Saturday, April 12, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—12 Years a Slave (2013) ****

R, 134 min.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley, Solomon Northup (memoir)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael K. Williams, J.D. Evermore, Paul Giamatti, Christopher Berry, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Tony Bentley, Liza J. Bennett, Scott M. Jefferson, Alfre Woodard,  Garrett Dillahunt

“12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013. It’s a worthy film. It isn’t your average slave film, although I’m not sure there really have been enough films about that dark time in our country’s history that any could be considered average. It tells the true story of Solomon Northup, who was a free man who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery, where he remained in service for twelve years before he could finally find someone to contact his family in the North to confirm his free status.

“12 Years a Slave” is another masterpiece from director Steve McQueen, who despite his own heritage hasn’t ventured into a story about a black man before now. His films have featured personal and political struggles and include the film “Hunger” about the hunger strikes performed by Irish prisoners protesting the oppression of the British government.

“12 Years a Slave” is McQueen’s most standard narrative to date, yet it’s much more cerebral than other tales of slavery. It’s more emotionally based, with less of a sense of laying down the facts of it all than many accounts. Along with Solomon’s emotional punishment of having his freedom ripped away, knowing his family has no idea what happened to him, we also get a look into a couple of different slave owners’ mindsets. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a more reasonable slave owner who shows his slaves some degree of respect despite the fact that his bosses don’t always do the same. However, make no mistake, this is still a man who sees his slaves as property ultimately.

Due to an incident involving Solomon and one of his bosses, this more reasonable man is forced to sell Solomon to another, less reasonable slaver owner, played by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender. His treatment of his “property” boarders on insanity. His obsession with one slave woman builds a rift between he and his wife. And Solomon’s obvious intelligence makes him of great interest to his owner.

I like the way McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley contemplate Solomon’s situation. They don’t rush to develop plot. His situation isn’t as much about what happens to him as a slave as it is about what has been taken from him. I think Fassbender’s slave owner is similar in the way the film contemplates what he has lost by embracing this idea of people as property. It is a unique film about a powerful subject. It deserves the accolades it has received.

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