Sunday, September 8, 2013
Film Review: 12 Years a Slave 10/10
The film is based on a true story, and knowing this makes it part unbelievable, because you cannot believe just how frightfully cruel humans can be towards one another, and the other part is believable because you know exactly how cruel humans can be towards another. A free black man, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, living in the northern state of New York is tricked and drugged by two men falsely promising him a violinist performance job in Washington, DC. He wakes up bound in chains like an animal, and is severely beaten into submission for daring to try to explain who he is, where he comes from, and his name. He then learns the hard way that fate played a cruel joke on him and his life is possibly changed, 360 degrees, forever. What may startle some viewers is that the use of the N-word is introduced within the first 90 seconds of TYAS and is repeated approximately 300 times throughout the film, and the bulk of that repetition comes from a disgusting song that is proudly sang loudly by a plantation hand played by Paul Dano. McQueen probably did this to set the tone immediately that this film was going to be very different than any other film about slavery, and he was right.
As Solomon comes to terms with his situation, he is advised by other slaves that he needs to play dumb and subservient or he will be hurt in unimaginable ways if his master(s) knew he spoke eloquently, and could read and write. Every passing second he sees the horror of what it is to be a slave when he witnesses other slaves being lynched, beaten, whipped, and raped. At one moment, the camera focuses in on Solomon's face for about 3 minutes as he has a blank distant look of disbelief and fear, while cicadas sing in the background. A beautifully frightful moment where the viewer would imagine that Solomon is giving up hope and his life could soon come to an end. That is the constant fear of each slave. Will today be my last day alive? There was one scene in particular that was prolonged and left you on the edge of your seat in wondering how long was Solomon going to be left in that condition before someone helped him. Other slaves were too petrified to offer help - he just had to hang in there, literally, and hope he survived. A traumatic scene that would make you wince with absolute empathy.
Solomon is traded off from one master to pay off a debt to Edwin Epps, who is played by Michael Fassbender. As we have been forewarned, the Epps character will be the most brutal and dangerous slave owner ever presented on film. And that warning was accurate. Edwin did not see his slaves as human beings, they were simply property. Possessions to torture and treat worse than dogs. When he was bored, he would wake them all up in the middle of the night (after spending 12 hours in the hot sun picking cotton), to dance for him. And each day, he would weigh the pounds of cotton picked by each person, and if they did not meet their quota, they would get whippings. There was one person that was fodder for lust and hate by Epps, and it was the young girl Patsy, excellently played by Lupita N'yongo. This poor girl was constantly tormented and brutalized by Epps, and despised by his jealous wife. It becomes obvious in due time that Epps was obsessed and in mad love with her, he wanted complete control over her as his number one best worker slave, and his sex slave. The 18th century did not have a diagnosis for manic depressive personality disorders, but there was something more wrong about Epps than his racist evil behavior, foul temper, sadistic games, and alcoholism. What he did to Patsy makes you forget about Solomon Northup, if just for a few moments.
Have you ever seen someone being hurt and you feel their pain too? Well, if you're susceptible to that level of empathy, you will avert your eyes and/or cover your ears when you see the heightened level of absolute cruelty placed upon Patsy. It is so heartbreaking and I think this scene could cause people to walk out, if just to have a break from this S&M slavery drama. Michael was on fire as Epps and I say this because he completely disappeared into this role effortlessly. As brutal, evil, pathetic, and fucked up Epps is, Fassbender brought to life a man that today would not be considered a human being. But for Solomon North, eventually, he found the trust in one man, played by Brad Pitt, who could help him deliver an important message to his wife about his circumstances and whereabouts. Solomon was able to escape once he was identified by his friend from New York. And in that scene where Epps was so enraged and tried to stop them from taking his property, Epps hit the summit in demonstrating how volatile, selfish, deranged, and monstrous he was. And as Solomon departed, the rear view scene was so sad.
Throughout TYAS, I was impressed by the score from Hans Zimmer. I usually don't care much about a film's score, but TYAS had my attention so completely, that I noticed the score and felt it's loud and jarring sound, although modern, fit very well with the film. I hate talking about Oscar so early, but after seeing this film, one cannot help but ponder about its Oscar chances. This is automatically a Best Picture nominee, along with director, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, editing, adapted screenplay, sound, and cinematography. My only trepidation is that TYAS is so realistically brutal, many AMPAS members may not have the set of balls to watch the film through in one sitting. As I stated earlier, some may have to walk away for a break, but may not have the energy to go back and finish it. They may just write it off as something 'just too harsh'. And what about Michael? The supporting actor category has a strong record of awarding evil characters. But is Edwin Epps perhaps, too evil to be nominated?
Steve McQueen is obviously the director to make 12 Years a Slave. His being British helps to remove him from having a personal ethnocentric bias in softening the movie for American audiences. Being British, he went full-on fuck all and told the story as it IS. TYAS is not the type of film you want to see for repeat times like Jane Eyre, but you will want to own this on Blu-ray, and it will certainly be added to the Criterion Collection maybe as early as next year. Maybe TYAS can be shown in college level American history or Diversity course requirements that a lot of schools have, it's that well made. I have no complaints about the film, it is what it is and some people will have negative issues against it because they want to "move on" from America's fucked up past of enslaving Africans for 150 years. Well, '12 Years a Slave' is going to remind people of our past whether they like it or not. And it will help us continue to advance as a compassionate society that treats all people as equals, which in order to do so, we all need to know how things were before so that we don't go back to those ways. TYAS is a very hard film to watch, and it will leave many people in tears at the end. But we all need to see this.