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A Note on ’12 Years A Slave’

12 Years A Slave is the story of Solomon Northup, an African-American man born free in New York in the early 1800’s but was kidnapped at 33 and sold into slavery.  It’s a tragic and shameful part of U.S  history but it’s a story similar to many free black men at the time and is too seldom addressed in history books. If you want a full synopsis, Google it. I want to talk about how a gifted director can present a well-examined dark history with a fresh voice.

Watching Steve McQueen’s visualization of the autobiography is at times gut-wrenching. The emotional response the film elicits results from more than just the subject matter.  This film doesn’t present anything about slavery we didn’t already know (or at least you better have known otherwise your education has failed you). Slavery was a horrible abomination, an affront to the God so many of the plantation owners prayed to, but again, we knew that before McQueen got his hands on the story. What makes his account so exemplary is his remarkable control over point of view, pace and performance.

Most film directors today would take a few liberties with point of view on a film like this simply to address those unanswered questions an audience might have.  With 12 Years A Slave nothing occurs that is not from the POV of Solomon.  what efforts did friends and family take to find him back in New York?  Did William Ford (a compassionate plantation owner) ever consider looking into Solomon’s claim to being born a free man? We don’t know because Solomon doesn’t know.  We are tormented with the unknown as much as is Solomon because we are kept in the dark with him. Tremendous.

The camera direction was intensely unnerving at moments.  In a scene where a female slave is stripped and whipped for going to get soap from a neighbor the camera just floats from character to character, in and out of the action as slave owner Epps forces Solomon to whip the woman for him.  There isn’t an edit through the length of the scene, even though we are begging for a cut just to feel a bit of relief in the tension. There is no mercy from the director. And toward the end of the scene the camera moves around Epps for his infuriating lines, “There is no sin. Man does how he pleases with his property.” Beautifully choreographed, sublimely performed.

Suspecting Solomon is attempting to write a letter and get it sent North, Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) pulls Solomon out of the slave quarters and walks with his arm slung around his shoulders, holding a lantern to light the scene.  Epps questions Solomon and when Solomon denies the allegations Fassbender stares into his eyes.  The pacing of this scene was brilliant.  The anticipation of Epps decision is maddening and you can see some hatred buring in Fassbender’s eyes.  There is an authenticity and commitment in Fassbender’s performance here that scared me. I didn’t care what his response was going to be, I just wanted a damned answer! This moment is one of five key scenes for me that show how brilliant are the creatives involved.  It shows us that a very emotional and tense scene can be accomplished with what seems simple choices. But its more bold for a filmmaker to decide not to cut, to not “cover” a scene than it is to cut into close-ups with drum beats punctuating each cut. It reminded me of McQueen covering New York, New York in Shame with just two close-ups, or covering Bobby Sands conversation with the priest in one long take.  It shows unfettered trust in your actors.

Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor gave performance that will stir your emotions and leave you feeling exhausted and used. There was a strong supporting cast (although Giamatti and Pitt being cast pulled me out of the story a bit) and a special mention should go to Sarah Paulson.  Her Mrs. Epps was a deceptive Lady MacBeth-like figure who would speak kindly one minute with that “southern charm” and then smash a woman in the face with a whisky decanter the next. She continued to pull the strings behind her husband’s cruelty. Excellent casting choice.

The account of Solomon Northup is something new, something that should be taught in our schools along with Frederick Douglass.  Perhaps in place of Douglass. Douglass in some ways romanticizes the North as a safe haven, but Northup presents a nationwide involvement in the trafficking and enslavement of human beings. Northup becomes a real life Dante, traveling through the depths of hell and emerging to tell his story and in the end nobody looks good.

Even though the mere fact that people practiced slavery not to mention hearing the details of slave treatment enrages me, it’s important to read this part of our history. It’s important that filmmakers are making these movies. And after we learn the these parts of our history and feel hatred rising, it’s important to remember Howard Zinn, who wrote “…that anger, cast into the past, depletes our moral energy for the present.”

 

 

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