Review: '12 Years A Slave'

(Three-and-a-half stars)

It can be hard to see the tree for the forest when it comes to films about culturally loaded topics, none more so than American slavery. It's useful to keep in mind that "12 Years a Slave" is the story of a man: another tale of physical and emotional survival that, unlike "All is Lost" and "Gravity," derives from a true story.

The man is Solomon Northup, who endured the titular torture before penning his autobiography of the same name (as told to white lawyer David Wilson). Director Steve McQueen's cinematic adaptation, scripted by John Ridley, begins in 1841, where free New York resident Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a husband and father, entertains an offer to play the violin on tour with a circus. The offer turns out to be a ruse, and Northup is kidnapped, transported by a domestic slave ship to New Orleans, and sold into slavery.

As such, and above all, "12 Years a Slave" explores one man's terrifying realization of the fragility of his existence and, accordingly, his sense of self. His initial captors attempt to break him, reassigning him the identity of an illiterate runaway slave. Northup learns to outwardly maintain a wary acquiescence, but in his mind, he fiercely clings to his self-knowledge of life as an educated, free family man and artist.

Solomon's mental torture transcends physical torments and fosters a potent, gut-level emotional experience for the audience. The strong suit of "12 Years a Slave" isn't intellectual, but its evocation of terrible feeling.

As far as the institution of slavery, the film cracks into that chestnut of Holocaust movies: the moral implication of both victimizers and survivalist victims. Northup's first owner, preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), comes described as "a decent man ... under the circumstances," who pleads economic necessity as his excuse for holding Solomon. Matters devolve further when Northup is sold off to plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who takes out his miseries -- in a maelstrom of physical and sexual abuse -- on his slaves, including the death-wishing Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, making a striking debut).

McQueen effectively employs two key visual motifs. The first is of blithe or fearful bystanders (white and black) who avert their eyes or morality to keep putting one foot in front of the other. In the narrative's signature episode of torture, Solomon dangles from a noose, hanging on to choked breaths by tiptoe on muddy ground. As he does, his fellow slaves pass behind him, understandably unwilling to intervene. Similar willful ignorance attends rape, family separation and human trafficking.

The second visual motif is Ejiofor's face, a tuning fork of intellect and emotion. McQueen often plants his camera squarely at Ejiofor and lets him just be Solomon in what passes for repose: contemplating, hoping, losing hope, finding understanding. The actor doesn't miss a beat.

One wonders if "12 Years a Slave" will herald a new trend of prestige slavery pictures to rival the international bull market for Holocaust films. Beyond a certain point, "tasteful" films about horrific historical events exhaust their usefulness and begin to look like gauche awards-bait exploitation. But "12 Years a Slave" works land that has thus far commonly been left fallow.

Though it mildly (and needlessly) distorts a few minor elements of Northup's narrative, and a late-picture supporting turn by producer Brad Pitt distracts (rightly or wrongly, it comes off as self-righteous self-casting, allowing the star to be the film's moral exemplar), the film succeeds by simply, plainly placing audiences in the emotional crucible of pre-abolition America and firing their imaginations.

Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. Two hours, 13 minutes.

Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. Two hours, 13 minutes.


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Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I'm on the fence as to whether to see this movie or not. I does look like a compelling story and well-done production. I know slavery is wrong, and it is easy for all of us to agree on that in the context of this movie. But there are a few things that give me pause on this one, a movie that I am certain hits all the right notes, if politically correct.

First, why is it that in order to feel that slavery is wrong, or to have maximum impact the protagonist of the movie has to be an extraordinary individual. The unspoken question is what about all the other slaves that can't read and are not eloquent, or well-dressed, maybe even those ones who have been so abused and seen so many horrible things that they are driving in anger, rage and madness ... do they deserve freedom? Doesn't everyone deserve freedom, and is just having been told we are freed enough to qualify for freedom?

It just seems a pity that whenever I see a black character or a story about black people it has to center around slavery, history, political correctness, backlash, drug dealing, or in some other way that blackness of the character is being utilized instead of the person. Just as their are some characters or stories that need to be about men or about women in order to have maximal archetypical impact, black people are pigeonholes by history and stereotype to always be in certain types of roles. I remember when the movie Aliens first came out I was sitting not far from a group of black teens. When the "Space Marines" were ambushed by the aliens, they were laughing all-knowingly saying, "you know it's going to be the brother that gets it". I cringed at that. And I notice I do not see many groups of blacks going to movies together very often.

So, does it do good or just sell tickets that we put this up on the national movie screen while our nation has a second-class underclass of undocumented/illegal immigrant that we all think we need to pick our food, otherwise our food would be so expensive we could not have the money to go out and see movies like this one. The virtual slavery that comes out of that, and the lower wages and sensitivity that the rest of our society accepts, even as another recent movie, "Inequality For All" documents how rising economic inequality is not good for the whole country.

I wonder what thoughts black actors, or white actors have when they are hired to play characters in these odd movies of historic content since the main reason for history is for us to learn something. What are we learning from the costume dramas of history? Then there is always the fact that when Hollywood does a "true story" they usually mangle the story so badly to make it palatable to the mass-audidence that it mostly bears no resemblance to the actual story.

Then there's the fact that I have no idea how to pronounce the name of the star of the movie, Chiwetel Ejiofor! ;-) I just do not like the subject matter and the way it seems to need to be refreshed every few years with another high-minded classic that our society pats itself on the back for.

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Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 5, 2013 at 3:22 am

It appears that movie comments behave differently than news comments. The only way
I can find the movie comments for '12 Years A Slave' is to go into the Town Square
comment listings and search it out, comments do not show up by clicking on the actual
review article from the front PAO page.

This seems like it is out of deference to movie producers or theaters whose attendance
might be affected by news of a bad movie getting around. After all we sure have a lot
of bad movies coming out these days.

Why do the movie comments not show up under the original review/article link in the
Palo Alto Online?

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2013 at 9:10 am

The most obvious reason that the movie is based on an educated slave is that this is a true story and the movie is based on the memoirs of this man.

Another important reason is that white people can relate more to an educated man. What if the roles were reversed and someone enslaved you? This is the same reason that Hollywood movies about African-American history often are told through the eyes of a white man. Remember the movie Glory? Hollywood thought that African-American actors like Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman were not interesting enough for white viewers, so they told the story through they eyes of Cary Elwes and Matthew Broderick.

Yes, there are obviously white characters in a movie about American slavery, but modern Americans (except maybe in the southern states) are probably going to relate more to the slave than to the slave owners.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 5, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Hey parent ... nice to read your comment.

> Another important reason is that white people can relate more to an educated man.

I thought that was an interesting comment. I am not sure I really understand or agree on that though or even that it is politically correct.

> This is the same reason that Hollywood movies about African-American history often are told through the eyes of a white man.

Maybe, but when it comes to mass media and unconscious archetypes mixed in with marketing, selling things and massaging people's egos ... I am not sure this makes sense. I tend to think things are so confused at the subliminal level that these stories are sort of useless. It makes more sense to think these movies are done from a white point of view because they are who are buying the tickets.

Are movies educational devices or entertainment? Most of the ones I see are almost all entertainment. Most TV, most radio, in fact the American audience that wants reality is there, it's just not really large - think PBS for the most part.

I didn't much care for "Glory", and not crazy about Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman either - come to think of it or "movie stars" in general of any color at all. But I'm not the average demographic I guess.

> modern Americans (except maybe in the southern states) are probably going to relate more to the slave than to the slave owners.

One would hope so. I wonder if there is a difference in the tickets sales for this movie in the South as compared to other parts of America?

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