When a truly great movie comes along, it is usually the result of a particular confluence of elements: a subject matter just right for its time, a director at the peak of his talents, and an actor or two worthy of both.
By Noah Gittell
When a truly great movie comes along, it is usually the result of a particular confluence of elements: a subject matter just right for its time, a director at the peak of his talents, and an actor or two worthy of both. I can’t think of a better example in my lifetime than “12 Years a Slave,” which is not just a gripping and emotional movie destined to win a lot of awards this year but a grand, painful, and vital work of American art.
The film is based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from New York who was taken from his family and sold into slavery. Sold as property from one slave owner to the next, he eventually ends up at the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) a sadistic, childish brute whose slaves suffer the worst forms of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. Through the eyes of Northrup, the film offers us a more visceral, honest portrayal of slavery than has ever been depicted before in American film.
But why has it taken Hollywood so long to get around to such an inherently dramatic and important story? Conventional wisdom says that the industry has largely been uninterested in racial stories because black Americans make up such a small slice of their audience – 12 percent as of 2012. But we should also consider that movies are a place we go to escape the complex problems of real life, and race may be the most complex American problem of all. In the last few years, however – perhaps since Obama’s election re-awaked our interest in these issues — there has been a new emphasis on making racial films. In 2013 alone, we have seen “42,” “Fruitvale Station,” “The Butler,” and now “12 Years a Slave,” all of which, it should be noted, not only satisfied critics but also were box office hits.
But each of those films offers concessions to their white audiences. “42,” for example, gives way too much credit to Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey and ignores the contribution of civil rights activists who pressured baseball owners to break the color barrier.
You’ll find no such safety in “Slave,” which shows America’s original sin in all its brutality, from the physical beatings to the moral justifications to the perverted emotional relationships. As a filmmaker who has dedicated his career to documenting human pain — see his first two films, “Hunger” and “Shame” — director Steve McQueen is perfect for this project. His trademark is the use of long painful takes to impress on the audience the pain of his characters. In an act of tremendous respect and deference to the viewer, he spares us nothing and allows us to choose whether to watch or look away.
In “12 Years a Slave,” McQueen lets his camera linger on them for painfully long stretches. There are several long, unbroken scenes of slaves being whipped, but the moment that has lingered in my memory is the near hanging of a slave. Instead of outright killing him, his captors hang him just high enough for his feet to barely grasp the ground. With the mud squishing beneath his toes, he must perpetually readjust his feet not to strangle himself, a telling metaphor for the psychological torture inflicted on slaves who must constantly readjust to a world that crushes every element of their personhood and individuality.
McQueen’s methodical approach is also a tremendous gift to the cast, and they don’t disappoint. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is one for the ages. His character quickly learns that he will be punished for any displays of humanity, but internally, he struggles and strives to maintain his hope for freedom and return to his family. McQueen’s camera lingers on his face, allowing a complex range of emotions on Ejiofor’s face that tells the entire story.
Each of these artists deserves to be singled out. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who was raised in Kenya, is particularly moving as Patsey, the preferred female slave of the Epps who suffers at both his hands and those of his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson), but it is their combined effort, depicting every horrible variant of the institution of slavery, that makes “Slave” a uniquely important film.
The highest purpose of film is to transport viewers to places they have never been, even if it’s not always a place they would want to go. For those Americans who never had a choice of going there or not, everyone should watch “12 Years a Slave.”
My Rating: See it in the Theater