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.

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