Friday, March 11, 2016

12 Years a Slave

Amazing...and in No Good Way
"My Sentimentality Runs the Length of a Coin"

(written at the time of the film's release)

I've been avoiding seeing 12 Years a Slave, despite a deep interest in it. It's one of those films that, despite the buzz, nobody goes too far into specifics, and only talking in general terms of the experience. I like the kinds of films that are special enough that the critic community (such as it is) comes together to not spoil it for anybody else, and dilute the experience.

Also, I hadn't seen Steve McQueen's other films (Hunger and Shame), but knew he was considered an interesting, if brutal, voice (and eye), a bold film-maker, but with no editorial bent, except in the canniest scrupulousness. He's not an artist who intends to tell you how to feel, but instead just wants you to feel it—by any means necessary, within the film-making form.

I also wanted to see it, as "The Movies" have had a very poor record of showing slavery as a subject, often treating it as a benign necessity in its past, informing the fabric of our entertainment and our lives, or social-memory, as such. Part of a film's potential audience has always been housed in The South, and as that section has lagged in its views towards minorities, Hollywood, unless there was a dime in it, would choose not to risk offending its patrons, and so, would, instead, pander, even to the bigot. Think on this: when only two mainstream movies—Amistad and (ugh!) Django Unchained have taken slavery head on, that is a shameful record. Even Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles might be considered more courageous than the whole gamut of Hollywood films.

The whole story of this film is one that makes you shake your head and say "why has no one thought of this?"* "12 years a Slave" had been one of the best-selling books of its day—that being 1853—and became known, along with "Uncle Tom's Cabin," due to its inflaming the abolitionist movement of "starting the Civil War."  After 1865, it fell into obscurity until scholars in Louisiana began doing research on it in the 1960's and published an annotated version in 1968.  

My reaction to it is pretty much what I expected—I was devastated.

I would have been disappointed by anything less.

McQueen starts 12 Years... in an odd place in the story-line—about half-way through, at a time when the free man Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiafor, one of my favorites), now known as the slave Pratt, is working Louisiana cane-fields for a Judge for a season, while his owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is having a contagion of cotton weevil destroy his crop. McQueen introduces us to the environment by moving his camera forward into the work area through the foliage—long, thin leaves that seem to last forever and never move out of the camera's way. Then, at night, sleeping on a bare floor, the woman next to him guides his hand to her, and when finished, turns away. Northup does the same, and when he does, all but leaves the frame.

At that point, Northup, when observing his paltry dinner pan and the berry juice that runs on it, decides to whittle a stick, use the juice as ink and tries to write a letter to anyone in the North who might help with his situation. The process is frustrating, and it is then and only then, that McQueen goes back to the beginning of the story, of how Northup, born free and a violinist by trade in Washington D.C., is tricked into his situation, sold into slavery in Louisiana, his family away to not notice his kidnapping, and his series of houses to which he is sold.

Interesting structure on McQueen's part. Northup endures all kinds of hardships, both physical and mental, his only thought to get back to his family, but it is only at the time when he feels he might betray his family, does he take real action to get out. Oh, he tries to run away a couple times, but if he gets caught, he is very aware that he will be hung, no questions asked, and at one point, he very nearly is, in an excruciating sequence that seems to last forever. Northup hangs, at the instigation of a man he's beaten (Paul Dano) in a rage, and is saved from being killed, but just barely—the noose tight around his neck, his feet tentatively on soft, unsure ground, his toes barely giving him purchase—while around him, life goes on, the other slaves work, taking no action lest they be punished, and he hangs, his life literally in the balance.
It's an incredible sequence, done in long uninterrupted takes, like many of the episodes of cruelty and torture dramatized in the film, that illustrate, very vividly, the absence of any hope in the life of a slave, of the system of property that was imposed on living, thinking human beings,
and the thin thread that constituted the difference between survival and the grave. It's a world devoid of charity, of any stripe, and belies any claims to the label of civilization. This is done so well that even a long shot of Northup just looking out around him, that comes deep in the film, with only the sounds of the birds, winds and insects in the background still imposes a feeling of dread, the expectation that the normal will explode in the next second and end you.

It's amazing work, done in ways both screaming and subtle, but makes those moments of quiet anything but peaceful. There's a lot of 12 Years a Slave seared into my head. It will surely win a lot of awards, but hopefully won't be forgotten once the gold is exchanged.

A shot of about a minute of Ejiafor's Northup in contemplation may seem a respite
but is a cautionary one as the natural sounds might be predatory.

* And they have.  "12 Years a Slave" was known enough from the renewed interest in the '60's that in 1996, PBS aired a film by Gordon Parks entitled "Solomon Northup's Odyssey" starring Avery Brooks, deep in his "Deep Space Nine" run.

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