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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

12 Years a Slave

I may, as always, have some catching up to do but there was no way that I wasn't going to give at least a quick look into one of the past year's best and most important films.

Giving my highest of highest recommendations to Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave may come with the caveat that it is a truly grueling, almost physically difficult film to sit through, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't earn every one of those ten stars and it certainly doesn't mean that you shouldn't race out to see it - just be prepared for a cinematic experience that is anything but fun.

In the same way that Schindler's List was far from the first film to deal with the Holocaust but has gone down as the one Holocaust film that everyone needs to see, 12 Years a Slave will very possibly go down as the quintessential American slavery film. Also, like Schindler's List, this astonishingly true tale of Solomon Northop (played here with understated, mesmeric brilliance by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in 19th century New York who gets kidnapped and sold off as a slave, was both woefully under-reported prior to the release of the film (hands up anyone who has actually read Northop's memoirs) and manages to shed a whole new light on a familiar subject by focusing on someone who was, in many ways, an outsider to the catastrophic and tragic events happening around them.

Northop was not, in any way, your typical slave as rather than being born broken into a system that basically stripped you of humanity from birth, he spent much of his life as a free man, one who matched his white friends and colleagues note for note when it came to sophistication, education and great refinement. While most of us (though I fear "most" might be something of an exaggeration) may not even begin to imagine the mindset of your average slave, Solomon is someone with whom the vast majority of Western audiences can very easily relate. When Solomon, therefore, is sold into slavery for, as the title suggests, more than a decade of his life, we gain an insight into the horrors, the cruelties and dehumanization of life as a slave in a way that I dare say we never have before. No, not even in Django Unchained!

And, make no mistake, McQueen is utterly unflinching in his portrayal of these horrors. Unlike something like Django Unchained (I really like Django, by the way, it's just a whole other kettle of worms), 12 Years a Slave may linger on the violence and brutality but it's done in such a way that it only emphasizes the horror of what is on screen. There is no catharsis here. A couple of now nefarious scenes in particular pack the crushing, physically uncomfortable impact that they do because of the way the camera lingers on these horrors far longer than most directors would ever dare.

What's perhaps even more incredible though, is that though the film makes the audience feel the horrors of slavery in a way that what is basically a passive viewing experience really shouldn't be able to, its depiction of slavery is only the surface level of a film that contains both complex characterization and considerable depth. 12 Years a Slave teaches an unforgettable lesson about why slavery is as reviled as it is, but dramatically, it is far more interesting than even that. Strip away the historic context entirely and you're still left with a film that is a beautifully told meditation on how we allow our circumstances to define us and the extent to which we have the power to face external forces that are well beyond our control.  

Every major character in the film reflects this theme in different ways. While Solomon himself has to reconcile his "civilized", independent self with his reality of life as a slave, the two "masters" he serves in the film reflect two contrasting ways in which such people crumble before the despicable, but deeply entrenched system in which they find themselves. His first "master" Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford is essentially a decent man who doesn't seem to have the strength to rebel against the social norms of his time, while the man under whose thumb he spends most of these twelve years, Michael Fassbender's psychotic Epps is someone who is utterly consumed by the evil he practices. The film also uses religion to further differentiate between the two men as Epps uses the Bible to further justify his abhorrent behaviour, while Ford focuses on the moral lessons of the Bible without ever fully appreciating the hypocrisy of preaching such morals, while engaged in a system that flagrantly flies in the face of the Golden Rule.    

This kind of complex morality and multi-faceted characterization is evident throughout the rest of the film as well, while the actual storytelling and filmmaking itself could hardly be of higher quality. While much of the notices have gone to Edjiofor, Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o (and rightly so), the rest of the cast, including a chilling Sarah Paulson and a typically deranged Paul Dano more than hold their own. As too does the brilliant script by John Ridley who, by embracing the distinct and lyrical speech patterns of that time and place, gives the film an almost poetic overtone that even further emphasizes the clash between civilized, fairly modern America and the barbaric practices of slavery. As for Sean Bobbit's jaw-dropping cinematography, like everything else in the film, it largely focuses on serving the story above all else, but even as it does so, it easily evokes Terence Malick at his visually dazzling best.

12 Years a Slave really is a stunning piece of work. You may never want to sit through it again (I don't) and you may well need a very large and very stiff drink at the end of its 135 minutes, but it deserves to be seen, to be discussed and to be internalized every bit as much as it deserves the effusive accolades that is has already received as 2013's highest rated film. It's pretty much a masterpiece.

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