That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

12 Years a Slave

Sunday, November 10th, 2013 7:27 pm—Film

12 Years a Slave (USA/UK 2013, Biography/Drama/History), Writer: John Ridley; Director: Steve McQueen

12 Years a Slave is an exceptional film that is, sadly, based on the extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped from upstate New York in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he remained until his rescue in 1853. The movie draws from the novel Twelve Years a Slave, Northup’s own account of his experiences in that period.

Watching 12 Years a Slave left me a bit wrecked, and judging from the sniffles in the audience, I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. It comes as a bit of a sock in the gut to reflect on the sickening way so many African Americans were treated for so long, on the twisted “logic” that rationalized their initial kidnapping and appropriation in the 1700s, and on the reality that racism and slavery still exist.

It’s particularly insightful to revisit that period through the eyes of Solomon Northup (played exquisitely by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a Black man who wasn’t raised to accept that African Americans in the 1800s should be enslaved. As a free man with a career, home and family of his own, Solomon is appalled and indignant when he realizes his kidnappers’ intentions. Coming from a place of freedom, he knows he deserves better.

Solomon is quickly beaten into the understanding that his views are no longer welcome, or safe to express. But because he wasn’t born a slave, he manages to preserve a core of dignity and self-worth throughout his horrendous 12-year sentence—even fighting back at times—in a way that none of the other slaves around him do; unlike them, he was raised to believe the truth: that he has every right to be treated with respect.

12 Years a Slave is director Steve McQueen’s third feature, following the phenomenal Hunger and Shame. After seeing his first two films, I’d pretty much decided to see anything he makes, and 12 Years a Slave only reinforced that decision. It’s more mainstream than his previous efforts, less edgy and stylized, but it still bears his artful touch, and does a wonderful job of serving Solomon’s heartbreaking story.

Amid the horror of the tale, McQueen sets the tone with close-up shots of, for example, the steamboat’s wake as Solomon and other kidnapping victims are shipped south, carried over by ominous music. When they get there, the camera takes time now and then to linger on glorious, drooping trees and sun splashed bayous, contrasting Louisiana physical beauty with the living nightmare that took place there.

Here, McQueen again reveals his love of the long shot, perhaps more effectively in 12 Years a Slave than ever before. In one scene, Solomon is hanged from a tree as punishment, his toes barely skimming the ground. Left to dangle, the world carries on around him; the other slaves keep working, children play, his master’s wife looks on from her porch. It appears calm and almost picturesque, if you can overlook the blatant inequality and the Black man clinging to life.

In spite of McQueen’s powerful use of still moments and beautiful shots, he doesn’t shy away from portraying the vivid ugliness that took place in America’s South. But he shows them in a way that’s far more respectful—and far more impactful, from my perspective—than Quentin Tarantino did in last year’s Django Unchained, which presents his unique take on slavery.

When I saw Tarantino’s film, I was disturbed and angered by the grotesque and cartoonish violence. (Honestly, I couldn’t watch most of the Mandingo fight or the scene when a slave was fed to the dogs, but unfortunately the context and audio it made very clear what was happening.) When I shared my thoughts about Django Unchained with a friend, she said the violence needed to be included in all its glory because it showed what really happened; without it, people wouldn’t understand the full force of the evil that was slavery.

I disagreed then, and still do. We don’t need to see gratuitous gore in order to be horrified. It’s clear from Tarantino’s films, like Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, to name but a few of his bloody works, that Tarantino relishes violence. It’s a stylistic choice that’s more about indulging his vision than capturing a period in history. I think he’s a fantastic filmmaker, but that doesn’t mean I think you need his brand of gore to understand the horror of slavery.

Not that 12 Years a Slave isn’t plenty violent. It depicts awful acts of physical and sexual abuse against Black slaves. But they aren’t gratuitous, in my opinion, and they’re certainly less glorified than what Tarantino shows in Django Unchained. Not only that, but McQueen also takes care to convey the prolonged, ever-present despair the slaves suffer beyond the lashings and beatings. He lets us see the emotional carnage brought upon people who have been cruelly and suddenly removed from their families, stripped of their dignity and treated without humanity. He shows us the relentless exploitation of African Americans as they’re forced to work to exhaustion in practically unbearable conditions, with the only possible reward for a day of extraordinary effort being exemption from the whipping post—for the time being, anyway.

As with his previous films, McQueen here also draws fabulous performances from his cast, including the stellar Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsey, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender as slave owners Ford and Epps, and Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps, as well as the ever-wonderful Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw, and Paul Dano, so great in Prisoners, as Ford’s head carpenter Tibeats.

With 12 Years a Slave, McQueen does an amazing job of giving life to Solomon Northup’s story. That’s the reason it’s so hard to watch. It’s also the reason you absolutely should watch it.

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