Wednesday, November 6, 2013

'12 Years a Slave': Brutality and Survival

Chiwetel Ejiofor's eyes articulate what he's feeling when he doesn't speak.  They are wide and warm, and they convey a terror so succinctly in Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.  McQueen's film is graphic and hard to watch, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't watch it.  I saw it last night, and I can't get it out of my mind.

Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man living with his wife and two children in New York.  A skilled violinist, Solomon is tricked into slavery--he remembers going to bed after a meeting with two circus businessmen, and he wakes up shackled and alone.  The darkness of the room presses on him like a nightmare he can't wake up from. 

Solomon is transported to New Orleans and given the new name Platt.  He is sold to a plantation owned by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the two men are very friendly towards each other.  Ford is the nicest slave owner that Platt will encounter in his years.  From the beginning, he endures the wrath of John Tibeats (Paul Dano), the plantation overseer.  Tibeats lives to make the slaves's lives hell, and he eventually gets into a physical fight with Platt over the construction of a house.  Ford sends Platt to work on a cotton farm owned by Edwin Epps.

Epps is played by Michael Fassbender, McQueen's muse and star of his last two films, Hunger and Shame.  He is sloppy and cruel, an incarnation of evil that you hope you never encounter in real life.  Epps claims his stance on slavery is supported by the Bible, and he makes a disturbing game of taunting and abusing the slaves on his plantation.  Every day he weighs the cotten picked in the fields, and if the weight is below his standards or less than the amount picked the previous day, the slave is punished.  The cracking of the whip is as constant of a sound as the buzzing of the insects. 

Patsey is the most successful in the cotten field (she picks over 500 pounds daily), and she is the object of Epps' brutal affections.  In one creepy scene, Epps rapes Patsey, and you can barely tell if she is alive or dead.  Epps' wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), is aware of her husband's desires, and she treats Patsey with an unbridled hatred.  She hurls objects at Patsey's head without batting an eye, and she never stops fighting with her husband.  There were times I thought Mary was even worse than Edwin, because her abuse of Patsey was so focused and unwarranted.  Lupita Nyong'o plays Patsey in a star-making performance.  Patsey's determination to get out of her situation is utterly heartbreaking.  

I don't remember the last time I was affected by a film more than 12 Years a Slave.  It's a hard film to watch, easily the most graphic film concerning slavery I have ever seen.  The performances are so fantastic--even the smaller parts.  Paul Giamatti, Dano, and Paulson all leave a lasting impression.  Nyong'o, Ejiofor and Fassbender are all amazing.  Ejiofor just killed me.  I was crying so hard by the end of it.

I am not articulating very well--my apologies.  Just go see it.  It's emotional and raw and radiant.     

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