Friday, October 25, 2013


After Hunger & Shame, Steve McQueen became one of my new favorite filmmakers. And I'd be lying if I said a very small part of that had nothing to do with him being black. I don't care, I admit that. But that's something very minor. Steve McQueen could be of any ethnicity and I'd still love his films as long as they continue to come out the way they do (I actually thought he was an Irish guy before I saw a picture of him given his last name and the subject matter of his first film; Hunger - the story of an IRA hunger strike). And I feel I'm allowed that small bit of racial fanboyishness given how much I dismiss the large majority of modern black films & filmmakers these days. But 12 Years A Slave is hardly a "black film". It's an American film. Slavery is a piece of American history (I don't care if the director, along with half the cast, is based out of the UK).
My reaction to most recent films concerning black people is somewhere between a yawn and cynicism that borders on mean spiritedness. Thankfully I've come across so many other people who feel the same way as me so I don't feel so bad. You'd think I'd want nothing to do with a film about slavery because it's such a typical subject. But when you stop and think for a second - there really hasn't been a recent film, good or bad, on the subject of slavery to come out until late last year (please don’t say Manderlay or Confederate States Of America to counter that). I know at first glance a movie about slavery doesn’t exactly sound “new” or progressive but what sets 12 Years A Slave apart from something like Glory or Manderlay is that it’s a personal story. 12 Years A Slave certainly sheds light on slavery as a whole but for the most part it doesn’t try to take on the whole subject in 133 minutes. That’s impossible. This is only about one man which makes McQueen’s take on the subject of slavery slightly different. True, Roots, probably the most iconic representation of Slavery on the small screen, had a central character (“Kunta Kinte”) but the series featured tons of characters that branched off of him and got their own story. McQueen only focuses on Solomon Northup. As long as it's done right, I hope there's more films about slavery made as it can't all be dealt with (and still hasn't been) in one or two movies. It's the recent high profile stories of servitude (The Help & The Butler), the first black person to do something among a sea of evil white people (42 & Red Tails) or the microcosm of the ghetto (Precious) that I feel we've had enough of.
But lemme not get sidetracked. We're supposed to be talking about 12 Years A Slave, right?

In the film, based on the book of the same, Chewital Ejiofor plays "Solomon Northup" - A free black man living in upstate New York whose drugged and eventually kidnapped in to slavery leaving behind his wife & family. 
There seems to be a sudden interest in slavery in cinema all of a sudden. The Rza had a nice little connection/subplot about slavery in The Man With The Iron Fists, I've been told the beginning of The Butler takes place on a plantation, Steven Spielberg recently gave us Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino made Django Unchained which 12 Years A Slave keeps getting compared too. While Django Unchained is a well made movie (minus the two endings and the unnecessary wordiness at times) it's still entertainment. It's cool, fun & action-packed (nothing I associate slavery with, but that's just me). 12 Years A Slave is obviously a movie but it's so far from "entertainment" it's not even funny. Like Abdellatif Kechiche's Black Venus (another recent film with a loose connection to slavery), 12 Years A Slave is great but it's filled with scenes that you just want to end and/or go away because they're so long and tough to sit through. Early on in 12 Years A Slave when Solomon Northup (Chewital Ejiofor) is captured and sold in to slavery, he’s beaten repeatedly with a paddle until it breaks. ...But the scene isn't over (the camera doesn't even cut). The man beating Northrup gets a whip and continues to beat him until you find yourself going; "ENOUGH! OK!" Later on in the film one of the slave owners (played amazingly by Michael Fassbender) has his way with one of the female slaves (once again the scene also has no cuts) and it just becomes beyond uncomfortable and I found myself squirming in my seat. Yes, the reason behind those scenes are to make us feel uncomfortable and horrified (and it certainly succeeded in doing that) but still - that doesn't sound like entertainment, does it?

I remember my anticipation for 12 Years A Slave being indescribable. "This will be Steve McQueen's masterwork" I thought. Then I saw the trailer earlier in the year and I thought "...oh. this isn't exactly what I had in mind." It looked "Hollywood" (sorry to sound like the cliche movie snob). Nowhere in the trailer did I see signs of McQueen's modern style that I love so much. But I quickly remembered that this isn't a modern story so a modern style of filmmaking wasn’t needed. To my surprise, the film is still filled with tons of unconventional shots and strange moments that you wouldn't find in an average historical film/period piece. 12 Years A Slave opens bluntly & abruptly without any grand introduction. And throughout the film theres a few eerie wordless moments of our protagonist (portrayed masterfully by Ejiofor) looking off in to space or intensely zoning out without saying anything. There's also tons of darkly lit shots with minimal movement from the actors in frame which seemed cool & unconventional too (McQueen definitely drew from his photography background for this). So although I didn't get everything I personally wanted in terms of style, McQueen still threw in little things here & there to satisfy. My "favorite" part of the film is the 10-15 minute period from the moment when Solomon Northrup is first loaded on to the slave ship until he reaches his first plantation. It's easily the most (purposely) disorienting experience you'll find in any movie this year outside of Leviathan & Gravity which is a testament to McQueen's directing and the film's editing. Steve McQueen's direction in 12 Years A Slave made me we think of what other modern directors would do with source material set in the 18th or 19th century. Now that Michael Mann has found his groove with new technology & digital filmmaking I'd like him to revisit the time period of The Last Of The Mohicans (not necessarily the same story) to see what that world would look like now. What would a Lodge Kerrigan period drama look like or a Gaspar Noe film set in the 1800's be?

As most of you know, 12 Years A Slave features an all-star cast but in reality a lot of the big names in the film really only have "extended cameos" which I found to be a little distracting at times (especially in the case of Brad Pitt & Michael K Williams). We get this introduction of a particular character played by a familiar face and then minutes later we never see them again. That was just odd to me. But at the same time, this is a sad, dark & horrific film. It may not feature the cinema verite style of a John Cassavetes film but its still real enough (it was real enough that I found myself hating Paul Dano & Michael Fassbender outside of the evil characters they played in the film). Maybe we needed the occasional extended cameo from Paul Giamatti or Brad Pitt to make us all feel safe and to remind us that 12 Years A Slave is just a movie. 
I’m apprehensive to give ANY criticism of 12 Years A Slave. Much like Gravity, people are treating it like it’s beyond criticism but there are a few things that could have been done a little better. I don’t mean to harp on the bad stuff so much because at the end of the day 12 Years A Slave is pretty exceptional. But I really found Brad Pitt’s presence to be strange. It’s like he was just playing himself. *SPOILER* And Brad Pitt’s character really can’t be distracting or take you out of the story at all because he’s a crucial element in Solomon’s freedom *SPOILER END* I also found the score to be a little unnecessary in some parts. Its good overall but a lot of the scenes spoke for themselves without the music and I already knew what to feel without the added presence of heavy stringed instruments. Some scenes would have been absolutely incredible had there been no music because everything would have felt even colder & darker.

Outside of Chewital Ejiofor & Michael Fassbender, the supporting cast of Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch and newcomer; Lupita Nyong’o are also great (Lupita Nyong’o being the standout, delivering a heartbreaking performance that’s bound to make you tear up). What's kinda cool is that 12 Years A Slave is somewhat of an amalgam of modern black film in that it features actors & actresses like Michael K. Williams & Alfree Woodward (both very briefly) as well as Quvenzhane Wallis & Dwight Henry (Beats Of The Southern Wild) and Adepero Oduye (Pariah).
This is an American film about slavery & racism so naturally there’s plenty of typical evil white characters (Michael Fassbender takes it to another level) but unlike the prototypical characters found in something like 42 (a movie I wish I never watched, but I saw it on a plane so it’s almost like it never happened) McQueen crafts more complicated characters, specifically the slave owner William Ford - played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is a Baptist preacher, he’s “kind” to Solomon and there’s even one scene where he tries to buy an entire family as to not separate them from each other. Early on when his character was introduced I thought to myself; “oh no, one of these characters?” (the racist white person who eventually changes his evil ways and we’re supposed to feel good about it or the white character whose racist but only under the circumstances. It's not really his fault). But by the time his character is out of the story, it’s made clear that no matter how “nice” he may be to the slaves, he’s still businessman and a slave owner first.
And speaking of 42 (if I can just divert for a moment) cinema really has yet to the scratch the surface of the psychological pressure & depression that comes along with being the first black person to do something. Specifically the post-stress. There are plenty of films like 42, but the really sad story behind Jackie Robinson’s life is the fact that he died at the age of 53. No professional athlete should die that young. There have been four movies made about Jackie Robinson’s years in major league baseball and they're all pretty much the same. Haven’t we had enough? Will someone make a film about his life after baseball? That’d be the real unique story...

It's not saying much, but 12 Years A Slave is definitely one of the best films of the year (this year has been fairly weak) even with my little criticisms. But if it means anything I'd probably be saying the same thing had it been released in 2010, 2011 or 2012. This has been stuck in my head since I've seen it and hardly any movie has been able to do that this year which makes it a success in my book.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...