Saturday, September 7, 2013

12 Years a Slave: Toronto film festival - first look review

Steve McQueen's much-hyped slavery drama is a brutal, excoriating and vital companion to Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained


Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Photograph: Allstar/NEW REGENCY PICTURES/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar



Stark, visceral and unrelenting, 12 Years a Slave is not just a great film but a necessary one. The phrase "long-awaited" has been much used to describe this third feature from British director Steve McQueen, which sees Chiwetel Ejiofor alongside Michael Fassbender in a star-studded cast. It's a common piece of cinematic hyperbole but it also describes the function this picture serves in confronting a practice that endured in the United States of America for nearly 250 years.


Based on a first-hand account, Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a violin player who lives a happy and relatively affluent life in Saratoga Springs, near New York City. It is 1841 and Northup is a free man apparently accepted as an equal by his white peers. When his wife takes a trip out of town, however, Northup is tempted into earning extra money by performing for a travelling circus. He heads to Washington with new companions only to be drugged, kidnapped and bound in chains just a stone's throw from the Capitol building.
From there Northup is severed completely from his old life. His name is changed to Platt and this urbane family man is told both to forget his identity and his skills. "Tell no one who you are and tell no one you can read or write," warns a fellow captive, "unless you want to be a dead nigger". He is shipped to Louisiana like so much chattel; one shot shows the tarpaulin pulled off a cart in which the slaves are carried like the lid being pulled from a sardine tin.
The rest of the film concerns itself with Platt's passage through the hands of several owners, each barbaric in their own way to someone they cannot stop to consider as being human. Paul Giamatti's trader Theophilus Freeman proves the strengths and reflexes of his slaves by jauntily beating them with cudgels. Benedict Cumberbatch's Master Ford considers himself a man of conscience but presides over plantation in which brutality reigns untrammeled.
Then, finally, there is Fassbender's Master Epps. He is renowned as a "nigger breaker", a sadist who keeps order through constant application of the lash. He wakes his slaves in the middle of the night and forces them to dance amid casual, liberal beatings. He is in constant fear of conspiracy and believes the ill will of his slaves to have caused God to curse his cotton crop. At the same time he has taken his most productive worker, Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), to be a sex object.
Fassbender is brilliant in the part. Violence is always only a hair's breadth away, but his belief in his authority results in an eccentricity at times so delicate as to be even more terrifying than the temper. With his arm draped amicably over his shoulder he calmly threatens Platt with death. He goes straight from strangling a woman to softly cuddling terrified friend. Hand in hand with a child, he prances around in a smock.
Comparisons here can be made with another loquacious slaver, Leonardo Di Caprio's Calvin Candie from Django Unchained. Candie was a villain who conducted depraved acts without blinking. But, as with many of Tarantino's bad guys, he also had a rat-like cunning and a dry wit that lent him a kind of glamour. There is no such veneer on Fassbender's Master Epps however - and this is surely an important distinction.
As with the Tarantino movie there is frequent bloody violence and the word "nigger" is used as a matter of course. Not once does any of it provoke a thrill however. At first it provokes horror and disgust but ultimately there's an exasperation, a feeling that you cannot watch any more. Northup and his peers however have long since grown a callus where those sensitivities once lay. One of the most shocking things for the viewer might be how the slaves at various plantations carry calmly about their work as men and women are lynched and beaten around them.
12 Years a Slave is a scarifying, unblinking portrayal of life as it was for tens of thousands of people less than 200 years ago. It pulls no punches. But neither does it lecture. McQueen chooses to let all the actions and inactions convey their own message. As the film ends, there is no barnstorming speech, promise of change or bloody revenge fantasy, just a lingering shot of a man sobbing into the arms of his family.

Source: The Guardian


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