Saturday, October 19, 2013
"12 Years a Slave" presents the brutality of the antebellum South, hits harder than ever in any previous film
“12 Years a Slave”, a film by Steve McQueen based on the 1855 autobiography by Solomon Northrup, is one of the most brutal and hard to watch films about I’ve ever seen, and that’s not just limited to films about the antebellum South. The comparison that comes to mind is the 1997 film “Amistad” by Steven Spielberg.
Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free (by birth( black man living near Saratoga Springs, NY in 1841, when he is approached by two white men to go to Washington DC and work for a circus. He is suddenly kidnapped, and the experience is shown out of sequence, almost like a UFO abduction could happen. He wakes up in chains, and only gradually remembers what happened.
He spends the next twelve years in on a plantation in Louisiana owned by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder). He has run-ins with other family, like Tibeats, played by Paul Dano, who gives a curious performance. It’s hard to imagine Dano in any mean role, and here his own behavior is always contradicting itself. On the very of recognizing Northrup’s book learning, he will go into rage. Later in the movie, there are lines like “a slave is supposed to work, not read and write”. I heard stuff like that as a recruit in the Army back in 1968 (see my review two days ago).
The brutality intensifies, as Epps forces other slave females to have children by him (that’s how he got more free labor and “property”). In one scene, he forces Northrup into brutally lashing another female slave. The film does show how slave trading was integrated into the southern economy, and often used to pay debts.
Northrup desperately tries to get handwritten letters (that’s all there was) sent up north to get freed. Finally, a progressive-thinking Canadian Bass (Brad Pitt – who else?) acts on his need. But just before he does, Bass engages Epps in the necessary moral debate. As sure as Epps feels that the law is behind his property rights, Bass reminds him that revolution can happen, because there is a higher moral sense of right that man cannot change. I recall similar conversations in the 1995 Ted Turner film "Gettysburg". By comparisons, the similar discussions in "Gone with the Wind" seem like living in denial. Northrup would become active in the abolitionist movement after regaining freedom.
The official site from Fox is here. Summit-Lionsgate distributes the film internationally, and the film was produced by an amalgam of big companies, including Regency, Riverroad (USA) and Plan B and Film 4 (UK).
An alternate title is “Twelve Years a Slave” (spelled out).
I saw the film at a nearly sold-out audience Saturday afternoon at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA. The R-rated film has limited release this weekend, but will surely play in many more theaters after a week.
Hans Zimmer was listed as the composer of the music, which is more hypermodern and win slower tempos, and often quieter, than many of his other scores.
Update: Nov. 4, 2013. Richard Cohen has an interesting perspective (for the Washington Post) on the movie here, comparing it to "Gone with the Wind" and perhaps "Cold Mountain". The Margaret Mitchell classic does show the "southern" point of view and sense of personal loss to right a moral wrong -- an idea that may seem bizarre or unnecessary now, but this is an accepted classic. But Cohen says that the film shows that slavery was always brutal, and that landowners knew it, a different perspective.