If there’s one film to see this year, it’s 12 Years a Slave, a wrenching but rewarding historical epic.
12 Years a Slave
The profoundly moving drama is based on a real-life memoir by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born New Yorker kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Solomon is the film’s true north, not just in the sense of his coming from a region where black people are free (though they still face discrimination), but that he is the film’s guiding moral compass, his dignity and strength the movie’s spine.
That’s a lot for an actor to carry, but Ejiofor does it subtly and beautifully. He has a long list of credits, from Kinky Boots and City of Men to American Gangster and Salt, but this is the role for which he’ll be celebrated. His wide eyes register everything from the shock of awakening drugged to find himself enchained, to the utter mortification of being stripped and sold for chattel. His character’s incredible journey begins with a slave master named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and ends with a psychopath called Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Epps is a tormented bastard, a sadist who lashes workers who don’t pick enough cotton, while using Scripture as his justification. He is obsessed with slave girl Patsey, played by the extraordinary newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, finding novel ways to make her pray for her own death. (Look for Nyong’o, along with the rest of the cast, to get plenty of awards season attention.) This is the kind of slave master we usually envision – cruel, starkly racist, evil personified, though Fassbender imbues him with enormous complexity. He’s so unlike the way we see ourselves that he’s easy to dismiss, but a director as savvy and talented as Steve McQueen (Shame) isn’t going to let us get off that easily.
Instead, he confronts us with Ford, a kindly master, who recognizes Solomon’s skill, both with the violin and carpentry, and praises and protects him. But that supposedly good, intelligent man also refuses to see the plain truth that Solomon was not born a slave, and set him free. In many ways, he is the embodiment of America’s ambivalence – its hypocrisy – with respect to race. He isn’t evil, he just lets evil transpire on his watch, as people have always done and continue to do. It’s easy to shrug and look at a man like Epps and point a finger of shame. Cumberbatch’s Ford forces us to look at ourselves.
That all works thanks to a lyrical, nuanced script from screenwriter John Ridley, and masterful direction from McQueen, who, it’s important to remember, is only on his third film. Though the movie stretches past the two-hour mark, it moves with intensity and purpose, bringing Solomon to the brink of despair as years stretch on away from his family. To his enormous credit, though, McQueen never suggests that Solomon is exceptional. We may occasionally shudder at the cruel irony that, as a free man, he never should have been enchained in the first place. But then the film brings us back to a point that should be obvious: No one deserves to suffer that indignity.
All Is Lost
I mean that literally, by the way, as he is the film’s entire cast. We meet his unnamed character, “Our Man” the credits call him, as he awakens to his fancy sailboat filling with water. There’s a hole gashed in the boat by an errant shipping container that’s also managed to take out the onboard computer system and flood the radio. Alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Our Man’s situation goes from bad to worse in a kind of waterlogged Gravity that never flags in intensity.
The odd thing is that apart from a letter to his family, we don’t hear much from Our Man –no prayers, no profound monologue on the meaning of life in the face of death. We just see his face and his determination. With nary a hint of a backstory, we know who he is, and that’s all due to Redford’s skill. Even with a character this reserved, we see his expressiveness and register his resolve and his fear. It’s a terrific performance in a nail-biter of a film. Don’t miss it.
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