Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Review: "12 Years a Slave" is a Quintessential Film About Slavery

Chiwetel Ejiofir
Once in awhile, a film comes along that almost seems to become bigger than its subject. Something that becomes so hyped that it almost feels like a cherished relic before it even hits theaters. After impressing audiences at TIFF, director Steve McQueen's latest 12 Years a Slave appears to be part of that select few. It seems bizarre that a film from the creator of Hunger and Shame, two morbidly bleak stories, could become an Oscar front runner and turn in a film that is arguably already one of the classics. His adoration for the novel by Solomon Northup and desire to bring to life a point in American history that tends to get overlooked brought together not only one of the best movies about slavery, but probably one of the best films of the decade.

It is strange to think that in the past few years, Civil Rights have been one of cinema's biggest recurring topics. At the Oscars alone, there has been The Help, Django Unchained, and Lincoln. This year looks to add even more to the Best Picture cannon with The Butler getting major traction and 12 Years a Slave already appearing to take the top prize. It is a fascinating time that almost seems to come in the dawning of the Academy's fascination with World War II. The story of Civil Rights is almost as complex as any war movie, focusing on the struggles to survive and live in a world that doesn't want you. It is an interesting time, notably  because it reflects a social shift and acceptance to talk about touchy subjects.

12 Years a Slave may be the touchiest of all. The movie opens with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofir) already clearing fields and living the life of a slave. It looks miserable and the company he keeps is so impersonal that it is torture just to be alive with his family back north. As the story progresses, McQueen does a fascinating shift between the life of Northup as a free man in the North East America and as the slave Plat in South East America. It quickly shows the racial tensions and despicable nature that whites tended to show towards blacks during the period to a degree so unflinching that much like Plat at a certain point, you too would want to whip the racist master who sings insulting songs to you.

The portrait of one man's journey through hell is a fascinating one that is only made more tragic by its realness. McQueen has an unflinching eye for making scenes that resonate without ever creating overkill. There is plenty of profanity, whipping, and hostility overall, but rarely does any one moment feel gratuitous or without purpose. The moments that do linger do so for a reason. Such as when Plat is hanging from a noose, The scene is shocking, but presents a scenario in which nobody can help as he stands on the brink of death. It creates a harsh reality that as Plat told another slave early on, don't be sorrowful or you will drown in sorrow.

Plat himself is a hard edged man who tries to hide his intelligence for betterment. Among the varying slaves, he goes from the kindest slave owner in the south (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the worst (Michael Fassbender). It is a fascinating shift of behaviors by the white counterparts largely because it suggests a kinder side to the slavery issue. It doesn't decree the act, but paints a picture that suggests that the history isn't just whippings and beatings. While it isn't preferred, it does begin to cover the voyeuristic look into slavery that is tragic. An entire race treated as less than human simply because a white man bought them. The only thing more haunting is the lack of sympathy and coldness that runs through the characters, suggesting that the slaves have no emotions. 

One of the most surprising and powerful performances is newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, who becomes Epps' (Fassbender) romantic interest only to be foiled by his wife (Sarah Paulson). While Chiwetel Ejiofir carries the movie to phenomenal heights, it is important to note the other side. Patsey may be treated as a love interest, but only in the way that feels shameful and abusive. Mrs. Epps refuses to give her liberties and Mr. Epps whips her for buying soap. She is an innocent character with which vengeance is thrust upon simply because Mr. Epps' lust knew no boundaries. It is tragic and sick and provides some of the film's most shocking, memorable moments. It also helps Fassbender to turn in one of the most electrically charged performances of his career. He almost seems to exude anger without effort. He is fearful and as Northup described him in the book, a perfect incarnation of the devil. 

Set alongside beautiful still imagery of the swamps and fields of Louisiana, the story progresses to the triumphant conclusion slowly. Thanks to Ejiofir's deeply passionate and reserved performance, the story plays more as a journey through hell but with passion and humanity lying under the brim. The story survives on his strength of will and the captivating supporting cast that almost seem to be equal parts shocking as they are iconic. The film is live with energy and becomes meditative on the concept of humanity, choosing to ask the viewer what was so appealing about slavery in the first place. McQueen's vision isn't necessarily gruesome, though it uses realistic torture to signify emotional beats quite effectively. It paints a time in America's history and brings it to life in unimaginable ways. It is bleak, tragic, but most of all, it is a great example of how even in times of peril, triumph of the will can carry someone the whole way. 

Left to right: Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson
It was impossible for this film not to live up to the hype. While it could largely be due to my adoration of McQueen's previous effort Shame, this film was one of my most anticipated of the year. Somehow, the result almost seems like a passionate letter to a time which time forgot. With Quentin Tarantino causing controversy for turning it into a playground, slavery hasn't had a proper treatment in recent cinema, save for a hackneyed job by Lincoln. It almost feels like McQueen saw these films and created this as a response. It is one of the best movies of the year and probably will go down as his magnum opus. A film that is so powerful and relevant that as time goes on, it will only seep more into the culture. Even if Lincoln is safer, 12 Years a Slave works because it is honest and artistic without drawing attention away from its subject.

McQueen stated that the story was very personal to him and as a result, he wanted to make a film that reflected the slave trade honestly. He has always been a little outside of the box when it came to cinema, though he has always addressed important topics from IRA Hunger Strike (Hunger) to sex addiction (Shame). I was surprised not only by the actors selected in the project, but by how transcendent and accessible the film is without losing his style. The passion is there and brings to life events that are questionable, but done not as exploitative, but depictions for the discomfort that they actually caused. There's scenes of lynching and whipping that draw emotions so viscerally that commentary would only ruin it. McQueen is a master of the moment and realism, and that is the film's defining achievement.

The only questionable thing is the score by Hans Zimmer. While he has already turned in a few lackluster scores (Rush notably), this one feels questionably inessential. The use of music in this film is bizarre. Going from traditional period music to Hans Zimmer's more eclectic, pulse-pounding aggression seems a little jarring. The music itself isn't terrible, but the use is a little bizarre, notably because it feels like it is used inconsistently and keeps the film from ever having a strict tone. Zimmer's parts are few and don't tarnish the movie too much, though there is a good debate on why it couldn't have been replaced and thus improved with more traditional musics than the familiar boombastic Zimmer score.

With that said, this film should sweep the Oscars. Much like The Artist a few years ago, this one almost seems poised from the opening gate. The praise is there and it delivers every promise. It makes every film pale in comparison. Even Gravity (which is still amazing) doesn't feel noteworthy in the same field. This feels like it is already meant for the cannon of great films. It is striking and powerful in ways that few Best Picture winners have been in recent years. The comparison has been to Schindler's List, though most would likely say it is closer to The Pianist. All of them are tragic movies, though The Pianist seems like a more apt comparison notably because the tales are more personal and striking. Psychologically, the reason to compare to Schindler's List is because of its Best Picture win, which unknowingly connects 12 Years a Slave into the conversation without trying.

Very quickly, the categories that it most likely should get nominated for and most likely win are: Best Picture, Best Director (Steve McQueen), Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofir), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o) and Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender). It is strange to be that confident, but it seems like all of the elements came together for this film. Ejiofir's performance is amazing and while my admiration for Fassbender plays into it, he turns in one of the most terrifying, noteworthy performances of his career. Nyong'o is the big surprise and one that I would be ashamed of if not recognized. While her part is smaller, it is equally memorable as the bigger named performers.

A quick run down of the odds according to statistics website Gold Derby based on these categories: Best Picture (#1 with odds of 4:1), Best Director (#1 with odds of 21:10), Best Actor (#1 with odds of 23:10), Best Supporting Actress (#1 with odds of 2:1), and Best Supporting Actor (#1 with odds of 21:10). The race is still young and while this juggernaut is not likely to be thrown, there is a chance for things to change. The notable downside is that the film could suffer from the lack of campaigning. As Fassbender told GQ, he will be busy and won't be campaigning for a nomination. Even if that didn't keep Joaquin Phoenix last year from being nominated, it seems riskier for a first time potential nominee from a director who hasn't gotten a nomination either. There is only hope that the film survives on the support and enthusiasm of its voters.

It brings up an interesting predicament that 12 Years a Slave may be one of the best, but it won't have the campaigning to solidify its chances. That makes it harder for it to be in discussion, even though word of mouth and public interest has already placed it at a fever pitch. My concern is that it will miss out on winning because of this, though it almost seems guaranteed to be nominated. While Gold Derby has been a trustworthy source, it is mostly based on prognosticators and not necessarily testament to what will happen. Still, this is a rare film that came out and presented a story so beautifully that it deserves the awards. No film comes close in overall significance. The worst that could happen is that politics get in the way and the depiction of violence keeps it from getting more respect, much like the controversial Zero Dark Thirty

I am just hoping that the word of mouth will survive the holiday season and even if films come out that are great, I don't see any that resonate emotionally or historically as 12 Years a Slave does. It has been awhile since a passionate period piece has won Best Picture and this wouldn't be a bad one to fix that with. If not, who knows how bleak and mean history will treat it. All I know is that it will make for an interesting Oscar season to see how things go. As much as I am looking forward to Inside Llewyn Davis, I don't feel like it will come close to the emotional highs of this one.

Is 12 Years a Slave a guaranteed lock? Can Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofir get nominations without campaigning? Will Steve McQueen become more resonant with the Academy after this?

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