tarantino too for awhile. What he did was so different and so stylish at first, but lately he only seems to be trying to one-up himself. And the results haven't been all that great in my opinion.

I'm glad to hear you approve of my recommendations! :D Please let me know what you think when you see it!

Kit said...

The only Tarantino film I've seen in full is Inglorious Basterds. Ok movie.

Seen the beginning of Pulp Fiction.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, His early stuff is amazing and you should see it. His recent stuff though isn't nearly that good. I actually turned off Inglorious Bastards because it felt sadistic to me. He's walked that line before, but never quite crossed it. In IB I felt he jumped over the line and ran a few yards for fun.

Anonymous said...

"It has an excellent ensemble cast who actually fit their roles for once, rather than being wedged into roles just to get their names in the credits."

I agree with your overall post, except for Brad Pitt. Something seemed too contrived about his role and his acting was not convincing. Anyway, that feeling was only confirmed when the credits rolled and his name showed as one of the producers (as in, I'm a producer so I'm gonna be the savior character!). I don't normally mind him either, but he just didn't fit for this one.


AndrewPrice said...

Jim, If any of them didn't quite fit, it was Pitt. But I honestly had no problem with him being in the role. I liked that his character wasn't entirely courageous and approached the whole thing very cautiously.

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