It’s Oscar time, at least for me, as I am just now getting around to seeing last year’s award winning movies including its “Best Picture”, 12 Years a Slave.
Best Picture? It’s not a best picture in the sense that it’s a good movie. From its title you would have to assume it’s a horrific movie, and it is. If you want to spend 134 minutes examining slavery up close in the middle of the 19th century, then this is the movie for you. 12 Years a Slave is frankly beyond appalling and it is unfortunately quite faithful to the book of the same name, written by Solomon Northup, a free African American living in Saratoga, New York. I know this because after seeing the movie I downloaded the book, which is in the public domain and available on archive.org. As appalling as the violence and inhumanity to man is in this movie, if anything the book is even more appalling. It’s just that on the silver screen you get to see it in all its gory detail.
Slavery has been largely a taboo topic in Hollywood cinema, but it’s becoming less so over the last couple of decades. What’s good/bad about these movies is, unlike say Gone with the Wind, its depiction is becoming accurate. One of the more recent movies featuring slavery was Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx. That movie was more satisfying though because at least the slave masters and slave owners got what was coming to them. Solomon Northrup at least returned to freedom a dozen years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, for which he was very lucky. He was one of a handful of free black men caught this way to return to freedom. His slavery started on a trip to Washington, D.C. where he had supposedly been hired to play the fiddle for a touring troupe. At the time our capital had both slaves and some free blacks, but of course it wasn’t too hard for free blacks coming from outside the capital to find they had been illegally sold into slavery. It didn’t take too long for a plastered Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to end up in chains.
The violence appears over the top, but was rather typical for slaves at the time. A few whites could see human beings behind black faces, but in the South they were fewer and further between. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the first to own Northrup, was one of them. He has a few pangs of conscience separating a mother from her children but what could he do? Not to worry. He assures her that she will soon forget them. To most, like the slave broker ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), slaves are simply property to be sold like horses for their youth, stamina, muscles and subservience. It’s not hard to feel nothing for them when you see them as simply property.
The movie makes clear just how pervasive this attitude was in the south. Violence, lynching, abuse and working a slave almost to death were commonplace. Good Southern women, who you would hope would have a heart, have little in this movie. Indeed, they eye their slaves, particularly their female slaves with suspicion. Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), the wife of a plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) simply urges greater punishment of her slave, particularly when she suspects her husband has feelings for her.
Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track of the violence and cruelty. Northrup quickly learns not to complain too much, since his first whipping nearly kills him. Life is problematic for slaves and even if you are alive, it’s not much of a life. Life is so bad that some of these slaves would rather be dead. One woman tries to enlist Northup in an attempt to kill her, figuring it has to be better than her living hell.
Unsurprisingly, most of the slaves are half dead anyhow, if not physically then spiritually. Their lives are hellish and brutish, and often capricious as well. Director John Ridley takes us on this adventure of man’s inhumanity to man in very clinical and personal terms. It’s a world that is utterly bleak. Northrup’s claims of being a free man are at first derided and subsequently punished. He discovers it’s a mistake to confide these secrets, or even to try to get a letter posted to set him free. His comfort, such as it is, is remembering his beloved wife at home and playing a fiddle he is given when his talent is confirmed. He even has to hide the fact that he can read.
Some of the saddest moments occur not through violence but simply witnessing the deadened faces of these slaves who are physically alive but mostly spiritually dead. At times they are required to dance, one time in the middle of the night, to entertain their masters and are “treated” to cookies. They are simply in a deep well of pain where not much registers other than an instinctive and sullen desire to simply endure the absurdity until they can catch some moments of relief in restless sleep.
The movie doesn’t need to feel authentic because it simply is authentic. The screenplay could not have been too much work, since it is often word for word from the book. A hundred and fifty years later it seems crazy to believe this happened in the United States. But it’s clear from my reading of history that this inhumanity toward man was every bit as bad as it is depicted here. The most appalling part of the movie is simply the indifference from the whites to the whole crazy system. It’s like, whatever. This is normal. How could it possibly be any different?
This is an in your face, up close and personal movie full of excellent acting, if vividly and accurately portraying immense suffering is your idea of great acting. I am glad to see Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role. Ironically, in the movie Serenity he plays something of the opposite of this character, so it shows his flexibility as an actor. He’s terrific but really there’s not an off note among either the white or black cast of this movie. Among the talented actors is Brad Pitt as Bass, a suspiciously liberal tradesman that Northrup eventually confides in. The hardest part of this moving is enduring your heaving stomach.
Best Picture? It is most certainly the most sickening and moving movie of 2013, but not the sort of movie that you will seek out for entertainment. I’ll leave it unrated.