Friday, December 12, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave

Slavery was horrible. This is not up for debate; it's a fact. Yet our discussion of this wretched time in our civilization tends to feel removed and academic. How, we wonder, could society have countenanced the suppression of an entire race? What forces could have conspired to treat people as nothing more than property? Was nineteenth-century America motivated by economic gain, rationalizing that the ends justified the means, or did slave owners honestly believe in racial superiority? These are questions worth asking, lest such horrid history repeat itself, but they approach slavery more as an intellectual concept than as the actual, systemic brutalization of humans. 12 Years a Slave—Steve McQueen's gripping, unapologetically savage account of one servant's struggles—bucks that trend and instead takes a hauntingly intimate approach. It is not about slavery's politics. It is about its mechanics.

After opening with a brief series of ragged scenes that bluntly depict the daily rigors of plantation workers, the movie flashes back to Upstate New York, where its hero, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), lives comfortably with his family. One night, he goes out drinking with his white colleagues, oblivious of their plans to sell him into slavery. (As Solomon passes out, one of his companions murmurs, "More's the pity," with a tone of scalding indifference that will pollute the remainder of the film.) He wakes to find himself in chains, and his protestations of freedom are met with the lash. Then, he's shipped downriver, and his dozen-year nightmare begins.

In terms of plot, 12 Years a Slave isn't complicated. John Ridley's screenplay (adapted from Northup's own memoir) is episodic, tracing Solomon's external movements as he's shuttled from one degrading incident to the next. But it also examines his internal contortions as he attempts to adapt to each new, uniquely terrible challenge. Solomon, rebranded "Platt" upon his arrival in the South, is something of a pragmatist, and Ejiofor expertly conveys not only his character's pride and intelligence, but also his fear and resolve. Platt knows he is being wrongly persecuted, but he also knows that he must tread delicately and manipulate each situation to the limited extent he is able. In some cases, that involves trumpeting his talents, such as when he flashes his engineering prowess to benefit both an opportunistic slave-owner and himself. But for the most part, it entails playing the part of a docile farmhand, hoping to remain invisible in order to minimize his suffering.

And oh, how he suffers. As it turns out, slavery was nasty business. Obvious, you say? Maybe so. But never before has this pitiful era in our history been depicted on screen with such unsparing, persuasive cruelty. It is here that McQueen's rigorous approach to filmmaking pays dividends. If nothing else, his prior two features—the glum prison picture, Hunger, and the glummer exploration of sex addiction, Shame—established his talent for articulating pain. Here, he operates almost as a documentarian, chronicling Platt's horrors with quiet, solemn detachment. Working with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, he composes widescreen images with minimal cutting, the camera seeing everything but saying nothing. It's a striking, powerful approach that hammers home the severity of Platt's predicament. In one sickening scene, he gets strung up on a branch, left to dangle helplessly with his feet barely scraping the ground; it's a brutal enough image, but McQueen holds it in agonizing long shot, and as you watch Platt tiptoe from one foot to the other to stave off strangulation, you can feel the rope cut into your neck.

Again, nasty business. Yet there is something oddly compassionate about McQueen's scrupulous technique, a sense of empathy sorely lacking in his prior films. To be sure, Hunger and Shame were both exactingly well-made pictures, but they felt cold, as though their maker was indifferent to the grotesqueries on display. But the fact of slavery is so heated and so appalling that it requires no further embellishment—simply acknowledging its existence is condemnation enough. And so, by refusing to sensationalize his subject matter and instead keeping his emotional distance from it, McQueen somehow brings us closer to it.

So do his actors. Ejiofor doggedly carries the film—wary but proud, his Solomon instantly earns our sympathy without once asking for it—but he's ably supported by his costars, whom McQueen gives more freedom to emote. Chief among them is Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a cotton-picking prodigy who faces rape at regular intervals. Nyong'o's technique is markedly different from Ejiofor's—she turns up the volume and physicality rather than letting her grief roil beneath—but it's no less effective, and Patsey's sustained suffering serves as a mournful counterpoint to Platt's eventual redemption. There are also myriad villains, including Sarah Paulson as a cruel and jealous matriarch and Benedict Cumberbatch as a relatively benevolent plantation owner whose outward affection for Platt makes his ultimate inaction all the more repulsive. Most of all, there is Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a vicious slaver whose spasms of rage mask deep-seated self-loathing. Fassbender, who of course headlined both Hunger and Shame, is a naturally mesmerizing screen presence, but he subtly distorts that persona here, transforming Epps into both a terrifying monster and a pathetic fool. (Less successful in suppressing his star power is producer Brad Pitt, who casts himself as a Canadian sympathizer; he's fine, but his magnetism is distracting, and it robs the movie of its immediacy.)

12 Years a Slave is not fun to watch (though some cinephiles may reflexively admire the undeniable craftsmanship amidst the narrative ugliness). It is violent, brutal, and unrelenting. But it is also sincere, and even if you shrink from its savagery, you can appreciate that McQueen has made a movie that defiantly addresses slavery and its attendant horrors without flinching from them. He has chronicled 12 years in the life of one slave, but in so doing, he has also paid homage to countless others, a tribute that makes his movie both exultant and sad. Solomon endured a nightmare, but his story is ultimately one of triumph. Yet the lasting impact of 12 Years a Slave is its silent acknowledgement that there are so many other stories of slavery it can never tell.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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