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12 Years a Slave (2013)

Bound and Determined

As much as this is a review, it is also a glimpse into two worlds:

In one exists a broad spectrum of race and class, as represented by theatre patrons coming together Tuesday evening to experience Steve McQueen's astounding new film, 12 Years a Slave. I don't recall another instance when, on multiple occasions, I could hear people openly weeping in an auditorium. Nor do I remember ever having shared so deeply the collective grief, revulsion, and triumph of strangers while watching a movie. That night, Chicago's Landmark Century Cinema became a spiritual and emotional boxing event, where the spectators absorbed blows just as surely as the celluloid protagonist they'd come out to support.

The next night, on what may as well have been another planet, a group of jaded white men traded jokes and eye-rolls at the very same film. I stood meekly aside, smiling and listening for an "in", while shrinking at every bit of mob-rule mockery. The go-to phrase, "The lesson is: 'Slavery is bad'!", echoed like the chorus of a bad pop song, and I was left to wonder if these men's empathy shields had been installed or inherited.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley had these guys (or versions of them) in mind when adapting Solomon Northup's 1853 biography. Though 12 Years a Slave is sure to storm all the major awards categories this year, it is not Oscar bait, nor is it "just another slave movie." With chilling expertise, the fillmakers draw parallels to the life of a free black man in 1841 New York that can (and should) affect white suburban housewives in 2013--that is, if they can approach such a movie without assuming they'll be preached to or scolded for their alleged lack of struggle.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, a charming intellectual who makes his living as a violinist. As he and his well-dressed family proudly walk the streets, chatting casually with white friends, Northup is seemingly unaware of his fellow black countrymen's hellish ordeals in the South. When his wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott), takes their two kids, Margaret (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler), on an annual two-week work trip, Northup finds himself with little to do. When he's recommended by a friend to accept a two-week job performing music for a variety show in Washington, he doesn't hesitate.

What he doesn't know is that entertainers Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam) plan to boost their startup capital by selling him, duped and drugged, to a Louisiana slave auctioneer named Freeman (Paul Giamatti). The violinist awakens in chains, with a pair of vicious jailers ready to beat any questions or protestations right out of him.

Northup is sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who loves the wealth that slavery bring to his plantation, but gets queasy when he actually has to buy human beings. In one of the film's most sickening exchanges, Freeman convinces Ford to break up a mother named Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and her two young children, because the slaver would make considerably less on the bundle.

It would be unkind of me to reveal what happens to Northup and Eliza while in Ford's custody. Suffice it to say they don't last long, for various reasons--partly due to the shell-shock of having been stripped of their dignity, and partly to the influence of one of Ford's middle-managers (Paul Dano, who continues his master-class in playing slimy, insecure, and dangerous characters). The bulk of 12 Years a Slave takes place on the second plantation Northup is sold to, a cotton empire run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). This sojourn proves to be a nightmarish cavalcade of alcohol-fueled violence, rape, and treachery--all overseen by the master's jealous, calculating wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson).

Readers of my work may wonder if I've gone insane or am simply a "wolf"-crying hyperbole machine. In the last few months, I've raved about several "Best Picture" contenders; each time, I posit (if not on-screen, then in conversation) that it'll be really hard to knock such-and-such picture out of the top spot. Please join me out on this limb as I declare that Steve McQueen has gifted us with a near-flawless motion picture.

Knowing nothing about the movie before going in (a rarity, for sure), I wondered how Ejiofor--an actor whose face and demeanor presume sophistication--would play a slave. Indeed, the film's defining arc sees a man of education and taste forced to deny his upbringing, intelligence, and spirit in order to survive. While reading, writing, and knowledge of civil engineering help him in some cases, they are mostly a hindrance in the presence of significantly lesser men that just want their fields cleared. Northup is broken down mercilessly by ego and circumstance, but his initial indignation and arrogance evolve throughout the movie into a fierce survival instinct: he feels entitled, cosmically, to freedom, and only occasionally loses sight of his goal.

It's hard for me to believe that McQueen is the same guy who made 2011's Shame, a pretty but empty-headed American Psycho knock-off that traded serial-killing for sex addiction. That film nearly put me off Fassbender, whose mopey, detached performance competed with the film itself to see who could scream "pretentious" the loudest.

Both filmmaker and star redeem themselves ten-fold here. Fassbender plays a fine devil, a legendary "slave breaker" who is himself an indentured servant to drink, lust, and social standing. Unlike his peers, who will disappear the help at the first sign of trouble, Epps prefers to keep his problem slaves around: his appetite for humiliation helps define the film's understudy protagonist, a spirited young slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o).* Fassbender and Ridley keep Epps from becoming a cartoon character by virtue of a nuanced performance and some sharp perspective on his nature, as offered by a traveling carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt**).

As a movie, 12 Years a Slave feels complete. There's no ambiguity here, but no hand-holding, either. In creating such a full portrait of a specific time and place, McQueen and his talented crew force us into the not-too-distant past as a means of examining our present and seriously considering the future. Those of you who read this will, I imagine, have the luxurious option of seeing the movie in a theatre (which I highly recommend) or in the comfort of your home someday--maybe even on an iPad. You may think nothing of other parts of the world, where slavery and racially or religiously motivated genocide are real things to millions of people; places where a day's wage is equivalent to the up-charge on a concession-stand combo meal that you'll shove onto a credit card just as casually as you'll pick out which shoes to wear on date night.

Like Northup at the beginning of the film, we're all vaguely aware of the troubled times we live in and are rarely confronted with their extreme horrors. But most of us are a medical emergency, a job loss, or a broken down car and a dead cell phone in the wrong part of town away from life-altering conflict. That's not to suggest McQueen and Ridley have made a movie about guilt. They've made a movie about hubris by holding up a hundred-and-sixty-year-old story as a mirror for our times. 12 Years a Slave is about reconnecting (or connecting) with our individual humanity as a means of evolving the species. It's about fighting against complacency and standing up for justice even (especially) when it doesn't necessarily apply to you. As Northup learns the hard way, there are consequences for shutting out the world that extend far beyond being sold into slavery.

Sadly, I failed my most recent test. Standing with that group of guys on Wednesday night, I never asked how they could have been so unmoved by McQueen's film, how they could be so callous as to write it off as some simplistic morality tale. In my weakness, I became a worse version of Cumberbatch's Ford: my unwillingness to make things awkward in the name of sticking up for the casual racism of indifference meant turning my back on half my ancestry (yes, it's true). In that sense, I guess 12 Years a Slave really is a film about judgment, but not one that's confined to race relations. McQueen and Ridley ask all of us to consider what kind of people we are and, more importantly, what kind of people we want to be.

*No more words on Patsey: watch the film and see for yourself.

**Like Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained, Pitt's arrival will likely pull you out of the movie for a bit as your ears try to decipher what the hell kind of accent they're being assaulted by.

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