Demanding & Dispiriting: 12 Years a Slave

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Some possible spoilers. Read at own risk. 

Full disclosure: I only went to see 12 Years a Slave because the tickets to American Hustle were sold out. It’s not that I didn’t think it wasn’t a movie worth seeing–far from it. Rather, I avoided it because I suspected that it would be perhaps too good of a film, in the sense that slavery would be factually depicted with all its horrors on display.

12 Years a Slave is a difficult film to watch. Last year there was all this fuss about Lincoln (which I didn’t go see, since I thought the combination of a Spielberg-directed biopic and Daniel Day-Lewis’s over-the-top acting would be too much), and certainly also about Django Unchained, a typical bloody revenge fantasy from Quentin Tarantino that happened to focus on slavery. Yet neither movie was an accurate depiction of slavery (obviously), and I got the sense that there was a large negative space between Lincoln and Django that would inevitably have to be filled with something meatier, truer, more challenging, and hopefully directed by an African-American director who would have a greater stake in getting the story right.

12 Years a Slave neatly fills that void. I had a few gripes with the film, of course, but on the whole it’s an almost perfectly-executed tragedy. From the moment he appears on screen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the title role of Solomon Northrup, elicits an incredibly amount of sympathy with his beautiful, expressive eyes and calm, yet deeply-furrowed brow. A sense of injustice runs like a deep, bloody river through the film and begins when Solomon, duped by two seemingly innocuous white musicians, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Hopelessness quickly sets in, offset only by the ambiguously optimistic title, which suggests that Solomon will “only” have to endure slavery for 12 years.

As you are dragged through the film, you come to the horrible realization that Solomon was, in some ways, one of the luckier African-Americans in the mid-1800s. Born a free man, and sufficiently educated to explain his misfortune to a sympathetic Canadian contractor, Solomon’s privilege at birth is eventually restored when he is reunited with his family at the end of the movie. Not so for the other slaves on Edwin Epps’s plantation, and especially not for Patsy–the tragic figure played by the incredible break-out actress Lupita Nyong’o–who is the unwilling recipient of her master’s affection, and earns the ire of the mistress of the plantation as a result.

What makes the movie so strong is its unwillingness to appease the discomfort of its viewers. Shot almost like a stage play, with intense, moving, and eloquent dialogue, 12 Years a Slave brings us seemingly closer  to the characters and their suffering than most other films do–including, ironically, Tarantino’s blood-and-guns soaked version, where the violence is so gratuitous as to be a joke. 12 Years a Slave feels almost lethargic at times. The willow trees covered in Spanish moss, the tall, undulating grasses and fluffy cotton bolls, the slight rasp of clothing and the sweat dripping down Solomon’s face–it is at once a beautiful portrait of the south, and also a damning one. For that same sense of lethargy is used in the movie’s most arduous scenes. When Solomon is hanged after attacking the unctuous and provocative John Tibeats, a disgustingly racist and insecure white overseer portrayed brilliantly by Paul Dano, the movie refuses to give the viewer the satisfaction of cutting away from the scene. Instead, we are forced to watch as Solomon tiptoes in the mud, exerting himself in what seems like a hopeless effort to stave off unconsciousness, for a long, horribly long, cut. The light fades, Solomon’s face turns pale, and by the time Solomon is rescued by his sympathetic owner, the feeling of relief is sullied by nausea. Later, we are forced to watch as Patsy is whipped brutally until she collapses, unconscious, against the whipping post; still later, we watch Solomon gaze at the landscape, brows knit together, unrelenting in his sorrow. There is no immediate reprieve from suffering in this film, no catharsis, and ultimately, no justice.

And ultimately, that is precisely what makes this a just depiction of slavery.

My dissatisfaction with the film comes in two forms: first, there are far too many tiny roles occupied by huge actors. As much as I love the character Omar from The Wire, it was distracting and unnecessary to include Michael K. Williams in perhaps a minute and a half of the film. The same goes for Paul Giamatti as the deplorable slave trader. I was divided over Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance–he did well, but has received an incredible amount of press lately because of his role in Sherlock. Garret Dillahunt was an unlikely choice for a reformed alcoholic (I admit to being biased about this one–Dillahunt just looks too much like SNL’s Bill Hader for me to take him seriously), and Bryan Batt’s 10-second scene also felt out of place. These small parts ended up feeling like cameos to me, and the constant “hey! I recognize that actor!” distracted from the other fantastic performances.

But the most egregious “cameo,” as it were, was the unexpected appearance of Brad Pitt nearly 3/4 of the way through the movie. Pitt was one of the movie’s co-producers, and it seems to  me that he wanted to be onscreen even if only for a moment. Ultimately, he ended up casting himself in the white savior role, which felt like a betrayal to Solomon’s unspoken fury. Solomon is never allowed the satisfaction of expressing the fact that slavery is an inhuman evil, entirely unjustifiable despite being legal. Instead, Brad Pitt, masquerading as a heavily-bearded, humble Canadian carpenter, gets to deliver the moral message in the film: that slavery is wrong, that people cannot be owned, and that plantation owner Epps will be punished in the afterlife. Solomon is understandably reserved in the presence of his violent and unpredictable owner, but even in the very last scene in the movie, all he can manage to say to his family is “I apologize, I apologize.”

And perhaps that scene is less dissatisfying than I thought, precisely because it is dissatisfying. By the end of the nightmare, Solomon’s vitality has dissipated, replaced by fear and exhaustion. His relief is palpable, as is the audience’s–and even though Solomon Northrup would go on to speak out against slavery and write the book on which the movie is based, one gets the sense of a life permanently robbed, beaten down by a pervasive and oppressive economic & social system. And that is the abrupt ending, and that is the takeaway: that there is no way any of this could ever be forgiven or forgotten. Instead, it will haunt us for hundreds of years, a sordid memory in human history, resurfacing again and again like dark oil drawn to the top of the ocean.

Overall grade: A-

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9 thoughts on “Demanding & Dispiriting: 12 Years a Slave

  1. Great review! I heard the perfect sum up of this movie on the NPR podcast “Pop Culture Happy Hour” which was, “12 Years A Slave is a slavery/racism movie that actually manages to be about black people.” I liked it for this reason. A lot of the movies/books about slavery and racism that we as a culture have made the most famous and celebrated are about white people. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most celebrated books about racism in this country, and it’s about white saviors overcoming racism, not African Americans, overcoming struggle. 12 Years A Slave forces you to look at what slavery and racism in this country really was. Americans have spent 150 years looking away from the reality of slavery, especially Southerns. Saying that the Civil War was mainly about state’s rights, and that the South was brave for standing up for their right to secede(so they could own other human beings.) As you said, in this movie the shots linger, it won’t let you look away. We need more movies like this.

    1. Yeah, did you watch the Oscars, though? When “12 Years” won Best Picture, Brad Pitt was the first one at the microphone, when it should have been Steve McQueen. Still, the fact that it’s based on an autobiography by someone who is actually African-American definitely gives it that solid and honest foundation.
      I never thought about To Kill a Mockingbird in that way, but you’re right. That movie The Help from a couple years ago is another perfect example of that.
      I don’t think that as collective, we Americans are ever going to be “done” discussing slavery, but I do wish that more of the books/movies in popular culture focused on contemporary racism, instead of re-telling old stories from 150 or even 50 years ago, as a way to say “look how far we’ve come.” That’s why Precious was so powerful, and why nothing like that has been made since.

  2. I have to agree with Tom: Excellent review! I like that you saw it “by accident” 🙂
    Yeah, it was funny how famous actors kept popping up and then disappeared, but it does make for a great trailer where you can show off all your stars..

    1. Thanks! glad you enjoyed it.

      Yeah, as much as I griped about Brad Pitt having what was essentially a cameo in the movie, I can see how his presence—and the presence of the other actors I mentioned—might have led a greater number of people to go see the film.

  3. I know I’m alone in my boat, but I didn’t quite love this one. Sure, it was a very invigorating movie experience that demanded I watch and witness what our country used to be like, but by the same token, I didn’t feel like it moved well. In a sense, it just felt like a non=stop continuation of events that went on and on and on, without any cohesion or sense of pacing. Weird complaints, I know, but it’s what ultimately kept me away from loving this movie. Good review.

    1. I can see what you mean. Admittedly, it’s a slow-paced film and it’s hard to figure out how quickly time is passing. But for some reason that’s never really bothered me – I usually enjoy films that others describe as boring. Haha. Though I did wonder about the movie’s ability to be cathartic. It kind of felt stifling to the extent that it didn’t offer any ideas about how people could move on after such tragic events. Not sure that falls within the scope of the movie’s purpose, though.

  4. What a fantastic review! Do you want to come and work at my cafe! I couldn’t have written anything as eloquent and well written as that in a million years.

    As for the film, I will reserve judgement until I see it, although the Brad Pitt thing sounds disappointing. I do disagree with your judgement of Garrett Dillahunt though, as he featured in both No Country For Old Men and The Road, to good dramatic, redneck effect!

    1. Thanks!! Glad you enjoyed my review. Since I can’t watch a movie every day (well, I say that, but if I set aside the time I probably could), I feel like when I do put up the occasional review I have to spend a lot of time on it. Haha.

      You’re right about Dillahunt, of course. In fact, I don’t even remember him from No Country for Old Men, which means he’s more versatile than I give him credit for. But he does look like Bill Hader, don’t you think?

      1. I guess you could get the two confused yeah!

        I think Dillahunt is really good as the redneck kind of guy, in fact when I saw him in that comedy TV show Raising Hope I was really surprised because I thought he was a dramatic actor.

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