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12 Years A Slave: Of Human Bondage

by admin October 18, 2013 12:41 pm
12 Years A Slave: Of Human Bondage

12 Years a Slave may be the first time that writer/director Steve McQueen has dramatized the slave trade as it was practiced in pre-Civil War America, but it's far from his first movie about the concept of slavery. Both of his previous films revolve around characters that are bound to metaphorical -- if not necessarily literal -- masters and suffered pain and torment in the course of their enslavement. McQueen's debut feature, Hunger, is a portrait of imprisoned Irish Republican Army volunteer Bobby Sands (played by the filmmaker's regular muse, Michael Fassbender) who starves his body in service of the higher ideals preached by his cause. The director followed that up with Shame, in which Fassbender plays a well-heeled New York businessman whose daily routine is dictated by his various addictions. Both films also depict their characters' predicaments with a bracing lack of sentimentality and overt moralizing, qualities that are similarly instrumental to the success of 12 Years, which may not be McQueen's best movie overall (I'm still a big booster of the undervalued Shame), but nevertheless remains an exceptional piece of art that brings this period in American history to life in a horrifyingly -- but necessarily so -- vivid way.

Written by the great John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave adapts the memoir of Solomon Northup (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American family man who in 1841 -- two decades before the outbreak of the Civil War -- was tricked into leaving his home in New York and sold into bondage in the Deep South. Initially purchased by what passed for a kind, Christian master (Benedict Cumberbatch) in that time and place (i.e. someone who occasionally hands out words of encouragement and pats -- rather than blows -- on the back, even as they regard the men and women in their employ as their property), Solomon is later handed over to the merciless Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who rules his plantation with harsh tongue and an iron fist.

Another, less complex movie would have kept the master/slave relationship as… well, black and white, but Ridley and McQueen (to say nothing of the actors) allow a strangely symbiotic relationship to develop between the two men, whose personalities are shaped by the peculiarities of the institution they're both a part of. Slavery forces Solomon to surrender his individuality and basic humanity, to accept that his self-worth is now dictated by how much cotton he can pick or how many lashes he can endure. An actor of tremendous reserve -- which can, when necessary, give way to volcanic emotion -- Ejiofor is a superb guide to this now-alien world, his haunted eyes acting as windows a reality that's hard to fathom for today's audiences, but was, for centuries, The Way Things Were in America. Indeed, observing his experiences will hopefully explode once and for all any lingering romantic notions there are about the Antebellum South fueled by movies like Gone with the Wind and even, to a certain extent, Django Unchained, which has an exploitation movie grandeur that's strikingly different than McQueen's stark, matter-of-fact depiction of the time period and the ugly mundanity of the slave trade.

As for Epps, it's gradually revealed that his particular madness stems from the fact that his occupation forces him to deny himself one of the most basic of all human emotions: love. Unhappily married to an equally cruel Southern belle (Sarah Paulson, who adds a remarkable amount of dimension to a character that could have been played as a straight shrew), he's obsessed with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), forcing himself on her at every opportunity without bothering to hide this one-sided affair from his wife. But since society dictates that their relationship can never be (and she would never accept him anyway), Patsey's presence is a constant reminder that while he possess her body -- not to mention the bodies of his other slaves including Solomon -- he doesn't own their hearts, minds or souls. As Fassbender's layered performance makes clear, it's that knowledge that fuels his frequent rages, building up to the movie's marquee sequence, a stunning long take in which Patsey becomes the physical vessel upon which both men lay their psychological wounds. (If the movie has a significant flaw, though, it's the way in which Patsey becomes a symbol in the tug of war between the male leads. Nyong'o's performance will break your heart, but the script never quite figures out who this woman is.)

As difficult as that scene is to watch, many of the movie's most affecting, upsetting moments are those without overt physical violence. Early on, for example, there's an extended scene in a slave market where Solomon watches a mother forcibly separated from her young children, who have been promised to other masters, and her shrieks and wails flood the soundtrack as the camera pans away to the auctioneer's next sale. (Her sobs continue into the next scene, where she and Solomon roll up to their new residence and the mistress of the house informs her airily that she'll forget her kids in time.) And then there's Alfre Woodard's brief, but memorable appearance as a slave woman who became her master's companion and now is waited on by the same people she once worked alongside of. In agreeing to that arrangement, though, she's trapped between two worlds -- no longer part of her previous community, but also not accepted by world her lover belongs to. As a result, she chooses to please only herself, blinding herself to the suffering around her and accepting it as business as usual. And that's perhaps the lasting value of 12 Years a Slave; it shows in unblinking, uncompromising terms how this country tolerated and even argued for injustice in the name of business -- a tradition that continued long after the Civil War into the labor battles of the early 20th century to say nothing of the often shameful treatment of illegal immigrants and overseas labor that exists today. In his typically visceral way, McQueen rips the scab off a wound that may never fully heal and dares us to look away.

Get showtimes and tickets for this movie from Fandango.

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