Saturday, November 2, 2013

Human Bondage: 12 Years a Slave


Steve McQueen’s powerful film 12 Years a Slave works best in its minimalist single-shot scenes without dialogue.

When Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiotor), a freeman kidnapped and sold into bondage, resists the brutality of an overseer (Paul Dano), his owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) is forced to leave him hanging by the neck with only the pressure of his toes in the mud preventing him from strangulation. Behind him, slave women go about their chores, too afraid to show sympathy.

In another shot, Solomon simply stares out across the plantation, his eyes looking for hope but seeing none.

Indeed, Ejiotor’s performance as Solomon is excellent. He does a tremendous job of etching Solomon’s growing anguish in his face. Meanwhile, the scenes of cruelty that Solomon and other slaves are subjected to are very difficult to watch - but that's as it should be, and I'm glad they're difficult to watch.

Another consistent strength is the atmosphere established by the film’s authentic settings. Here, everything looks lived in, which is very much unlike many highly acclaimed historical films – especially films that depict slavery. Every scene has a realistic gravity to it and an atmosphere you can feel. As the drone of the cicadas grows louder and louder – a sound effect that suggests this film would do quite well without a musical score – you can feel the humid air and smell the mold and rot. In an early montage, the clash of a stoker's shovel and the rhythmic splashing of a riverboat's stern wheel accompany Solomon's descent into slavery in the South and suggest the throbbing of his petrified heart. As for the music, Hans Zimmer borrows heavily from his score for The Thin Red Line, and although that score’s quiet but brooding strains are appropriate here, this did more to irritate me than settle me into the drama.

In a film that seeds name actors throughout a story played mostly by lesser known actors or unknowns, one hopes the stars, whose faces we associate so much with now, won’t disturb the film’s ability to take us back in time to then. Paul Giamatti, as a slave dealer, is disguised enough and restrained enough in his performance that the power of this disgusting sequence is not diluted. Of all the stars, Benedict Cumberbatch, as a reluctant slaver owner, detracts the least from the film’s gravity and provides touching commentary on what it must have been like for someone morally opposed to a pernicious institution that so many people accepted. His performance is sensitive and subdued. Paul Dano as a sadistic, hickish, degenerate bastard of a racist borders on caricature and jolts you out of the drama’s grasp. Michael Fassbender’s character is a fascinating one: Edwin Epps, a Bible fanatic whose obsession with his power over human slaves has turned into aberrance and perversion. But some of his scenes go on too long, as Fassbender leans toward overacting, and some of Epps’s perversions lean toward the kind of one-sided propaganda typical of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that drove Southerners wild with rage.

Though not a perfect triumph, 12 Years a Slave is still a significant success for Ejiotor’s performance and the film’s uncanny ability to depict a sordid chapter in our history that we’ve seen so memorably in period photographs but have never seen as convincingly in a film.

2 comments:

Steve's Blog said...

I very much admire the way you exhume the technical details of film that enhance scenes and story-telling as a whole. This is no different as you make me aware of the brilliant use of sound effects--cicadas, steamboat wheel, squishing of mud--all of which helped me appreciate this film to the extent that I could. I think I did, however, admire Hans Zimmer's "brooding" score more than you did.

Otherwise, I found the cast of Hollywood extras to be very distracting and caused me to step out of the gritty realism captured through the intense photography and aforementioned soundtrack. Brad Pitt's presence alone and the time in which he enters the film, only serves to inform an audience that this guy is really, really important and we should listen to his message--a message delivered rather dogmatically and with none-too-subtle condescension.

I also have to say that, while impressed by the performances, I was strangely unmoved by what I watched. The key dramatic moments seemed stagey and "written," as if for a separate stage play or an acting class exercise. Much of the brutality seemed forced and more in-your-face than genuinely shocking. I also felt that the film, technical aspects aside, was less an artistic endeavor and more a bearing of white-guilt soul. With all the effort that went into this project, it seems somewhat irresponsible that audiences are relieved of the horrifying truth that slavery still exists and in greater numbers today than ever. And it is here that I feel I need to revisit my admiration for Django, which made this commentary on slavery more impactfully and artistically.

All in all, mixed feelings for me. But I do appreciate your enhancing my experience by pointing out what may have gone unnoticed, or at least under-appreciated.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Steve. I agree that the star performers are mostly distracting. I didn't mention Pitt, but he doesn't quite fit. Should have been an unknown in the part - and someone playing it more conflicted about contemplating what Southerners would have caledl theft of their property.

I found the film powerful, however, and I didn't feel it was chiefly white man's guilt. I felt it was more artistic - especially in the mostly visual parts - than an expression of guilt.