Saturday, August 2, 2014

12 Years a Slave

2013. 134 min. R - demeaning nudity, hardcore violence.
IMDB says... In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

The 73rd Virgin says... This could have been a homework movie. Instead, it is complex and immediately engaging.

The story is well known: In the early 1840s, an upscale, upstate New York musician and leading citizen, Solomon Northrup, takes up with two charming strangers on an ill-advised tour to Washington DC and disappears into the maw of Southern slavery.

The movie’s darkest moments are wickedly mundane, which serves the dual purpose of making it watchable by diluting out the brute physical horror, and driving home the point that slavery, or any other widespread social evil, requires the acquiescence of huge swaths of decent human beings with decent human feelings.

There are only a couple sweaty, toothless, leering white trash characters, and one psycho plantation owner. All else is basic greed, avoidance of boat-rocking, and the delicate social construct that allows momentary sympathy for a mother separated from her children, and the breezy admonition that they will soon be forgotten.

This effect reaches its pastoral peak when Solomon is nearly lynched by a vengeful trio for beating a white man, is then rescued by the business-first overseer, and then allowed to hang with only his toe muscles keeping him alive for hours, while frightened slaves go about their plantation business and give him a wide berth. One terrified girl gives him a drink, but all else proceeds quietly around him, including the plantation’s mistress momentarily checking up on his condition from a far-away balcony. Director Steve McQueen has no fear of still frames and still faces and silence. Much of the scene is almost a photograph.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a special effects-laden whipping scene shows the realistic effect of a leather strip as it reaches the speed of sound and cracks off liquefied and vaporized flesh from a slave’s back. Seeing this on DVD is one thing. I suspect there were people in theaters running for the exits.

Screenwriter John Ridley gives us side characters with deep backstories with only a few strokes. Alfre Woodard’s Mistress Shaw is on screen for about 4 minutes, but her tightrope walk as the pampered house-bound plaything of her slavemaster is expertly described and understood before the story moves on. And for once, southern belles aren’t let off the hook for the enterprise. They’re in on it, top to bottom.

Despite McQueen’s long close-ups on faces, and his little pauses to study Spanish Moss hanging in trees, the story moves admirably fast. Youtube blockage prevents any clipped admiration for McQueen's fluid moves.

It feels odd raving about the cast as if this were Ben-Hur, but the masterstroke is casting charming, almost cuddly, non-threatening white actors like Scoot McNairy, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Garret Dillahunt as the greatest evil-doers. Benedict Cumberbatch is also excellent as a kind-hearted gentleman slave owner who is appropriately dismayed by the brutality of the enterprise, while reaping its benefits.

Elegant Michael Fassbender oozes manipulative malice and borderline psychosis as Master Epps, but only takes it over the top once or twice, and does very well with the accent.

All these nice guys cast as bad guys force the white audience to identify with them. We can all hate the raving stump-toothed inbred Deliverance escapees, but now we have to hate Paul Giamatti. And he is us. A neat trick.

Executive Producer Brad Pitt seems out of place as a not-quite Amish, not-quite Canadian abolitionist handyman. I thought he was great in Tree of Life, but here he’s just Brad Pitt with a beard and an accent he tossed together on the flight to New Orleans.

Fans of Chiwetel Ejiofor going back to Dirty Pretty Things and Serenity have been expecting him to become a star for a decade, and it seems to have finally happened. Movies like this can sometimes bury the hero in the larger story (for example, 42), but Ejiofor is so physically noticeable and so adept at communicating Solomon’s intelligence and grief that we never lose sight of his story, and the tiniest threads of bravery and cowering that his redemption hangs upon.

The Pitt-heavy trailer is below.

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