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12 Years A Slave

This movie was #8 on my “Top Ten Movies of 2013” list. 

I’m starting to think that in order to understand the filmmaking philosophy of director Steve McQueen, it’s necessary to watch (or read) “A Clockwork Orange.”  Remember that movie, where the morally bankrupt hoodlum is offered parole from prison, if he’ll only watch a couple of films? Seems easy and even fun, he thought, and so do we.  But here’s the catch: he’s not allowed to look away from scenes of violence, and they make him physically ill. Before long, any act of violence at all makes him physically ill, and voilà, he’s reformed.

Steve McQueen makes movies that never allow us, the audience to look away from ugly things – injustice, sex addiction, and, in the case of “12 Years A Slave,” slavery — in hope of sickening us, for the sake of reforming us.

Slavery has been a big deal at the box office in the last few years, yet it was almost entirely in the background of “Lincoln,” and it provided the motivation for revenge fantasy in “Django Unchained.” McQueen’s film is the only one to really address it head-on, to explore, mercilessly, what it would be like for a man born free, a man who almost takes his own dignity as a human being for granted, to be treated as property.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a musician living in upstate New York, who, while his wife is away cooking for the President, is duped and kidnapped by black market slavers. Stripped of not only his freedom but his very identity, he is given a new name and sold to a plantation owner in Louisiana.

Solomon is passed from the hands of a fairly merciful slave owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, to one with a reputation for “breaking” his slaves, played by Michael Fassbender.  In a way, Fassbender is the easier villain to handle – we expect slave owners to be sadistic psychopaths, because it seems, to the modern mind, like only that kind of person would try to own another human being.  But exactly because of that fact, I find Cumberbatch more disturbing.  How can you look into a man’s eyes, see and acknowledge that he is a man with a soul, and then sell him to settle your debts?

But then, maybe that’s the point. Slavery is not the sin of sadistic psychopaths, but of a whole society, an entire culture that supported and legitimized and legalized through paperwork and transactions the buying and selling of men and women. McQueen puts this institutional deafness to the cries of the weak and oppressed on the screen in direct and indirect ways. In Paul Giamatti’s only scene in the movie, he displays slaves for sale in much the same way one would display furniture.  They are stripped to show off their physiques, and families are torn apart for the sake of a sale.

But also, the plantations seem like a completely different world, with different morality, than the cities. I noticed several times how much ambient sound — crickets, cicadas, I don’t know what else –  McQueen leaves on the soundtrack, and with what volume. In addition, the cinematography accentuates the verdant nature of the land.  Everything grows here, everything is allowed to thrive, even things that shouldn’t. It reminded me of the jungle in “Apocalypse Now,” which of course is a reference to “Heart of Darkness” — both about places where the forces of civilization seem to be fighting a losing battle with wildness, and darkness, and savagery.  Interesting how referencing that flips the script on Conrad and Coppola. In McQueens’ film, it is the White Man’s world, his domain, that is the savage, dark, wild one.

I don’t think I’d be spoiling anything to say that Solomon finally makes it back to his family (come on, it’s in the title) but it’s pretty hard to call the ending a happy one.  The brutal experience has changed Solomon from the man he once was, to the point that his family hardly recognizes him.  And he has missed both the marriage of his daughter and the birth of his first grandchild – those are precious experiences he will never get back. And maybe that’s the final metaphor of “12 Years A Slave.”  For African-Americans in the United States, slavery is in the past, as it is for Solomon.  But the soul damaging effects remain, and what was lost can never be replaced.


Random Notes: 

— Steve McQueen’s not the most merciless filmmaker out there. Some filmmakers are just cruel for no good reason, making films that seem more like a dare than entertainment (or art.) But my least favorite director is Lars Von Trier, who just wants to make his audiences abandon all hope and wish they were dead. At least McQueen hits hard for a good reason.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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