Tuesday, July 15, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Full disclosure: I avoided this one on the big screen. Everything about the trailers and posters screamed “worthy but dull Oscar bait”. Finally approaching it in the context of Steve McQueen’s previous films, I’m still slightly of that opinion but it needs to be said: overall, ‘12 Years a Slave’ is one hell of a piece of filmmaking.

Based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man who was Shanghai-ed and sold into slavery in 1841 – even his name was taken away: his slave name was “Platt” – ‘12 Years a Slave’ is in some respects a handsomely mounted epic (it’s the most Hollywood looking of McQueen’s films), and in others as much of an endurance test as anything crafted by Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier. Whereas, however, Haneke and von Trier (for me anyway) never quite avoid the sense that they’re staging unpalatable scenes for the sake of it, McQueen depicts every act of inhumanity – and there are many – with a profound and highly moral sense of purpose.

There’s a scholarly piece to be written on ’12 Years a Slave’ as a response to ‘Django Unchained’ – it’s draining where Tarantino’s film is cathartic; subdued where Tarantino is explosive; graphically horrible in its violence where Tarantino’s is over-the-top and soaked in pop culture aesthetic – and this is nowhere more evident in McQueen’s commitment to anti-narrative as opposed to the adherence of ‘Django Unchained’ to a cohesive story arc. At its most reductive, a synopsis of ‘12 Years a Slave’ would run like this: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery, first to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) then to the sadistic Epps (Michael Fassbender) under whose ownership his sufferings worsen. Eventually, via the intervention of abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt), he is able to prove his freeborn status and return to his old life.

There are very few scenes that function around a narrative or dramatic dynamic – for the most part the film unfolds as Solomon suffers act of brutality then Solomon witnesses act of brutality then plantation owner acts despicably then overseer acts despicably, one after another building to cumulatively shattering depiction of what it is to lose one’s liberty, one’s family and even one’s name. The auction at which Solomon is sold to Ford is a case in point: ironically-named slave dealer Freeman (Paul Giamatti) lines up his wares, male and female, stark naked like sculptures in some bizarre art gallery of dark commerce. Narratively, it fulfils the simple purpose of transiting Solomon to Ford’s plantation. The scene itself, though, has an almost surreal quality; the gleaming skin of Freeman’s slaves and the slick dialogue he employs opens a contemporary point of reference: the oleaginous salesman steering the customer towards the most expensive model in the showroom.

Likewise most of the scenes of violence – be it beating or whipping – are not prefigured or built up to by the tempo and suspense of a scene: they simply erupt and then subside again, part of the fabric of the film; part of the daily life, McQueen acknowledges sadly, of the enslaved. The contrast of Ford and Epps gives the film its only hint of a structure: Act One – Solomon retains his dignity under a conservative owner; Act Two – Solomon undergoes almost total depersonalisation under a total bastard.

Deeming Ford “conservative” is relative concept. Superficially, he’s not monstrous and he responds well to Solomon’s transportation suggestions around his logging operation. However, he still fucking owns slaves and no matter how many readings he gives from the Bible and how light he is on the whip, there’s no getting away from this one simple fact. Moreover, he has no qualms at employing the loathsome Tibeats (Paul Dano) as overseer. Tibeats delights in setting teams of slaves to work while serenading them with the tactless ditty “Run, nigger, run” as a warning against escape attempts.

The inevitable conflict between Solomon and Tibeats sets the scene for one of the film’s most horrific yet mesmerising scenes. Beaten and hoisted from a tree, Solomon is compelled to stand on tip-toe, maintaining his balance, the slightest movement tightening the noose around his neck. In a long-shot that McQueen holds for a minute and a half – nothing compared to the 17-minute dialogue scene in ‘Hunger’, but excruciating and seemingly interminable while you’re watching it – as other characters weave in and out of frame behind Solomon, going about their daily business as if oblivious. It’s a scene about the banality of evil and the everyday complicities (in the interests of survival) of the oppressed.

It’s this incident that prompts Ford to sell Solomon to Epps, with the twofold result of forestalling any future problems with Tibeats and the discharging of a debt to Epps. There’s an immediate juxtaposition between the two plantation owners. Like Ford, Epps is introduced reading the Bible, but unlike Ford’s liberalism and gently improving teachings, Epps uses the good book to make a point about property and a man’s right to dispose of said in any way that pleases him. And it pleases Epps to whip, beat and rape his property. If Ford is a slave owner because he’s a businessman, Epps treats his slaves as pawns in an elaborate game of chess reimagined as hate-fucking with his wife (Sarah Poulson) as his opponent of choice. Epps has a particular fixation on Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o); Mrs Epps, predictably, hates her. The poor girl suffers at both of their hands.

This second half of the film is the most gruelling. Fassbender and Poulson conjure a vision of utter corruption on every level. Alongside Ejiofor and Nyong’o they give the best performances on offer here (though kudos to Giamatti: although his role is small, he shrugs off the mugging that has afflicted much of his recent work and re-engages with acting). McQueen defines degenerative influence of Epps so effectively that a scene where Epps manoeuvres Solomon into burning a letter that might set him from is as toe-curlingly unwatchable as an extended whipping, blood flecking from each blow.

It’s curious, then, given Epps’s sadistic streak and knowledge of Solomon’s earlier attempt to draw attention to his plight, that he sets Solomon to work with the outspoken Bass. The moment Bass delivers his big “white man’s guilt” speech – Pitt’s performance is the film’s weak spot – it’s inexplicable that Epps doesn’t drag Solomon away from him and set him back to work picking cotton. And there are a few other moments that don’t quite add up: the logistics, intricacies and expense of luring Solomon away from his family in the opening scenes seem economically at odds with what he’s sold for; Solomon pens his first, failed, letter in the grounds of Epps’s plantation, a candle guttering, a fire flickering away under a pot of home-made ink, without a single overseer getting suspicious and coming to investigate; Solomon returns after 12 years to the same well-appointed townhouse that his family have inexplicably managed to keep retain.

These are minor things, but there are enough of them to keep the film from greatness. The non-ageing of Solomon until the final scene is also curious, and doesn’t help the film’s tendency to unfurl from one incident to the next without establishing just how far into his 12-year indenture Solomon is at any given point. That Solomon is clean-shaven, neatly-coiffured and dressed in unsoiled clothes in every scene is, I assume, an aesthetic decision on McQueen’s part to accentuate the dignity and humanity that Solomon clings onto throughout his ordeal, but again a slightly false note is struck.

In comparison to ‘Hunger’ – still McQueen’s best film – and ‘Shame’, the director’s trademarks are present but muted, perhaps in accordance with the requirements of working with a larger cast and bigger budget (although, at $18million, said budget was loose change by Hollywood standards). Static takes are longer than usual for mainstream filmmaking, but there’s nothing that remotely equals the 17-minute Sands/Moran scene in ‘Hunger’ or the 10-minute restaurant scene in ‘Shame’. There’s one shot of the protagonist running, but it’s over in seconds and doesn’t carry the backstory of the young Bobby Sands in ‘Hunger’ or the immediacy of Brandon’s disruption from his carefully ordered life in ‘Shame’. There is none of the bleak palette that characterises the cinematography of either of these two films.

What there is, however, and what indelibly stamps ’12 Years a Slave’ with Steve McQueen’s authorial signature, is its intensely rigorous and purposeful examination of depersonalisation. As the prisoners in ‘Hunger’ are stripped and mistreated and broken down by a system hellbent on destroying them for political reasons, and as Brandon in ‘Shame’ ravages his body in increasingly frenzied and desperate and purposeless liaisons in order to repress any shred of emotion, so Solomon is variously forced to co-operate, endure, turn a blind eye or turn his back (his deliverance from Epps’s plantation while Patsey and the others needs must remain is terrible to watch); to do, in other words, what is necessary to survive. Even if he survives as a non-person, saddled with a name that isn’t his.

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