Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 07, 2013 10:02 am 
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The ordeal of the ancestors

12 Years a Slave, adapted from the true account by Soloman Northrup, a free black man resident in New York who was kidnapped into slavery from 1841 to 1853 in the South, is British artist Steve McQueen's third feature film, after his powerful debut Hunger (NYFF 2008, about Bobby Sands' fast to the death for the Irish cause) and his less successful Shame (NYFF 2011, about a New York man with an unhealthy obsession with sex). This new one has more mainstream American (or North American) appeal. It takes the material of exploitation Mandingo movies and treats it as straight, ultra-serious, and unsexy -- as well as without humor or witty dialogue, since one can't help but think of Tarantino's recent genre-bending slavery saga Django Unchained, which went over similar subject matter.

Is it safe not to like McQueen's new movie? Given that it has been winning nearly universal praise and got the People's Choice Award at Toronto along with Oscar-bait tweets, it may be unwise. And 12 Years a Slave is beautiful, powerful, and superbly performed. But it suffers from shapelessness and corny or obvious speeches -- such as Brad Pitt's near the end -- that comes at a moment when it seems quite unnecessary.

12 Years is episodic, like its source, and at times feels like a nightmarish, deeply ironic pageant of the most shameful aspects of southern history -- and more a series of tableaux than a progressive narrative. Its protagonist gets stuck in a terrible situation, and stays there for most of the film, and then quickly gets out again. McQueen, who says his existence is owed to Grenadian ancestors who managed to survive as slaves, wanted the story of a free man wrongly enslaved so anyone today could identify, and Northrup's book fell into his hands.

First, therefore, we see Soloman (played with memorable sympathy and passion by Chiwetel Ejiofor) living in considerable dignity as a fiddler and carpenter in Saratoga, New York with a wife and kids. He is apparently tricked by an offer of handsome pay into going to Washington to play in a kind of circus. (Details aren't made fully clear.) Within sight of the Capitol, the "agents" get him drunk and drug him. He wakes up in chains. It's over. He's a slave. He hasn't any papers to prove who he is. Protesting that he's free and educated now only gets him a brutal beating. Other victims he's transported to the South with warn him to keep his mouth shut. Eventually the spirituals sung in the fields (many of the images are outdoors and lovely) begin to speak for him, and he will begin to sing along. But that comes later.

Several well known actors play odious figures in the tale that follows. Paul Giamatti is slave trader Theophilus Freeman, displaying naked black people in a living room and naming their prices. Northrup, his name changed to Platt Hamilton or simply Platt, is sold himself. At first he goes through several relatively decent slave owners, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Bryan Batt. Then due to a violent conflict with vindictive plantation sub-manager John Tibeats (Paul Dano) who tries to lynch him and is out to kill him, William Ford (Cumberbatch) has to trade Platt away where he'll be safe, and he winds up in the hands of the psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). All scenes are from the viewpoint of Platt/Ejiofor, but now Epps grabs center stage played by the powerful and versatile Fassbender, the Irish-German actor who first came to international prominence through his performance as Bobby Sands for McQueen. Fassbinder has now been in all three McQueen films, his virtual muse.

With Epps dominating the scene another theme takes over, alternating with Platt's struggle to maintain morale and his attempts to contact the north and gain his liberty again. This is Epps' twisted passion for the most beautiful and vigorous of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who picks 500 pounds of cotton a day, while Platt can barely reach 200, though any man who can't make that quota gets a beating. Here also enters a theme familiar from exploitation slavery movies: the jealous slave owner's wife (here, Sarah Paulson) who sees and abhors her husband's attraction to a black slave woman. Epps' warped lust for Patsy leads him first to pamper her, then rape her, then savagely beat her. And Platt must beat her too. There is a lot of beating in 12 Years a Slave, though of course not as much as Northrup underwent, witnessed, or had to administer himself.

In fact though Platt gets to play the fiddle and do some engineering and run errands for Epps' wife, it's surprising his accomplishments, even if despised in a slave, don't lead over time to his becoming more of a "house nigger." He seems not much good at picking cotton. (In the actual account Northrup had a greater succession of slave owners and situations than shown in this film, which contracts and intensifies its source, turning this protagonist, like those played by Fassbender in Hunger and Shame, into a martyr triumphing through self-restraint.)

Brad Pitt, who produced the film, also gets to play the protagonist's savior, a man named Bass, a carpenter and contractor originally from Canada, standing apart from the victims and victimizers who sees slavery as an unjust and ultimately doomed system. Platt is able to prevail upon Bass to take the information about his kidnapping to the north, and he is rescued and returns to his family. Ejiofor, who has cried often before, weeps again when confronted with his grown children, his daughter's new husband, and his little grandson. Get out your handkerchiefs.

McQueen's films have all been harsh and relentless, and this one still reads as an art film, if only for its stern seriousness and long takes. But that is undercut by moments of sentimentality and cliché. This third film seems much more mainstream and less personal than Hunger and Shame. It's a slicker, more accomplished film, with its integration of the traditional elements of cinematography, acting, editing, sound design, another excessive score by Hans Zimmer, and, of course, more of a "name" cast. But with this the movie also seems to have gotten away from McQueen, in a way. Its dialogue, apart from ornate "period" effects, goes in many conventional directions. So instead of saying "This is a true Steve McQueen film," or thinking he's gotten back to the authenticity and strength he achieved in Hunger but lost with the drift of control that seemed to come with adopting a U.S. location for Shame, one begins to wonder if there is such a thing as a Steve McQueen film. But that's not to say he isn't still a force to reckon with. This adaptation incidentally was written by John Ridley; McQueen is not listed as the co-writer this time.

12 Years a Slave, 133 mins., debuted at Telluride, was shown at Toronto and will be shown at other festivals, including New York, where it was screened for this review. US release 18 October 2013 (limited); UK, 24 January 2014 .

GAVIN SMITH AND MCQUEEN, NYFF P&I Q&A [photo by Chris Knipp]

Walter Chaw's Telluride review says it better than I could -- why we cannot love yet cannot help admiring this film -- and makes close and telling comparisons with the book.

Armond White, who is black, is brutal in his review in condemning this film (and got ousted from the New York Film Critics Circle, which he has twice headed, for disrespecting McQueen) -- and White gives a convincing explanation of why it's been admired by the white American audience to the extent of giving it the "Best Picture" Oscar.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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