12 Years a Slave, American history, Benedict Cumberbatch, Black characters, Black perspective, Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, John Ridley, Lupita Nyong'o, Melvin van Peebles, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, racism, Sarah Paulson, slavery, Solomon Northup, Steve McQueen
“They bled your momma/
They bled your poppa/
Won’t bleed me!
They bled your brotha/
They bled your sista/
Won’t bleed me!”
– Melvin van Peebles, “Won’t Bleed Me”, from the soundtrack to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song
This has been one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever tried to write. Not because I don’t know what to say about what happens on screen (I do), not because I’m at a loss in comparing it to previous films about the same topic (I’m not), not because I’m unsure about my own reaction to this film (I’m not).
I find myself at a loss because I don’t know what to say about this film that hasn’t already been said.
I could say that it’s earned its almost universal praise (looking back over it, I found only one or two real flaws, one of which is forgotten as the film moves on), but that seems redundant. I could talk about post-release racism in reaction to the film, such as foreign distributors putting up falsely advertising posters. I could talk about how the concept of American slavery itself is still still trivialised to a horrible degree, but wiser folk than I have gone into that (a few have lost their jobs pointing out the ignorance of such trivialising). I could even write about how the film is a brutally uncompromising relief after the politically correct white-washing of Gone with the Wind (for its time) and Cold Mountain, but that progression has been slowly coming since Birth of a Nation premiered.
It’s not that those topics are unimportant – quite the contrary, they are and I’d love to talk about them each at length in upcoming entries. But therein lies the problem: I’d go on a tangent about any one, if not all, of those topics and lose focus about the film in question. And that would be a great disservice to a masterfully made film about the human spirit.
In 1841, Solomon Northup was a free man. He had a loving wife, three children, and a glowing reputation among his fellow inhabitants of all races in Saratoga, New York. As his wife and children leave for an extended trip, Solomon is offered a lucrative gig playing the fiddle by two seemingly well-intentioned men. After having dinner with the men, Solomon wakes the next morning in chains and ready to be transported to Georgia where he is falsely sold as a runaway slave named “Platt”.
With his no way to prove his true identity or contact his family, all of Solomon’s days are spent picking cotton and playing his fiddle for his cruel masters. Through all of this he struggles to maintain both his faith and his resolve in land and time where Black man being literate was a crime punishable by death.
Make no mistake: I stand by Django Unchained review. That film is still enjoyable as hell and could be thought of as something of a catharsis is watched after this film. But that film is a White man’s unapologetically exploitative take on one of the worst atrocities in American – nay, human – history. It’s an interesting study in Art vs. Commerce in that it makes tragedy accessible and commercial. It doesn’t really shy away from shocking imagery, but it does so with its tongue firmly planted in cheek.
This film enthralled me from its opening frames, but “entertaining” is not a word I’d use to describe it. This is one of the kinds of American slave films I’d always wanted see (and I’ve wanted to see quite a few): made by a Black film-maker, penned by a Black author, told entirely from a Black point-of-view, but of such high quality that all non-Black audiences could easily see themselves in the story. My greatest fear was that this would be an overly maudlin attempt to try and one-up Roots as being a trying-too-hard weep-fest hoping for the broadest appeal. To my pleasant surprise, this film was personal drama rather than a dry history lesson come to life. Rather than the hindsight of history, it is through Solomon Northup’s eyes that we see the story and it is from his point-of-view that we experience it all.
And those eyes are portrayed by those of incomparable Chiwetel Ejiofor. I remember first seeing him in another slavery-themed film: Steven Spielberg’s incredibly flawed Amistad. When I saw him again in 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things, I made it a point to remember his name. By the time his resume included Kinky Boots and Spartan, he’d become one of my favourite actors. He strikes just the right chord here, finding a man comfortable – if not complacent – with his station in life, having to adjust to a hardship he does not deserve.
And there are no shortage of fine performances in this film. From Benedict Cumberbatch as a sympathetic slave-owner to frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender as this film’s equivalent to (a more emotionally complex) Simon Legree. Supporting roles by Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and even co-producer Brad Pitt all see the actors doing some of their best work in years, even those who only appear for a short amount of time. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance Patsy, the slave who catches the eye of Epps (Fassbender), is indeed well done, but I have to wonder if the critics who laud her are actually doing so based on her actual performance or the arc of her character? Don’t get me wrong: she’s a fine actress, but the Academy once gave an award to Jennifer Hudson not for her acting (which was lacking), but for how she sang a song. There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to review and be sure that you’re praising something for the right reasons.
With that in mind, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up what I found to be the film’s one true flaw: the pacing of the first act. We’re given precious little time to see Solomon’s life before bondage, save for a single scene with his wife and children. From that point he’s rushed into chains, onto a boat (which holds the possibility of an uprising by its human cargo), and onto a plantation. I imagine this was done to give the audience the idea of what it is like to have one’s life change so rapidly, but that impact isn’t as strong as it should be because we’re never given a chance to understand Solomon’s life as a free man. Flashbacks during the film help with this, but the film’s running time would easily have allowed for us to better get to know the man whose story we’re experiencing. (The pacing immediately improves once he gets to the plantation.)
Although I’ve seen Steve McQueen’s sexual addiction drama Shame, I haven’t seen his debut film, Hunger. I should rectify that as soon as possible. With so few Black directors able to (or, seemingly, wanting to) distinguish themselves, he has proven himself a film-maker of note; thanks in no short part to his previous two films proving he will not be limited to the condescending definition often accompanying the term “Black film-maker”. Here with screenwriter John Ridley – who may have just penned his best work with this script – they show why a distinctively racial point-of-view is a universal story at its heart. And why even in life’s most unforgiving moments, maintaining one’s sense of self is all the more important.
*I saw 12 Years a Slave at the AMC Van Ness in San Francisco on Thursday – 22 November 2013.