NYFF 2013: ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a heart-shattering masterpiece

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

12YearsASlave_poster12 Years a Slave
Written by John Ridley
Directed by Steve McQueen
USA, 2013

British artist-turned-film-director Steve McQueen has said in interviews that he wanted to make a movie about slavery in America for some time; he was just searching for the right story. He’s found it in 12 Years a Slave, the 1853 book by Solomon Northrup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped out of his career as a successful violinist and sold into bondage.

In the film, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is first owned by the benevolent William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), but spends the lion’s share of the film as the property of the sadistic “breaker” Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The screenplay by John Ridley (a former television writer and film critic who wrote the underrated movies Red Tails and Undercover Brother) understands that it’s not merely the violence or the master’s rape of the slave women that makes slavery horrific; it is the utter annihilation of the potential of a person. Slavery is a self-fulfilling terror designed to take a human being, cripple his ability to socialize and educate himself until he is completely dependent upon a racist system, and use that dependence to justify the racism.

Ejiofor, in his unbelievable performance, understands this like no actor ever has. There are tears and agony, which he does well, but this role is about much more. He takes the film to a higher plane with his tiny, yet momentous, betrayals of self and others. From the way that Solomon tucks his head and forces himself to submit, to every time he has to abandon his fellow slaves to ensure his survival, Ejiofor will take your heart in his hands again and again only to utterly break it.

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Although many of the slavers’ words in this picture are enforced by the barrel of a gun, not one bullet is ever fired, since shooting a slave to death is vandalizing the slave owner’s property. Thus, while they’re obviously playing horrible characters, it’s worth commending the white actors in this film for the way they commit to the brutal violence, delivering even a simple slap in the face as though it were a pistol shot. This goes double for actors such as Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti, who are less physically imposing than Ejiofor. In the free world, they would never strike a larger man so readily; thus, their commitment goes far to illustrate that Solomon is no longer in the free world.

McQueen has masterful compositions, no doubt a gift from his career as a visual artist. However, his real mastery is shown with his sense of timing. Where inferior films might need a line of on-the-nose dialogue to explain what is going on in a mostly slient scene, McQueen says everything with his perfectly paced shots and expertly timed cuts. The long, brutal whipping of a female slave near the end of the film withholds the actual damage until the moment at which it reveals the most about every character in the scene – not just Northrup but the slave owner and his wife as well.

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There is a place in cinema for films like Glory and Amistad and Lincoln, uplifting films that provide a happy ending against slavery but do not wish to alienate audiences with extensive meditations on the horror itself. What Hollywood has lacked until now is a Schindler’s List for slavery: a film that will not take a blind eye from the brutality and will show how difficult it is to overcome such an institutional evil. 12 Years a Slave is deeply moving, but it does not move a person toward rage or sorrow – unique among American films on this subject, it demands simply an ever-increasing commitment: never again.

-Mark Young
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The New York Film Festival celebrates 51 years and runs from September 27 to October 13, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.

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