29 November 2013

First Impressions: 12 Years a Slave

Every year there tends to be a hot film that many critics immediately jump on and anoint the "Greatest Film of the Year." This happened with Slumdog Millionaire (2008) a ways back, with Argo (2012) last year, and already 12 Years a Slave (2013) is getting the kind of ridiculous buzz reserved for runaway Oscar winners, or at least close calls.

So, is 12 Years a Slave legit?

The acting is astoundingly passionate; the cinematography is careful, sustained, and gorgeous; and it masterfully handles some pretty tricky subject matter. Perhaps if Django Unchained (2012) wasn't so fresh in my mind the film would have impacted me a bit more, but 12 Years doesn't seem special enough to be considered an instantaneous classic. That being said, it is an extremely artfully constructed film whose most substantial impact will be demonstrating an intricate look at the horrors of slave life in a film that doesn't feature Tupac and Jim Croce on the soundtrack. Bits and spoilers follow in this discussion of the film and its cultural merits.

There is a non-stop stream of familiar faces in this flick, and most of them kill it. Some literally. Perennially impossible to spell Chiwetal Ejiofor grounds the film with this sullen, trying performance full of the really concerned looks he perfected on the set of 2012 (2009). From there we're weaved in and out of brief appearances from Michael K. Williams, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Dano who all play a bit out of their wheelhouse. Except for Omar, of course. One of the more bizarre casting moments comes from kidnapper Taran Killam, who we always knew had that evil him after playing Mandrew...
And introducing Brad Pitt as Amish Jesus

But let's talk about some of the big names and standouts here. Mike Fassbender plays the slave-owner Epps with an insane abandon and chews scenery like a maniac. After two underrated roles in Steve McQueen films Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) he may finally get some serious attention here. On the opposite site is Lupita Nyong'o who is really the breakout star here after getting the most on-screen punishment since JC in The Passion of the Christ (2004). Nyong'o's Patsey has this terrifying complex relationship with Epps and his wife (American Horror Story's Sarah Paulson), based on love, admiration, torture, neglect, jealousy, and rape. If anything in this film can be a microcosm for the peculiar institution it's that relationship, which is destroying and sustaining Epps at the same time at the expense of an entire people.

Lastly we have Brad Pitt, who helped produce this film (he really wants that Oscar like his buddy George), who plays the Canadian Bass who just kind of shows up at the end and saves Ejiofor's Solomon Northrup. It's fitting that Pitt cast himself as this white savior who is one of the only white folk in the movie to have a problem with slavery (of course he's a Canuck), and claims that mailing Northrup's letter would come at great personal danger to himself. If any of this danger was apparent, the ending may not have seemed so sudden and anti-climactic. I'm glad Brad got to keep his flowing locks, though.

Some of this suddenness, though, works with the core conceits of the film. As a Free Negro, Solomon Northrup is not legally different from anyone sitting in a modern audience, and the film aptly displays the horrifying notion that at any moment we could be snagged, tagged, and sent down to Louisiana to pick cotton and be whipped for a dozen seasons. It's not totally unlike Gladiator (2000) in this core premise, which also shows that life really sucked in an age where identity was difficult to prove and at any time you could just be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Sucks. With true powerlessness, Northrup's adventure finishes as abruptly as it begins. At its heart, this is the biggest thematic difference it has with Django and makes it worth watching for its own worth.

When I gave my impressions of Django last year, what impressed me most from a narrative stand point was how near the end of the film (SPOILERS HERE, TOO), Django (Jamie Fozz) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) basically lose - they are found out by Calvin Candie (Leo DiCap), and are presented with his terms. When Schultz cannot abide this, he kills Candie, which really screws over Django, who no longer has any white advocates or saviors left in the film. Naturally then, he's able to rely on his own wits and training, and save the day by himself. It's a statement of Black Empowerment, both in the meta of the film itself (Django appropriating Candie's clothing, moving from a passive to a dominant force in the final minutes and implementing his own developed style), and in the larger narrative of slave-themed films.

12 Years gives us the opposite. It presents a hopelessness to slavery. Despite Northrup's wits, intelligence, passion, and hearty nature, he is routinely rendered powerless, even though he asserts himself far more often than Django does. He is only saved when he first encounters someone sympathetic to his cause, which takes twelve years since his abduction.

That Shark grew a beard!

Tarantino in both Django and Inglourious Basterds (2009) also presented this very black and white morality. In both of these films, evil is assuredly destroyed by any means necessary, and part of what makes the ending of Django so delightful is how every evil character gets their comeuppance. 12 Years presents this as a wishful fantasy. No one is punished. Not the kidnappers, the slave traders, not even the sadistic Epps. The only thing Epps loses is a single slave, and perhaps a small amount of dignity. Patsey remains on the plantation to be raped and beaten. Slavery remains as an institution to destroy a race of humanity. There is no satisfaction to be had. Northrup himself, though publishing the book this film is based on in 1853, ends up dying in obscurity, possibly due to a second kidnapping. It's a hard, realistic looks at the peculiar institution, and the absence of critical information, the confusion, and limited viewpoints of every character reflects the times with greater accuracy than perhaps any prior film. This is starting to get at why 12 Years is actually special.

To some extent, the film also demonstrates Northrup's constant struggle with identity. He never really fits in on the plantation, and for the majority of the film he does not interact with his fellow slaves or masters if he can help it. He only really interjects when one of them is inconsolable or approaches him for help. Northrup isn't ever comfortable with his new Southern Life, and retains his cold New York demeanor until the burial of an older slave while working a field. There he finally breaks down and joins in during a Spiritual. It's at this moment where Northrup starts accepting his identity as Platt, although there isn't much more development of this idea, perhaps because he's soon after presented to Brad Pitt / Jesus and a means toward freedom.

The cinematography also funds this concept, though. The camera is often tight and close on Northrup and there are long moments of him just sitting or starting into the camera. Throughout the entire film he's struggling with the concept of what being Black is - because here it's very literally uneducated, unliberated, and subservient. When he breaks any of these social rules, Northrup gets a whoopin. But he can't resign himself to such despair, right? In many ways, this is still the conflict behind finding Black Identity, where normative social constructs of success are synonymous with whiteness and black success is this strange, horrifying "other" that white people fear to acknowledge as legitimate.

This dueling identity also sustains Northrup's battle against true despair, which paralyzes many of his fellow slaves, including Elia and Patsey. Northrup is able to cling to hope because he knows of his true black potential. Patsey is emblematic of the crippling loop of terror that comes with the worst depths of slavery and abuse. If anything, 12 Years a Slave demonstrates that those horrors are not so easily let go.

21 November 2013

Why Do I Hate Key & Peele?

A couple of television shows have been bothering me lately. It's not a real active hatred, but an apathy for a few shows that I have no business being apathetic about. I don't care for The League while loving It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I can't deal with Brickleberry after creaming over Ugly Americans, and despite an unyielding love of Chappelle's Show for the past decade, I can't bear to watch Key & Peele.

How did this happen? I compare it with Chappelle, because that's really the standard for contemporary black comedy sketch shows on basic cable. As if there has ever really been another (sure, Doggy Fizzle Televizzle and Chocolate News I guess. Damn I watch a lot of black sketch comedy). I never really bought into Key & Peele. For all the love they think they had, I always considered them to not be that great. Perhaps that's what first turned me off. Dave Chappelle was always very self-effacing and always put on this "me against the world" mentality, which of course, ultimately drove him to walk away from his hugely successful program when he became a bit too mainstream.
No MadTV alum has coasted off one impression
this hard since Frank Caliendo

Comedy Central, it would seem, learned from Dave's very public exit and picked one of the safer pairs of black comedians they could to make their next big show. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are both alums from MadTV, which always came across as a more desperate version of SNL without any of the history or pedigree. Instead of every parlaying that into an attitude or edge though, like In Living Color for instance, MadTV ended up just bland, even if they have graduated some impressive alumni, like Will Sasso, who butchered Curly in The Three Stooges (2012), and Bryan Callen, who said the n-word in The Hangover: Part II (2011).

Key and Peele tend to have this misplaced sense of high self-worth, which bothers me. I realize that's kind of insane. To me, they haven't earned any laughter or place among the great black comics, even though almost immediately seemed to crown themselves as such. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh as I work through my own misplaced disdain. It isn't quite Key and Peele themselves who have anointed their own statuses, but a constant stream of media calling them the greatest, funniest show on television.

So I gave them a chance. In fact, I tune in nearly every week, only to barely limp past the first excruciatingly bad sketch. At this point I'll give two important concessions - the Obama Anger Translator sketches and that one sketch where Key mispronounces all the white kids names in chemistry class is pretty funny, if only for blessing the world with the perfect nickname for anyone named Aaron ("A-A-Ron." I haven't jumped on to a nickname based on a show that quickly since Workaholcis gave us "B-Rad."). Even this sketch, though, tends to be formulaic and stuck spinning on one joke, which is emblematic of Key & Peele's writing.

So let's dive into this one, because it's actually a really typical product of the show. There is a very quick set-up which presents a normal world with one outrageous character for no reason. That one Halloween episode sketch with the normal dude at a vampire party has a similar set-up with the conceit that his world is normal for very Twilight-y vampires. After that, riffs on the same joke are hammered over and over again until it becomes stale. Now, this kind of writing is dependent on a pretty clever joke. The idea of a black teacher pronouncing every white kid's name in decidedly "black" fashion is decently clever. Nothing ever really happens, though, and it's not really clear why Key gets so angry, which certainly doesn't actually affect any characters' reaction. The sketch then ends on a slight twist, with the black "Tim-OTH-y" accepting his name as correct.

Now, to validate my complaint, I tried to think of a comparable Chappelle sketch to both illustrate my point that Key & Peele doesn't know what it's doing and to rationalize my immense love for one bit of the genre and my hatred for another. Let's look at "The Niggar Family," a classic sketch that also riffs on white people being attributed black names that has basically one joke stretched long. Here's that one.
"Oil? Bitch you cookin'?"

After watching both these sketches back to back a few things come to my mind. One is variety. The Niggar Sketch features five scene changes with three sets in four minutes. It also gets some new life when Dave enters about halfway and seems to be barely holding in laughter the whole time, acting like the only character in on the joke. Finally, despite much more offensive material, the Niggar Sketch is way more lighthearted than "A-A-Ron," which has far more aggression and intensity in what should be a sillier situation.

I'm not really sure if the increased variety and joy makes me enjoy Chappelle more. I'm not sure if it's the way that Key & Peele chokes jokes to death before relenting to the next sketch or an underlying problem in what they are mining for laughs. This is, after all, one of the more subjective matters out there. I'd be curious if anyone feels the way I do - loving Chappelle and hating Key & Peele, or if anyone feels the opposite, or maybe loves or hates both? Post in the comments anything you got - I'm very willing to find a way into this show, but right now, I can't sand it.
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