The Good: A number of impressive performances, Characters and a social situation impossible not to empathize with, Direction (cinematographic and musical)
The Bad: A stray performance or two, Utterly unoriginal plot
The Basics: A rare film with all of the key ingredients for greatness, 12 Years A Slave nevertheless lacks a compelling or unique story to sell it to anyone but those still learning rudimentary American (or human) history.
Every year since I began my Best Picture Project (please check it out here, it’s worth reading!), I have been very interested in the yearly Oscar race, especially as it pertains to those films vying for the Best Picture Oscar. I like watching the process the film producers go through in an attempt to market their films specifically for the top prize. This year, one of the obvious contenders is 12 Years A Slave. Fox Searchlight seemed to learn a thing or two from The Help (reviewed here!), which was released too early to get the nominations most predicted it would (a lesson not learned by those who released The Butler). 12 Years A Slave has more than just timing going for it in the race for the Best Picture Oscar, it has a strong social issue and historical story that resonates with Oscar voters.
As well, 12 Years A Slave has an impressive cast with a number of popular, noteworthy, actors who have not won any Oscars – Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch (this does seem to be his year to be in a crapton of movies), and Brad Pitt. But the detraction to 12 Years A Slave for the Oscar race is the fundamental detraction to the film on its own; it’s old news. I’m not sure where in the United States it is considered audacious to admit that the cultural heritage of the United States is a brutal, ugly, racist one. The United States was built through genocide, eviction, slave labor and cruelty, as much as it was by rebellion and a fight for freedom.
Perhaps, then, the hopes director Steve McQueen and Fox Searchlight have with 12 Years A Slave is that seeing the blatant cruelty will feel audacious and different. To that end, 12 Years A Slave is more graphic than Roots, less hopeful or progressive than Glory and far less defiant than The Help. But it’s the same story we’ve seen before . . . over and over again, with only minor differences and a more graphic realism. The thing is, slavery movies are like Holocaust movies; if you’ve seen two or three, you’ve pretty much seen them all. This is not at all to diminish the struggle of any oppressed people (some of the most powerful movies in recent memory have been those that remind the viewer that such struggles continue today and that the apathy of the United States allows continued enslavement, rape, warfare and other atrocities to exist around the world), but it is an acknowledgment that subjugation, degradation, and oppression occur largely the same ways over and over again and they have no inherent entertainment value. 12 Years A Slave is not entertaining; it is informative. It might be this generation’s Roots, but for someone who was raised on Roots, I am shocked by the positive attention the film has garnered from older critics. Perhaps it is actually seeing the elements like Northrup hanging and desperately standing on his tip-toes that has critics impressed; though just as it is horrible for Northrup to witness the many atrocities he does, so too is much of 12 Years A Slave simply horrible for the audience to watch.
In 1841, Solomon Northrup is a freeman living in Saratoga, NY who is known for his violin playing prowess. He is introduced to Mr. Brown and Mr. Hamilton, who hire him to accompany them to Washington, D.C. to perform in their act. There, he gets drunk and he wakes up imprisoned by a man who insists that he is not a freeman, but a runaway slave from Georgia and Solomon is beaten and tortured until he is dragged back to the South. While on the steamboat to the South, Northrup discovers few people willing to risk themselves with an insurrection and Northrup witnesses one of the men stand up to a white man who was dragging his wife off to be raped by one of the sailors and is subsequently killed. Down in Louisiana, Eliza (the mother of two children) and Solomon are sold to Ford.
Ford rejects the blatant racism of his supervisor, Tibeats, and allows Solomon to suggest improvements to the plantation and build on his own. But when Tibeats attempts to beat Solomon for getting a keg of nails, as Tibeats requested, Solomon fights back. He is almost lynched for his rebellious act, but is rescued by Chapin, the foreman. Ford transfers the debt he has on Northrup to the notorious slavebreaker, Epps. Epps threatens the people on his plantation – including using popular torture tactics like waking everyone in the middle of the night for strenuous activity (in this case, a forced dance), changing people’s names, and punishing learning – and Northrup spends his time there living in fear of both Epps and Epps’s wife. While the Lady Epps turns on Edwin for his infidelity with the slaves, Northrup bides his time. In the process, he puts his trust (and life savings) in the hands of the drunk overseer, Armsby, and later places his faith in Bass, as he desperately hopes for his freedom to be restored.
To its credit, 12 Years A Slave uses its impressive cast exceptionally well. Led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northrup, the performers in 12 Years A Slave incredibly create the horrible reality of the antebellum South. Ejiofor has long exhibited exceptional range as an actor – in fact, I can think of no two roles in which I have seen him where he has even a passing comparison to any of his other roles. As Solomon Northrup, Ejiofor continues that tradition. He plays Northrup as a man doing all he can to survive. Ejiofor’s strength is in his eyes; wordlessly in many scenes, Ejiofor’s Northrup witnesses the atrocities done to the people around him and is powerless to stop those injustices. Despite the familiarity of the film’s subject, Ejiofor makes Solomon Northrup’s story seem unique and appropriately heartwrenching.
As much as I love Ejiofor’s performance, the real story for acting in 12 Years A Slave comes from Michael Fassbender. Ejiofor might well be a perfect actor; I’ve never seen him in the same type of role twice and he always lives up to whatever acting challenge exists for the character he is playing (as he does as Solomon Northrup). Michael Fassbender, much like Ryan Gosling, has had one or two great roles and has been used by most directors to simply fill the niche in which he has already exhibited excellence. 12 Years A Slaveshows another level to Fassbender. In addition to completely losing his accent for the role of Epps, Fassbender perfectly portrays cruelty in a way I’ve never seen from him. There is nothing cold or stiff in his performance of Epps. Instead, Fassbender plays Epps with a palpable malice and a seething hatred that is absolutely unlike, for example, his role as David in Prometheus (reviewed here!).
The rest of the cast is good, though a few members of the cast do seem to have been cast on hype as opposed to substance. Garret Dillahunt easily outshines Benedict Cumberbatch as the brief role of Armsby has more depth to it than Cumberbatch’s one-note performance as Ford (Ford being presented with virtually the same façade as Cumberbatch brought to Sherlock Holmes and Khan). Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, and Paul Giamatti have decent supporting performances, though the former two are largely playing to their strengths. Director Steve McQueen even gets a good performance out of Taran Killam, who has none of the goofiness he illustrates in his characters on Saturday Night Live, even though the role of Hamilton is pretty much a “blink and you miss it” performance.
McQueen also gets a lot of credit for the look and feel of 12 Years A Slave. The cinematography in 12 Years A Slave is excellent and McQueen has an excellent sensibility for movement and framing. Moments like the revelation of Epps’s wife onscreen goading Epps into whipping his mistress over a bar of soap are incredibly well-presented. The disembodied voice materializes into a devil-on-the-shoulder and the suffering that results is stomach-clenching painful to watch. As well, McQueen is smart enough not to do what Mel Gibson did with The Passion Of The Christ (reviewed here!); he does not make a gore film out of illustrating the lash of the whips and the subsequent flaying of the skin. McQueen illustrates the human suffering with minimal gore and that makes a much more profound statement on the horrors of the torment of the people in the film; McQueen’s focus is on the enduring pain after the whipping stops, not on the moment of rending flesh.
Ultimately, the climax is hardly fulfilling and 12 Years A Slave feels more like a documentary than anything audacious or personal. The story of Solomon Northrup illustrates well the atrocious conditions that existed in the antebellum south and the human suffering that resulted from generations of social and economic institutions built by the slave trade. While not every film needs to be entertaining, each story should have a spark, an originality, that resonates. 12 Years A Slave has everything but the spark of originality; it has an impressive cast, well-defined characters, decent direction and a historical truth never illustrated quite this way on screen, but the story is unfortunately familiar and students of American history will find no new lessons to be learned here.
For other works with Benedict Cumberbatch, please check out my reviews of:
August: Osage County
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Star Trek Into Darkness
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, by clicking here!
8/10 (Not Recommended)
For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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