12 YEARS A SLAVE
The feel bad movie of the year! It's entirely possible, even probable, that I appear to have stolen that, though I did make it up; but that's because it is the most obvious damned thing you could say about this great movie. And it may not be true.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley (based on the book by Solomon Northrup)
With Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northrup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Lupita Nyong'o (Patsey), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford), and Brad Pitt (the Magical Caucasian)
Spoiler alert: N/A
Two things really annoy me about 12 Years a Slave.
The first is more that there's a good chance its combination of great direction, great acting, and powerful story will steal Gravity's Best Picture action figure.
The second is that, based as it is upon a powerful, true story, criticism of the narrative is basically moot.
But that may be a blessing in disguise: if it weren't, I would have to wrestle with whether rendering a protagonist so completely without agency was a bad idea or a great idea. And ultimately, I'd probably come down on the side of great idea.
There are those who have described 12 Years as a horror movie, even torture porn. The description certainly seems to fit. For well over two hours, Solomon Northrup and other slaves are tortured in terrible ways—some of them killed—and, ultimately, twelve years spent as a chattel slave is twelve years of torture whether physical indignities be suffered or not. But the point of torture porn is, as I understand it, the entertainment—or at least cathartic—value in the fictional infliction of pain upon a fictional captive. Which is fine; but 12 Years ain't fictional; and although many scenes, some grimly inevitable and some like a bolt from the blue, center around the injury to flesh, physical torture is not the defining mode of the film. Instead, if it's torture porn, it is spiritual torture porn. And that's a genre that already has a name. 12 Years a Slave is a survival film.
The survival film is defined by isolation, often in total solitude, in a physically lethal and spiritually destructive environment. Solomon Northrup's ordeal does, I think, fit that definition.
It may not be as good, but 12 Years a Slave is like Gravity in a crucial way. I remarked when discussing Gravity that its repeated comparisons to Cast Away seemed way off the mark in terms of that film's content; I am unaware of any such comparison between the Zemeckis super-classic and McQueen's career-exploding event film. But 12 Years is Cast Away with a plane crash replaced by kidnap, total physical loneliness replaced by social alienation, and the everyday terror and lethality of the island replaced with that of the antebellum plantation. On a day by day basis, I am trying to imagine which fate is worse.
Trick question. This happened.
Solomon Northrup, as you are no doubt aware, begins as a free black man living in upstate New York. He has a pretty decent house, wears fussily cool period suits, and is possessed of an adorable nuclear family. He works in an artistic field, as a modestly successful violinist. He's certainly more successful than me or most people I know, but not in any kind of way that my class hackles get raised; he is about as successful as my father. He's beyond merely recognizable. He's such an archetypically middle class ideal, I'm surprised he doesn't have an extra third of a kid lying around somewhere. I'll get back to this in a moment.
Prequel: 7 Years a Dad.
Making what, in a fiction, we would call a really, really, really, really, really stupid move, he considers the invitation of two fast-talking, not-particularly-trustworthy traveling entertainers to come play his fiddle hard in Washington, D.C—that is, where slavery is legal and regulation of the peculiar institution involves exactly what you would expect in the filthy Banana Republic that was 19th century America, i.e. there is none. Insofar as this really happened and no one here wants to be accused of victim blaming, suffice it to say he goes to D.C.
Hey! Solomon. Canada is that way.
Since this is not 12 Years a Violinist in the Nation's Capital, he is almost immediately drugged and kidnapped—actually, in a cruel move that may go unnoticed because of the sheer enormity of what is about to befall him, he works his weeks for the two little bastards, earning them what he can earn them, and then he is drugged and kidnapped.
He is sold under false pretenses as a runaway slave. He becomes the property of a sensitive type, an evil man who seems to be aware on some level of the depth of his depredations. Through a complication, Solomon is sold again to a master who is entirely aware that he is evil and loves it. And, in the words of Vladek Spiegelman, another survivor of another holocaust, here his troubles began.
Critics grasp for criticism, and one murmur about 12 Years is that Solomon's story is the story of a Normal Dude With Whom Audiences Can Relate upon whom slavery has fallen, rather than the story of a man born, living, and dying within its sharply circumscribed bounds; the latter being, of course, the vastly more ordinary case.
Well, first, again, REAL. Second, yes. That's exactly right. I do identify with Normal Dude Solomon Northrup. I can identify with the loss of his freedom. I can identify with his loss of his material standard of living. And I can identify with the creeping loss of identity that takes hold of him.
And I can respect him, too, becuase, speaking only for myself, I'd be done.
"Yeah, more like '12 Days a Slave,' amirite?"
"I'm saying that handing me a machete is poor investment management."
"I'm saying that handing me a machete is poor investment management."
Above all, it allows the crystal clear enunciation of one of the central points of 12 Years. It's made with its shots of men being hung from trees while children of the same color and status are playing yards away, unconcerned. It is how normal an obscene situation can become as you live with it, year after year. Solomon was a man not unlike us, today; and, stolen from his home and brought in chains to this alien, awful universe, he can react like us, today. For this reason, I can, it seems likely, identify with him better than I could with someone for whom this is all just life as it is lived.
Of course, the notion is hardly meritless. I find it difficult to believe that any slave didn't know damned well their situation was pretty terrible; or that a born slave would be wholly unrecognizable in outlook. And there are fifteen zillion Holocaust films. Surely there's room for, what, a fifth? actual slavery movie to deal with another protagonist and their own arc. But 12 Years has this one, deal with it.
Which you should be able to easily, because he is consummately well-played, and his arc well-defined. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor who has been on my radar for years. He's been in movies, and in and out of TV. He's pretty much always great, even when he's a tertiary character like his sidekick to Denzel Washington's secondary character in Inside Man. On occasion he is better than great. He's better than great in 12 Years. And there is no doubt that his career as a genuine movie star is now beginning for real. I can't wait.1
Two scenes stand out in my mind (three, really, but wait). The first, obviously, is the ending. In a shocking twist to the film of the book that Solomon wrote, he does not die in captivity, and he does go home. Considering that there is a chance you have not seen the film yet, however, I will by no means attempt to transcribe his words, and risk lessening their impact. Suffice it to say that it involves the second best read of his career, and the second best acting moment of 2013.1
The second scene is earlier in the film, when he is in the thrall, perhaps figuratively as well as literally, of the "kind" slave master (to which we are invited to later contrast the "batshit insane" slave master, and which I have seen has confused the issue for some viewers). The "kind" one, Ford, is attentive to Solomon's obvious education and experience, and despite the resentment of his subordinate white overseer, listens to Solomon because he knows what he has to say carries weight. An engineering problem has arisen, involving lumber on this plantation being transported either by land (slow, costly, difficult) or by waterway (fast, cheap, easy, but involving infrastructural development). Solomon cracks the case pretty rapidly, presents his Power Point, and Ford immediately puts his plan into action. A mask of cognitive dissonance appears upon Ejiofor's face, as Solomon enthusiastically applies himself to the task. Not as if he were a slave, but rather a loyal employee. It is only in the wake of his success, and upon receipt of a thank-you gift from his master—a fiddle that may entertain them both, for years to come—that it dawns on him, in slow horror, that his worldview as a free man no longer has any applicability, and may never again.
Not pictured: a valued team member.
And then there's the third.
12 Years has another commonality with Gravity. Both Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron really like long takes. I do too.
12 Years has the most impressive long take of the year. In my Gravity review I made a distinction between "most impressive" and "best." It's going to take a lot of thought to really decide which film has the best. But in Gravity, you know how they did a long take? Computers. Whatever it was in Gravity that mystifies you, the answer is, they did it with computers. It's great, but computers.
In 12 Years, there is an approximately four minute sequence filmed in one shot with a deftly moving camera. The scene is the horror of horrors.
It takes place on Epps' plantation. He's the batshit insane one. He's played by Michael Fassbender, who is good here, though he's playing a one-dimensional and almost comically broad villain—his ACTING is far preferable in The Counselor—but one-dimensional, comically broad and villainous is a good summation of the antebellum South. (So is "a state as bad as Nazi Germany and run by enemies of all humanity," but more on that later.) One surmises that Epps works within this film's historical and narrative context.
Epps has been conducting an ongoing affair with the only other slave that I can confidently say has a character, Patsey. Of course, this has put her in the unimaginably terrible position of being targeted by him for serial rape and by his wife for jealous reprisals. Ultimately, when she has, in his warped mind, been unfaithful to him, the outcome is a fearsome whipping, filmed in this intense, inescapable long take. But because Epps is full of mad emotion, and cannot bear to strike her3 himself, the burden of Patsey's torture must be taken up by someone else. Epps chooses Solomon.
Long story short, they didn't do it with computers.
I said earlier that agency is entirely removed from Solomon Northrup's equation. And that's almost entirely true. Absolutely, the film's poster (though a very nice piece of art) is ridiculously misleading, unless Epps is just outside of the frame there, and it's representing the deeply weird scene where the deranged master is chasing Solomon across a pig pen and then falls in the pig poop, which is so awkwardly vaudevillian and seems (at first blush) so misplaced it might as well have involved editing in an animated sequence instead of filming it with the actors.
Yosemite Sam led a really different life before the war.
He naturally retains the desire to escape. I'd say, at best, he makes one serious attempt. Every time he gets the idea in his head, it is slammed out with a scene of violence or betrayal. First, he plans an escape with the other victims aboard the riverboat carrying him to Louisiana from D.C. When his co-conspirator makes the first move he is immediately murdered; he decides maybe now's not a good time for a general uprising. Much later, he plans on running from the plantation after being sent on an errand. He immediately encounters a lynching; he decides to go to the store after all. Much later (again), he bribes a man with some money he's secreted to mail a letter. He is immediately turned in; he lies, and decides to keep his head down for a while. Finally, though, he encounters a gentle carpenter (oh, I get it—wait, huh?), and through no real exertion on his part (other than, true, the great risk of trusting the man with his story), he gets rescued at some indeterminate time later on.
Seriously, I don't remember this part.
License or truth, it could not have been created from whole cloth and have emphasized the point more: resistance is death, flight is an impossibility, and rescue highly unlikely.
I have always been moved to grim reflection by a scene in Sunshine (1999, the Istvan Stabo movie), where, after the war, one Holocaust survivor to another asks how only three Germans could possibly move over a hundred Jews from one camp to another in the waning days of the Third Reich. They were armed, he says. But, the other insists, why not take the chance?
It's a question that is rarely asked—what is the duty one has (to one's fellows, to intangible ideals, to whatever God you may believe in, to one's own utility) to resist, to the death if need be, if only to choke the machinery of a slave system with your blood, do any damage you can, and to deny them your labor and avoid the pain of bondage? Well, it's not a question that's asked in 12 Years either. Solomon is a solid man and while he has his slips, and despite his claims to the contrary, he believes in survival, not living.
Solomon, in a moment of weakness, succumbs to bad music.
If you want a movie that does ask that question, and you should, Django Unchained is available on home video, although perhaps it ends too happily to really answer that question in any serious way.
Which raises a point of comparison that may not be necessary, but which I think is interesting: is Django the better movie? Yes and no. As a film qua film, yes; as an entertainment, obviously; as a satisfying narrative, well—yes, I think we have to accord that to Tarantino, too; as the creation of a fantasy that we wish were true, it is better by too far to see. As an objective look at the institution of slavery, it is not. Calvin Candie's straight-up supervillainy is just as 1 in 10,000 as Django Freeman's extraordinary skill with a Remington and unwillingness to go silently, and the idea that one might blow up an entire plantation house and ride away seems faintly pat--even if acceptably, even desirably pat.
So while Django Unchained isn't going to be shown in any high school auditoriums anytime soon, I expect that despite its hard-R violence, 12 Years will become a favorite teaching tool. I also expect that teachers and parents will, like cowards, probably quail at the sight of the blood. It may be one of those films that get screened in classrooms with a finger eternally hovering over the "skip" button. Myself, I would totally bring any child above toilet-training age to watch 12 Years a Slave, in part because their tickets are cheaper than fully-grown humans', but more importantly so that they can see what the world is fucking like. This kind of attitude, however, may suggest why I have not yet productively mated with a woman. In any event, it's an edifying experience, and remains so for an adult.
I do have a small history question: in the scene where slaves are being sold, there are an awful lot of nude people. That slaves were treated like livestock isn't news to me. What I found odd wasn't the shopping experience in itself, but that the men, who'd be buying the slaves, were bringing gentry women with them. I don't know if this is accurate; perhaps it is. But I have been made to understand that 19th century women of the landowning class were, not so dissimilarly to slaves, categorized as permanent children and unfit for just about damned anything. So it stuck out.
What I do hope that people will glean from this picture is that I've been right all along about the South, my unbeloved home. I doubt they will. But it is possible, finally, that people will understand me when I say that John Brown was an American hero, that Sherman was justified and didn't go far enough, that if the Union had had airpower it would have been not just acceptable but awesome to have lit up every city in the South like a continental Christmas tree with white phosphorous, traitor soldiers should have been executed en masse, and, after the end of the Civil War, the occupation force should have been like the NKVD on the kulaks and sent half the white population to reeducation camps and a not inconsiderable number to the other kind.
On a final note, I'd like to express what may seem like an odd, perhaps even crass opinion. I'll frame it in the form of a question: is 12 Years a conventionally entertaining film?
At 134 minutes, it didn't seem long. In fact, one of few genuine criticisms I can muster against McQueen is that the passage of time in the film itself seemed too quick. You could be forgiven, to the extent you can be forgiven for being illiterate, if you thought it was 4 Months a Slave. There's a whiff of intent to this, though; and the nearly fuguelike procession of the years probably represents well the harsh but banal reality of slave life, punctuated by "points of interest," i.e., incidents of torment.
I'm not avoiding the question. Is 12 Years entertaining? Well, I grew to love the character. I wanted to see him succeed. I wanted to see him free. Since I knew he would be free again, I could, after a fashion, relax. A little. So, it—sort of, kind of—is.
But maybe I'm just confusing "entertaining" with "cathartic" again. Well, either way—
1 Indeed. 12 Years is still not Ejiofor's best performance. No, believe it or not (you won't), that's Serenity. Without derogating anything he does here, I suspect his Operative was even more difficult, and Ejiofar puts on a master class in how to create a villain. He does so immaculately, and what he does has not been done better any time this century until, maybe, Tom Hiddleston donned a silly hat. Ejiofor's Operative is not entirely unsympathetic even as he acknowledges the abomination of his existence. "I don't kill children," says Mal, captain of the Serenity. "I do," says the Operative. And that's the read of an actor's lifetime. I want to know how many takes. If it's less than ten, I say build the man a Goddamned statue. Because a star is not enough.↩
2 Tom Hanks is a real jerk, isn't he? Hey, Chiwetel, take solace in the fact that your big movie was way, way better and, in aggregate, you were the better actor. I've run the data and you can have the numbers if you'd like to see them. ↩
3 And, seriously, just fuck my stupid brain for its inability to shut down the neurons that contain the fifty times I've seen Airplane! for the two and a quarter hours I needed to take in 12 Years a Slave, you know? ↩