Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Catching up with Oscar bait: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

As worthwhile and important to our country's history as any film I've seen, Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the best movie yet on the topic of our shameful origin and why the "South" and what it stood for shall, I hope, never rise again. The director has let go to a large extent of his need to burnish his shots, frames and compositions so that "Art" keep arising. This worked quite well in Hunger, with its prison setting, but less well in Shame, where the art too often wobbled into artsy. With his latest foray, McQueen places his man-against-society tale into an outdoor setting of the glorious natural world where hideously unnatural acts keep occurring to human beings who were viewed and treated as somewhat higher than animals and so much less than human.

The power of the film -- and make no mistake: no matter how many times you've may have seen this particular subject handled, this film proves the most powerful of all -- resides in the great performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor (below and further below) in the lead role and to the smart but never smug or overly clever way McQueen, shown at left, has conceived and executed his film. The excellent screenplay has been adapted by John Ridley from the memoir written by Solomon Northup, a free black man residing in New York in the 1800s, who was lured down to Washington DC to be kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he labored for those dozen years.

Ejiofor makes Northup real for us from first moment to last. He is a consummate actor, hugely versatile (watch Kinky Boots, Love Actually and Dirty Pretty Things for a crash course in that versatility) and able to hold us inside his head, heart and soul at all times. We become as close to Northup as is possible via an actor.

Michael Fassbender (above, right), who has worked with McQueen in his other two films, here plays a despicable man without ever losing touch with his hugely cramped humanity. Comparison should be made between his performance and Ralph Fiennes' in Schindler's List in terms of how their characters view themselves when they find that self in rapture to the base "other."

We get brief but tangible looks at slavery and its overseers, and see the various ways this blight infects all it touches, noting as we go, that some masters were certainly worse than others. But even the best of them, like the slave-holder played by Benedict Cumberbatch (above, left), took it as gospel that they had some right to "own" another human being. The film is violent when it needs to be, horribly so, but its valid point is to show how that violence affects both giver and recipient, not to mention the society at large. Shown below are Sarah Paulson, as the slave owner's sad and vile wife, with her chattel (and her husband's sex object), played by Lupita Nyong'o.

I cannot recommend 12 Years a Slave too highly. (It makes utterly laughable last year's ridiculous Django Unchained and its pretensions to being something serious.) The energy, intelligence and spirit here are so strong that they will easily carry you along for the full two-hours-plus. And if this is the last film you see on this subject, you can rest assured that it is the best you will have viewed thus far.

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