Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Man on Film: 12 Years A Slave

Once again, we republish this as the Oscars draw nearer.

Before you read any further, see 12 Years A Slave. Drop what you're doing. Cancel your plans. Oh, you're supposed to fly home for Christmas, but haven't seen it? Reschedule your flight.

12 Years A Slave is fucking phenomenal.

This is the time of year that theaters are flooded with Oscar trash. The important film: the stodgy period piece, usually adapted from a classic novel; the adaptation of a heavy-handed, award-winning contemporary novel [preferably the Pulitzer] usually neatly packaged with some larger message about sexual repression or religion, with a careful eye toward production design; or the biopic of someone who overcame some personal struggle to achieve something or lead a people. If the film can prey on liberal white guilt, all the better.

12 Years A Slave is definitely a biopic about someone overcoming a struggle, and any white person who doesn't feel horrible about what happened to Solomon Northup is at least 99% likely to be a horrible racist, but holy shit is it amazing. It is brutal--visually and emotionally. The situation Solomon finds himself in is so awful that it is impossible not to feel his pain. And there is a lot of pain. He is stripped of his dignity, his hope, and his humanity and is powerless to do anything about it.

What makes the film is director Steve McQueen's unwavering dedication to his vision. There are so many bold choices, so many shots that linger for far longer than one would expect, so many that drive key turning points. In a less confident hand, these scenes would feel heavy handed. In 12 Years A Slave, the decisions take your feet out from under you.

Of course, all would be for naught were it not for sterling performances, first and foremost being that of Chiwetel Ejiofor. There are other strong performances--Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt are all good, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o particularly are great--but Ejoifor's is the performance of a lifetime. Ejiofor is always a captivating performer, but McQueen uses Ejiofor's face as a canvas, his eyes as a channel to the film's emotive center. There is no better example of this than the scene in which they bury Uncle Abram (pretty sure that's the character). While the slaves sing "Roll Jordan Roll" around the fresh grave, McQueen holds a tight shot on Ejiofor's face, as at first he stands there, numb, any hope that this cruel twist of fate will be miraculously reversed draining from his face, the last shred of belief that he was a free man fading. Then he starts in with his brethren. A slave, but hope of a different sort taking root within him. The scene tears at you, and McQueen's choice to hold on Ejiofor's face and let all these emotions play out over the almost uncomfortably long shot proves to be inspired.

In short, 12 Years A Slave is brilliant, bold, soul-crushing, brutal, and vital. It must be seen.


Fireblossom said...

Okay, between you and columnist Leonard Pitts Jr, I can see that I really must see this. Just the trailer is gripping. And anything with Alfre Woodard in it is pretty much a lock to be good.

I can't imagine the concept of people owning other people. Except, of course, Josh Hamilton, who woke one day to find himself lashed back to back with a ruined Albert Pujols, both of them forced to watch Angels pitching for 162 games. It's inhuman. My grandmother, who loved the Angels, would be scandalized. (and yes, I landed here via your baseball thingie).

I've promised myself to see this movie very soon. I expect that it will be brutally hard viewing; what musty *being* a slave have been like? Mercy.

Fireblossom said...

must, not musty. Sausage Fingers strikes again.

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