12 Years a Slave

Platt, you are a marvel

12yasSolomon Northup’s true story is one of the greatest narratives about slavery and freedom in the history of anywhere.  Published in 1853 (in the years leading up to the American Civil War), Northup’s memoir was a unique look into not only the living conditions of slaves, but the real-life relationships between slaves and masters.  Steve McQueen’s film takes some Hollywood liberties with Northup’s original story (it’s not as if Northup himself is here to protest it, not that he would probably want to relive the brutality through fiction in the first place), but thankfully, he neither Hollywoods the emotional impact nor synthesizes a formula plot.

Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black violinist living in Saratoga.  Through one thing and another, he is tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by a couple of opportunistic charlatans, and finds himself on a plantation owned by baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Once he accepts his position (though never giving up hope of seeing his family again), Northup is able to remain on good terms with Ford, who seems only to own slaves because he’s expected to (one must assume that he inherited his money).  Slaves Robert (Michael K. Williams) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye) are not so lucky.  Northup engineers a waterway for Ford, which leads both Ford and his head carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) to wonder whether Northup is actually more than he seems.  Tibeats’ reaction is one of hatred, and he antagonizes the slaves, especially Northup, every chance he gets – in fact, the character is introduced when he sings the most evil song in the history of cinema (and I hope for Dano’s sake that it doesn’t become a meme anytime soon).

The conflict between Northup and Tibeats (which culminates in a horrific several-minute-long single shot of Northup hanging by the neck while everyone goes about their day around him) becomes a liability for Ford, who sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a character so racist and abusive that he might be a caricature if not for Fassbender’s painfully truthful performance combined with the harrowing knowledge that Epps was a real person, and one of many generations of people just like him.  His wife, Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) is a stock character whose scenes alone with Northup are mostly unnecessary, but whose verbal attempts to emasculate her husband in front of his workers causes plenty of trouble for the latter.  Epps directs his sexual frustrations and violence towards one slave in particular: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), whom he rapes and brutalizes with absolutely no comeuppance or complaint.

Along comes Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), a white man whose drinking habits cost him enough of his living that he’s forced to get a job picking cotton on Epps’ plantation.  In a bit of nice (albeit appropriately frustrating)  dramatic irony, Armsby commiserates his position whilst cleaning lash wounds on Northup’s back.  Northup asks Armsby for a favor, but we know he’s a red herring and that Northup will not yet escape.  After being turned in, Northup remains on the good side of Epps, who considers Armsby useless anyway (going so far as touching a knife to Northup’s chest and stating, in regards to Armsby, “If he weren’t free and white…”).  Soon after comes the arrival of outspoken Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), whom readers of Northup’s book (or viewers of the original film adaptation starring Avery Brooks) know will eventually help Northup escape.  It’s very telegraphed in the film, as Bass has no problem telling Epps that his slaves are human beings and that he has no right to own them (a concept that seems so foreign and ridiculous to Epps that Bass might as well have told him that one day there would be a thing called motion pictures, and that he himself would be played as a villain by a British actor).  Northup bonds with Bass after listening to this conversation, and takes another risk.

It’s difficult to see Northup’s homecoming as a happy ending, because most of us are still thinking of Patsey, who still lives and will eventually die on Epps’ plantation, alongside the countless other slaves still in the south, who were born into slavery and will never know anything else.  The film’s final line, “There is nothing to forgive,” has multiple layers to read.  The titles at the end, which reveal that Northup took his kidnappers to court and lost the case due to the fact that blacks were not allowed to testify against whites, did nothing to stifle the weeping of the entire theatreful of viewers where I saw the film (about a half-hour’s drive from Northup’s home).

The film is (expectedly) a marvel performance-wise; Ejiofor hits a vein of silver as Northup, bringing a careful respect to the character in every scene.  His performance of “Roll Jordan Roll” puts most of the cast of Les Miserables to shame, and acts as a fantastic figurative response to Tibeats’ hate-filled song earlier on (at the expense of reminding the audience that this is a movie).  Fassbender is incomparable in his second role in a row 1) as an American, and 2) alongside Brad Pitt, who acts more reserved than usual, letting the more important characters remain in focus.  What McQueen robs us of, however, is the scene in which Northup actually relates his story to Bass.  This is important; Northup has not told anyone his story in twelve years, and thus not heard himself say aloud who he is, where he is from, and what he cares about.  It’s something we’ve been waiting for, and the filmmakers sacrifice it for the sake of narrative movement in a film that has established a general okay-ness with slowing down and allowing people to talk (certainly, bits of Bass’s anti-slavery diatribe could have been trimmed if the issue was time; actually helping a slave escape holds a bit more precedent).  Nyong’o as Patsey really strikes a nerve: here is the character who receives every imaginable brutality, and gets absolutely no restitution.  Her whipping scene is something that no one will ever forget, and her performance (her face is in focus while blurry images of two or three different characters take turns decimating her) made me feel like I was standing nearby watching it happen, as helpless as Northup to do (or say) anything about it.

Unfortunately, 12 Years a Slave is the most recent (and hopefully last) in a string of movies about two things: 1) slavery, and 2) white people rescuing black people.  Lincoln, Django Unchained, The Butler, The Man With the Iron Fists, The Help, Elysium, etc.  Why the fascination with slavery?  Why not a film where the black characters don’t rely on white saviors?  Why can’t a popular film feature a black protagonist who isn’t the victim of her/his identity as a central point of the narrative?  McQueen’s film gets a pass because it’s a true story, but it still sets a certain trend, especially when it’s so extensively lauded.  I really hate to think the recent onslaught of slavery films has some ulterior motive, as if Hollywood knows it’s a sensitive topic that will automatically place it against the best dramas about other things.

I feel I should end with a lighter-hearted question: why isn’t Paul Dano allowed to play something other than a psychopath?  I’m not naive enough to think the other questions will receive actual answers.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013); written by John Ridley; based upon the memoir by Solomon Northup; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o.  


Day after day, more of the same

Steve McQueen’s Shame is rated NC-17, which I suspect has contributed to its absence at the Academy Awards this year.  Additionally, Michael Fassbender, who has won several awards for his role as Brandon Sullivan – including the coveted Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival – has been omitted (along with the much-deserving Michael Shannon) from the Best Actor category.  To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it seems the Academy is okay with Nazis (Christoph Waltz’s Supporting Actor win for Inglourious Basterds) but not with “masturbators.”

Surely we can attribute the rating to the film’s nudity, but I find myself wondering if a film involving a lead female character with as many nude scenes as Michael Fassbender receives here would have been a hard R.  It seems to me that society at large is comfortable with the female form, at least as far as objectification and (to a lesser extent) admiration, and in ways, it’s always been – just look at those ancient statues and age-old paintings in every art gallery and museum, created by the great sexists of every age, which depict women sitting and reading half-naked, combing their hair in the nude, flashing impossibly unrealistic breasts.  Men, though.  When there’s a naked man in the room, regardless of how much exercise he does, there’s always something that no one wants to talk about – those unsightly lumps of flesh swaying to and fro, that shrub of uncontrolled hair.  At some point, every man must pray that women never realize how ugly we are (and I mean this to be funny; it’s nothing compared with what women have had to deal with due to the expectations set forth by their artistic depictions throughout history).

Shame follows Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), a loner with a nice apartment and a cushy job that not only allows him to slink away without his coworkers noticing, but apparently provides him with enough disposable income to be able to throw a perfectly functional laptop into a plastic bag and leave it for the trash collectors.  By night, Brandon prowls Manhattan in search of anything – or anyone – who can satisfy his ardent sexual appetite.  I hesitate to call him a “sex addict,” however, which seems to be the buzz phrase for this movie, because that’s a medical term (which at the very least would require Brandon to identify a problem and seek help), and the story does not revolve around (nor even hint at) his desires to stop.

Instead, the film seeks to dig into Brandon’s lifestyle as a whole and see what stimuli will affect it, specifically after the appearance of Brandon’s wayward sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  In this way, the film follows a standard Rat-in-the-cage model – that is to say, planting a character and a rat in a cage together and forcing them to square off, which can lead to a number of conclusions: 1) one kills the other; 2) they kill each other; 3) they become friends and leave the cage together; and so on.  In this film, we bear witness to several conflicts that sum up the film’s drama, the most prominent of which are Brandon vs. Sissy and Brandon vs. Himself.  Once Sissy comes to town, begging Brandon to let her stay in his apartment while she performs singing gigs in the city, she paints him into a corner.  All of a sudden, his apartment doesn’t seem so big.  In addition, his lecherous boss (James Badge Dale) takes a superficial interest in her, which introduces a subconflict: Brandon vs. his boss.  In his dealings with every person and situation forced upon him, we sense that the overarching interior conflict is Brandon vs. Intimacy, exemplified in two chief ways: Brandon finds pleasure and release in sexual encounters with strangers, as well as in his nightly perusal of internet porn, but avoids talking to his sister, who seeks a meaningful personal relationship with him, at all costs.  They are one another’s only family.  Later, when he attempts to sleep with a coworker who displays a real emotional connection with him, he’s unable to perform.

Michael Fassbender gives his bravest, most honest performance since McQueen’s Hunger and Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, bearing not only his body, but the raw essence of his character.  Carey Mulligan bears a nearly equal burden in Sissy, breaking her self-described “staunch feminism” concerning nude scenes, and singing her heart out in a heart-squeezing scene involving a somber rendition of “New York, New York.”  The relationship between Brandon and Sissy is at the story’s core, and although we are never allowed to know what happened in their childhoods to create the dynamic they have now (they don’t budge at seeing each other naked, they have stark reactions to the other’s touch, Brandon cries when he hears her singing, etc), we push for them, hoping their respective imperfections can somehow mesh, somehow stop getting in the way of what could be the one healthy relationship either of them has.  What we do know is that they both have a history of self-abuse: Brandon’s sex life has become more function than fun, his penance for something we never learn about, and by his facial expressions during the final few orgasms he has in the film, we get the feeling that he’s no longer enjoying himself (has he ever?).  Sissy’s problems are more subtle.  As Brandon’s boss flirts with her, he touches her wrist and expresses surprise.  We don’t see what he sees, but Sissy’s reaction – “I was bored when I was younger” – gives away multitudes.  This scene, coupled with the fact that she was wearing a hospital bracelet when she showed up at Brandon’s place, brilliantly foreshadows what will be the story’s major turning point.

Perhaps the nature of Brandon’s addiction doesn’t matter.  An addiction to bodies and bodily functions rather than a drug, however, serves the underlying themes better: we get the sense that Brandon doesn’t even consider himself worthy of caring for another human being, and in the end, he is presented with two major decisions, giving him the chance to patch some things up, and perhaps more importantly, acknowledge that he himself had a problem in the first place.

You can count this film’s scenes on three hands.  The best ones are nearly endless, sticking with one shot (static, tracking, and otherwise) for minutes at a time, neither cheating the characters nor the audience of a single moment, a single change in facial expression, a single tear.  Signs on the subway often ask what we’re asking (or what we wish the characters would ask).  Shame is a film that shakes the basic film storytelling formula in that it does not prepare itself for any reasonable conclusion, and therefore does not reach much of one.  It does, however, present a conclusion, and if there was ever a movie in which the phrase “presentation is everything” applied, this was the one.

Shame (2011); written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.