Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen. 2013.

The story of 12 Years A Slave sits in the twice-fold unfortunate place: it's not about a hero, but heroic endurance, and it's not about a man who finds courage, but already is of such fortitude. For these reasons, which could have only been overcome by dramatic invention upon its factual basis, 12 Years A Slave is an inevitably imperfect drama. There simply isn't enough development and contrast of character. Its story of Solomon Northup, a freeman kidnapped into slavery in 1841, remains nonetheless compelling and affecting.

This affect owes mostly to the film's depiction of the institution of slavery and how people in different walks of life and of different classes, tempers, and intellects deal with the terrible system which they've inherited. To the slaver Freeman (Paul Giamatti) slavery is strictly a matter of commerce and he treats slaves as commodities, with a slave's outburst of anguish at the separation from her children amounting to a mere inconvenience of the trade. Slavery offers a man of blunt character and no intellect like the overseer Tibeats sources of imagined slights on whom he can take petty vengeance.

A female slave who catches the fancy of her owner might end up with her own attendants like Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), but upon his death she might just as easily lose them and all standing. Too she risks running into the wrath of the master's wife. A hardworking slave might be praised one day then whipped the next for not living up to yesterday's success.

12 Years A Slave revolves around three men, though. The first is Ford, a plantation owner who abides by slavery, though with reluctance and pity. He tries to keep families together and do good where possible, but he's resigned to the fact that he can change little outside of treating his own slaves with compassion. Ford gives hearing to Solomon, forced to take the name Platt, and offers him a fiddle as thanks for completing a special project. Yet the fact remains he owns Solomon slaves and no protestation or misery prompt him to free them. In the end, though, Ford transfers Solomon to another owner to save him from the wrath of his petty and cruel manager Tibeats who would, with the authority or not, kill him.

Solomon's new owner is Edwin Epps, brought to appalling life by Michael Fassbender. Epps is a man of appetites who uses everything for his own satiation. He uses his wife as a trophy and when angered threatens to send her back to the whorehouse in which he found her. He uses his Christian faith to justify owning his slaves and the obedience he commands from them. Sometimes he uses the slaves for amusement, waking them from sleep and forcing them to dance for his entertainment. He uses a pet favorite as an object of his sexual wants. He uses their daily quotas as an opportunity to derive pleasure from judging their sufficiency or inadequacy. When his cotton is hit by blight for a season he uses them and their alleged godlessness as an excuse for the misfortune. Slavery gives this most avaricious and libidinous man a world to dominate and plunder.

At last we have Solomon Northupp himself, who seemed to pay slavery little heed when he walked about a freeman into shops and through the parks of Saratoga, New York. When he's captured in a kidnapping ruse and wakes up in the deep South as Platt, his opinion surely shifts, but not to that of condemnation, even. Instead, Solomon's approach is aimed only at surviving. He refuses to give into the grief and despair that swallow all the slaves around him even as every attempt to get word of his liberty to friendly ears, and these attempts are few and far between, is met with failure.

Yet all of his sadness and resilience must remain within. He cannot confide in the overseers who manage him like a beast or to the owners who disbelieve his story or fear to report it. Solomon cannot even confide in the other slaves because he is so different from them. First, he is an educated man whose ideas and emotions have expression which is foreign to them. Second, he holds in his mind the image his lost freedom and the hope of reclaiming it, a sight they cannot imagine. The other slaves are lost to despair, some so far that they ask Solomon to end their life. Yet while the slaves carry on in their private torment they share the experience in their spirituals. They sing together, except for Solomon, who has nearly muted himself for fear of revealing his education.

When Solomon finally finds himself at uttermost need, though, he joins the other slaves in singing. With more and more desperate energy Solomon sings and learns their despair and the lone recourse of their song.

Solomon's eventual escape, though, is a happenstance to the plot, a conclusion which is brought about by fortune and which neither causes nor results from any deed or change from Solomon. In fact Solomon changes very little throughout. He commits early and hews consistently to a stoic philosophy of endurance which, while it serves him well, is not terribly interesting to watch. We don't watch him change so much as react. In lieu of dramatic tension director Steve McQueen supplements long shots–Mike Leigh long–of the slaves, which emphasize their passivity and isolation. On the one hand this is effective and appropriate because the movie's theme is endurance and isolation. On the other hand, although this structure mimics the experience of slavery, the movie becomes an episodic pour of misfortune after misfortune. A little more reflection on and development of Solomon's internal world and a little preparation of the film's denouement would have given his journey more shape and weight.

Nonetheless 12 Years A Slave gains more from its structure than it loses. We feel Solomon's isolation, from the pain of his silence to the remorse of participating in that from which any man would recoil. We see the ways in which everyone accepted what they assumed they couldn't or didn't want to change. We admire the resilience of one man who while his body was tormented kept his spirit free.

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