Friday, October 18, 2013
12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
Near the end of his remarkable film, director Steve McQueen holds a close up of the anxious face of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The slave has convinced Bass (Brad Pitt), an abolitionist from Canada, to send a message to his former employer in the North to help him regain his stolen freedom. But hope has been stymied and trust betrayed before, so he waits. And for a brief moment Northup looks directly at the viewer, not accusing but with anguish. This startling shot reminds us that this is not merely a film about humanity’s capacity for both shocking cruelty and unfathomable resilience, but a jolting glimpse into our at times shameful collective national history. In recounting this history McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, who adapted Northup’s book of the same name, refuse to indulge in cheap melodrama and allow a muted tone to provide apt counterpoint to the oppression on display. The filmmakers let shots linger past comfort and deny the viewer easy catharsis. We watch the horrific particulars of life in the antebellum South through the eyes of Northup, an educated free black man who lived comfortably as a musician in upstate New York with his wife and two young children before being lured to Washington, D.C., for a job, kidnapped, and sold into slavery under a false name to a plantation owner in Louisiana. He manages to hide his ability to read and write, but his organizational and carpentry skills earn him the favor of kindly master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and escalating hostility from construction supervisor Tibeats (Paul Dano). This conflict forces Ford to sell Northup to jealous master Epps (Michael Fassbender) whose green eye frequently wanders to hardworking slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) over his wife’s (Sarah Paulson) violent objections. Rounding out an exceptional cast are Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard in small but memorable roles. Ridley’s episodic script weaves a rich tapestry with matter-of-fact care, anchored by McQueen’s striking visuals. However, Ejiofor carries the film on his broad shoulders and in his eloquent eyes with a quiet dignity that speaks volumes.