Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hey! We... er... I Saw a Movie! - 12 Years a Slave

Spoilers – I give away some details, not really that much of the plot. It’s based on a true story, so history has again beaten you to spoiling the movie. Serves you right for not having a time machine!

Toaster’s Contribution - Yesterday, I went by my lonesome to see Oscar contending drama 12 Years a Slave. It wasn’t funny at all! The previews lied to me! Not once did I see Johnny Knoxville dressed as an old man… huh? Oh, I guess that was a different movie. What I actually saw was based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American living in upstate New York in the pre-Civil War United States, who was abducted and sold into slavery in the South. Wow, how did I get that confused with Bad Grandpa? My bad.

In all seriousness, 12 Years a Slave was a very good movie but at the same time extremely difficult to watch. I think what made these graphic scenes harder for me to watch than Paul Dano’s torture in Prisoners is that this abuse actually happened. It was a matter of watching two hours of sins from our nation’s past rendered in excruciating detail.

The cast was amazing, with appearances by Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt. Chiwetel Ejiofor was excellent as Solomon Northup. Before this film, the most notable role I recognized him from was the bounty hunting bad guy in Serenity. He played the lead part in 12 Years a Slave with a buried passion. As a slave, survival came down to keeping your mouth shut and doing what you were told. Ejiofor held that instinct throughout, at the same time having allowed his anger and sadness to show through, only occasionally erupting into rage or despair and making those moments all the more powerful for it. He gave Solomon Northup a sustained quiet dignity; having never completely lost his humanity to barbarians with whips and never given up hope that he could be saved. I fully expect Chiwetel Ejiofor to receive a Best Actor nomination from the Academy Awards and he has a damn good shot at winning.

Then there is Michael Fassbender. Jonny Prophet and I love Michael Fassbender. He is an amazing actor with considerable range and an ability to seemingly lose himself in his roles. That said, Fassbender was a truly scary and disturbing individual in 12 Years a Slave. He played Edwin Epps, a cruel, alcoholic plantation owner with a penchant for brutality and a tendency for outbursts of rage that gave his portrayal an unnerving sense of instability. Remember when Leonardo DiCaprio talked about how evil his character was in Django Unchained?  Fassbender has him beat by a mile. Where DiCaprio came across at times like an almost cartoonish villain, Fassbender consistently felt real (and unfortunately was based on somebody real). Fassbender’s Epps was a vicious, twisted man who truly felt that his slaves were nothing more than property that he could beat, rape or kill as he pleased. As hate inspiring as he was, Michael Fassbender’s performance was incredible and I would be shocked if he didn’t receive at least a Best Supporting Actor nod.

When I brought up the excruciating detail part earlier? Not an exaggeration. Director Steve McQueen (not the guy from Bullit) didn’t hold back. He would hold a shot to force the viewer to feel uncomfortable and give us a sense of what it was truly like to be a slave. It was highly effective to me. I had always wondered why more slaves didn’t retaliate or attempt to escape. 12 Years a Slave made me see how hopeless their plight truly was. There was nowhere to run.
The masterful direction didn’t stop there. McQueen kept filming as a young woman was whipped nearly to death, at one point even seeing the gruesome tears in the flesh from each lash (not sure how they got that shot, it was pretty amazing in a cringe-worthy sort of way). In another scene, plantation hands attempt to hang Northup. They are thwarted by the head overseer, only on the grounds that they had no right to kill their employer’s property. They lower Northup to the ground to just the point of his toes reaching the ground and run away. Then, the head overseer leaves him there! The audience is then treated to an excruciatingly long shot of Northup trying to keep on his toes, constantly having to readjust due to the mud beneath him, to avoid being strangled. All the while, other slaves go about their business, not daring to intervene.

12 Years a Slave never once held back. The film showed us the dehumanizing manner in which slaves were sold, essentially like livestock. It posed the question of even if a plantation owner is kind, how good of a man could he be to own slaves? Hell, I had never even considered the prospect that free African American people in the North were being kidnapped and sold as slaves in the South… sadly something that happened quite a bit.

I must warn you that if you are offended by the “N-word,” you may want to avoid 12 Years a Slave. As historically accurate as the vernacular was, if I had been playing a drinking game connected to that offensive word I would have been drunk within 20 minutes. The film is graphic and gruesome, but coming from a life of relative comfort, such jarring storytelling is necessary to truly understand Northup’s and his people’s plight. 12 Years a Slave was a great film and I am glad that I saw it. That said, I doubt I will ever buy it. I just can’t imagine a time when I would ever want to pop in the disc and relive the pain all over again.

Is it wrong that watching an overseer get whipped by a slave makes me extraordinary happy? I’m just going to go ahead and say no.

Since Jonny Prophet was busy installing GPS into his killer robot army, he wasn’t able to join me. However, I think I can provide a hypothesize what his response would have been.   

Jonny’s (probable) contribution – Blah, blah, blah Michael Fassbender… something about Khan owning slaves… Glad to see Steve McQueen’s “Great Escape” was a success… something about how birds were sent by Satan to steal our souls… blah, blah, blah depressing sequel to Django Unchained.

Until the next review… Stay Strange    

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