Jan. 25th, 2014

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No movie this year has as much cultural baggage as "12 Years a Slave," arguably the first mainstream film to depict the American slave system from the point of view of an African-American, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Race relations are still such a thorny subject here that it took a black British filmmaker, Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor), and a mostly British cast to do it. This year "12 Years a Slave" has become an almost obligatory title, the Very Important Film that everyone should see, and thus the target of claims that it's just your usual Oscar bait.

This ignores that the film, regardless of its subject matter, is an intensely effective and moving piece of work with impressive artistic and technical chops. It's one of the best films I've seen this past year by any measure. It's not what I'd call entertaining, and I expect that it will be too much for some viewers, but it is an edifying, illuminating, and frequently fascinating look at a chapter of American history many would rather forget. If you know the other films of Steve McQueen, "Hunger" and "Shame," this doesn't come as much of a surprise, but the scope and ambition of this project is much greater than anything he's been associated with before.

Northrup was a free black man who lived in New York, and was tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in Louisiana under the name Platt. He spends twelve years as a plantation laborer, first for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then the brutal Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). Solomon becomes close to other slaves along the way, including Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and Epps' favorite, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). McQueen not only examines the struggle of one man under extreme oppression, but the ways in which the slave system operates and affects the entire society.

"12 Years a Slave" is being marketed as a prestige picture, but it's so far outside the realm of the usual polished, inspirational African-American biopics like "The Butler" or "Ray," it's hard to find points of comparison. McQueen is not a mainstream director, and has a refreshing disregard for his audience's comfort level. There are precious few moments of uplifting release, and though he does frame events in a way to spare us fro the most graphic moments of violence, it still conveys the full extent of his characters' suffering. There's much more emphasis on environment, on subtle behaviors and mannerisms. I found more in common with unsettling art house auteur work like "There Will Be Blood" or "The Master" than any of the race-themed pictures Hollywood has made in recent years.

There have been some concerns about the brutal content in the film, and yes, there are very uncomfortable scenes of whippings, hangings, dehumanizing nudity, and heavy usage of racial epithets. I didn't find any of these gratuitous, and they didn't rise to the level of being exploitative. The casualness of their usage, however, is shocking. In one of the most memorable scenes, McQueen demonstrates that lynchings and hangings are so common in this era that people barely pay attention to the sight of a man on the end of a rope. But often it is the simplest humiliation tactics that are the most disturbing, coupled with institutionalized power imbalances that allow the perpetrators to act with total impunity.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o have been getting the bulk of the attention for their performances as Solomon and Patsey, and there's no question that they are stellar. I'm particularly happy to see Ejiofor in the spotlight after years of strong, varied performances. However, it's some of the actors in smaller roles that made the biggest impression on me. Adepero Oduye as the tragic Eliza and Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw are two sides of the same coin. Michael Fassbender's terrifying Epps is instantly memorable, but then there's his venomous wife played by Sarah Paulson, whose equally monstrous temper is constrained by the rules placed on her gender.

My only issue is really with the ending, where Brad Pitt sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe that's because he strikes me as an echo of the typical white savior character who toplines far too many other period films about this subject matter, like "Glory" and "Amistad." However, Pitt's appearance is brief, and in in the end it's clear that it's really dumb luck that saves Solomon Northrup, not faith, not perseverance, not bravery, and not love. It's a tough, cynical, and very necessary point, and I'm glad to see it.

I don't expect "12 Years a Slave" is going to have many imitators, but it's enough that it exists and has sparked some good conversations. There's no doubt that this is a watershed picture based on the content alone. But the fact that this is an culturally "important" and long overdue film doesn't take away from its overall excellence.
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