Friday, October 18, 2013

12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave (2013)
Dir. Steve McQueen

4.5 out of 5

In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, a scathing indictment of Southern slavery that galvanized support for the abolitionist movement and, many historians believe, helped tilt the United States toward Civil War.  One year later, Solomon Northup wrote 12 Years A Slave, a book that resembled Stowe's fictional anti-slavery polemic, with one key difference - it was all true.  Born a free man in the state of New York, the African-American Northup was deceived and kidnapped in 1841, illegally shuttled off to the Deep South where he was sold as human chattel to a succession of slaveowners in the Red River region of Louisiana.  His firsthand account of life as a slave put the lie to the South's attempts to uphold slavery as a benevolent institution.

The film adaptation of 12 Years A Slave from director Steve McQueen (Shame) and screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails) follows in both authors' footsteps.  On one hand, it's a historical horror show that takes an unflinching look at the cruelties and hypocrisies of the slave system - a passion play not unlike the many, many theatrical iterations of Uncle Tom's Cabin that followed in the wake of its publication.  But McQueen also stays true to the spirit of Northup's memoir, taking big, knotty issues of morality, racism, and economics and distilling them into their effect on the day-to-day lives of individuals.

To get there, McQueen assembles a magnificent cast, beginning with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup.  A noted fiddle player in his hometown of Saratoga Springs, Northup is whisked to Washington, D.C. with the promise of employment in a traveling circus.  His benefactors, however, are actually bounty agents, and before long he finds himself on a ship bound for the New Orleans slave market.  Unable to reveal his true identity for fear of deadly reprisal, he struggles to maintain his dignity and his sanity in a nearly hopeless situation.

There's a definite stateliness to 12 Years A Slave that sets it apart from the rest of McQueen's provocative oeuvre.  From the rococo dialogue to Ejiofor's clean moral arc to the powerhouse supporting performances from Michael Fassbender (as an unfathomably cruel plantation owner) and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o (as Fassbender's most prized worker and the object of his dangerous affections), the movie finds McQueen treading mainstream waters for the first time in his career.  And yet the former avant-garde video artist still finds ways to add uncanny flourishes to this cold, sober reconstruction of historical fact: the eerie stillness of the Southern backwoods; the overlapping sound design that scores a church service to a bone-chilling ditty sung by a hateful overseer (Paul Dano); the agonizing extended scenes of individual suffering, including a near-lynching of Northup that seems to go on forever.

It's just what the movie needs to set itself apart from the annual pack of interchangeable historical prestige dramas.  These artful touches make 12 Years A Slave feel like the most honest film ever made about American slavery - and in many ways, it is - without diluting the appeal of the human story at its center.  Even so, McQueen aims for something bigger and more complex than a simple retelling of Northup's ordeal with its lessons of defiance and perseverance.  His goal, beautifully accomplished, isn't just to use history as a blunt tool to stun or move an audience, but as a prism to challenge and perplex us, cataloging the simple kindnesses and cruelties that people visit upon others, whether by force, by choice, or by chance.

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