12 Years a Slave

Director: Steve Mcqueen

Lead Actors: Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano

Dede Gardner

Plot Synopsis:

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a freeman, or free African American living in Saratoga, New York, is kidnapped and transported to the deep south where he is forced into slavery. There, for 12 years, he toils on other men's plantations for no pay, and is treated as property.

Partly due to his having been a free man, Northup presents a feisty nature to which most slave owners are not accustomed. This causes Northup even more problems with his slave owners and brings him even more abuse.

(Spoiler Alert)  

What makes Northup's tale even more remarkable is that he did not die a slave like so many others. He lived to tell his tale again as a free man back in Saratoga.

Who Would Like it and Why
First of all, this is the best movie of the year. Period. The only way I would correct that first sentence is to say that it probably is the best movie in the last seven years, or 12 years. It should be called, 12 years since you saw a movie this good!

Why is it such a good movie?

Well, first of all, director Steve McQueen managed to juice masterful performances out of his actors:

Chiwetel Ejofor
turns in the performance of the decade as the wronged man who is determined to survive and not let slavery take his soul. Michael Fassbender is spellbinding as the inept, incompetent, cowardly plantation owner Edwin Epps who mires his slaves right into his own domestic drama.

This movie has been in the theatres since October 18, 2013, so no doubt readers have also read about the performance of Lupita Nyong'o as Patsy. 

She plays an unfortunately beautiful slave who has caught the covetous eye of Epps.  Nyongo'a won the Academy Award for this performance. Below is her acceptance speech.

There are dozens of equally robust and amazing performances, including Benedict Cumberbatch as a plantation owner with a conscience and the great Paul Giamatti as a slave merchant who tells Cumberbatch's character that his conscience goes only as far as his pocket book, or something along those lines.

Also worthy of mention are the dozens and dozens of African American actors who humbled themselves and revisited one of the darkest parts of their collective history to play slaves in this movie.

Their performances were spellbinding, and if I have time I will point out as many as possible. One performance that was small only in length of time on screen was that of a fellow kidnapped slave who tried to organize a mutiny on the river boat taking the kidnapping victims south. 

His eyes told the entire story of a man desperately trying to hold on to his freedom and dignity.

Art Direction and Costuming
While the acting is this movie's chief accomplishment, the costuming and set design set you right plop down inside of one of America's most hideous chapters.

In the antebellum south that director Steve Mcqueen conjures, plantation owners dress as "gentlemen" during the day with their beautiful creamy white, most likely cotton shirts abounding with lacy excess and deep, dark colored jackets and pants that make them look as if they just came from a polo match.

These same gentleman whipped, beat and raped their slaves by night in the privacy of their mansions and plantations. 

In addition to physical brutality and torture, there were also much more indirect methods that the plantation owners used to cow the slaves into submission. 

For example, in several scenes, Fassbender's Epps forces his slaves out of their midnight sleep to dance for him in his mansion while his drunkenness wears off.

Also worthy of note is the editing. Editor Joe Walker does a masterful job of intermingling the times when Northup was free and doting on his children and beautiful wife, earning money as a musician, and the Hell that he finds himself in after he has been kidnapped.

Again, since this movie has been out, many reviewers have noted that Northup's having grown up a freeman and then being thrown into slavery is partly what makes this story so brutal. I agree with that point and Walker did a great job of capturing this dynamic.

I would argue that the transition from freedom to slavery was so grotesque for Northup, that this movie might even fit into the horror genre.

In one sequence, a riverboat that is transporting the kidnapped slaves, most likely from Washington DC down to the deep south to be sold, Walker intersperses clunky, Tom Waitsesque ( as a matter of fact, he might have used Tom Waits) music that goes along perfectly with the powerful churning of the water and the ominous shoving of coal into the engine of the boat. 

All this adds to the kidnapping victim's alienation, sense of abandon and their being taken further and further away from home, the ones they love, and possibly most important - the Mason- Dixon line.

The first moment in Northup's 12 years of slavery is that he wakes up and finds himself in chains after a night of heavy drinking. The second thing that happens to him is that he is savagely beat into submission by one of his captors. This is not a movie for the faint of heart.

Who Might not Like it and Why
There are some extremely violent scenes that rival Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ in terms of the amount of human flesh that is flayed by whips, and also the random acts of violence by the whites on the slaves.

For example, in one scene Fassbender's Epps is watching his favorite slave girl Patsy dance with much lust, and suddenly Epps' jealous wife throws a full jar of liquor straight at the Patsy's head and hits her target. 

Patsy runs off screaming in pain, possibly with a mild concussion. This sort of violence coupled with its injustice and unpredictability can be nauseating for viewers.

But, as McQueen, the director, has said in many interviews now with squeamish journalists - these things happened! 

This movie is a historical count of events and like events that actually happened on plantations in the antebellum south.

I also thought that while just about every other piece of acting was sublime, Brad Pitt's Bass, a wanderer passing by to work on the plantation for a wage, was sub par. He seemed to be doing the same gravelly voiced southerner that he beat us over the head with in Inglorious Bastards, to mediocre results. I did not believe his character, and that was unfortunate.

I only wish that McQueen and the producer had had the courage to cast an actor and not a movie star in what ended up being a pivotal role in a movie that may end up in the Smithsonian museum some day.

In several scenes Pitt's Bass goes head to head with Fassbender's Epps in ideological debate about whether or not slavery is right.

Acting, of course, is not a sport, but teachers will tell you that each scene is a fight. So, this type of scene has a tendency to display the strengths and preparedness one actor has over another. 

Fassbender, who has now been in three movies with Pitt, comes out the clear winner. In some scenes, it seems as if Pitt can't even look Fassbender in the face. Why? Pitt, now a family man with a stunningly beautiful wife, seemed as if his mind was somewhere else, whereas Fassbender was firmly grounded in his role as Epps.

I have seen this weakness before in Pitt. It was in Inglorious Bastards, where he seemed to be doing a caricature and not a  real character. Again, this former "Sexiest Man Alive" sapped a potentially great movie of energy.

Because Mcqueen was so meticulous in his staging of this movie, Pitt's not being invested in his character showed through like a stain an otherwise perfect piece of cloth. While it is not my job to tell Bradd Pitt to retire, I would suggest that he focus a little more on his future roles.

Highlights/Top Scenes
There is a scene where Solomon has just buried a fellow slave who died while picking cotton in the miserable heat. The women in the group of slaves start singing a moving spiritual. 

Mcqueen, in one of many masterful directing decisions, keeps the camera trained on Northup as the spiritual picks up pace and emotion and crescendos. Slowly Northup, a musician by trade, joins in with a beautiful baritone voice, and his verve while singing the song starts picking up and before you know it he is living the song and singing with his entire heart.

As we watch Northup's face and the emotions pass by, it seems as if he makes the decision there and then that he will not die the same way. That is but one interpretation, but suffice it to say any time the camera is trained on Ejiofor's face, it is a wise decision, whatever each individual viewer takes away from it.

One clear message I took from this movie was that you can kidnap a free man out of his environment and shackle him, but you can't necessarily keep him down. This is what Ejiofor's Northup seemed desperate to prove from the moment he first realized he was in chains up until the end of the movie.

Well done to everyone involved, especially to Steve McQueen who is now most welcome to Hollywood's A list of story tellers.

Four Mike and Ikes.

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