12 YEARS A SLAVE– 5 STARS
49th Chicago International Film Festival special premiere presentation
Renowned American author Mark Twain is remembered for saying “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Film audiences must always navigate the waters of fiction. We are watching actors commit to playing out scripted scenes on camera. Viewers are often heady enough to know they are watching one artistic vision of someone’s fictional narrative. Concrete fact and truth are left to documentaries which don’t sell tickets at the rate of finely crafted fiction. However, the right note of good fiction can capture our imagination and trigger an emotional response as if it were truth. The late great film director Stanley Kubrick stated “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”
In combining the ideas of Twain and Kubrick, you will see the power of films that are “based on a true story.” When done right, they are of a higher order than fiction because they skip the so-called possibilities and rely on truth. The strange truth Twain speaks of hits a little harder and a little deeper because we’re watching history not creative possibility. We connect our progression of moods and feelings, as Kubrick defined, within a true story film to the realization that what we are watching actually occurred, in some way, shape, or form. Our empathy and appreciation take over and the effect is multiplied compared to relating to something fictional. Simply put, it matters more that it really happened. Finally, after a film is finished, when an audience steps back and seeks out that theme behind the emotion, they are challenged to circle back and take a long hard look at the truth that started the true story. It is then when a film based on a true story either profoundly impresses for its depiction of true events or succumbs to the fictional aspects outweighing the real truth.
12 Years a Slave, premiering in Chicago at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival, is the epitome of this combination of ideas from Twain and Kubrick. The fiction never clouds the truth at the heart of the story even though we are still watching a film adaptation. The emotions connect to real historical accounts and hit poignantly so, all while your interpretation of theme becomes the takeaway challenge. It is no ordinary “based on a true story” film that glazes over its history in favor of steep dramatization and cinematic molding. It’s a strikingly powerful film that invests your emotions towards the truth of its era by delivering an unflinching and faithful embodiment of one man’s perilous and arduous journey. 12 Years a Slave, thanks to performances as dedicated as its storytelling mission, is, without a doubt, one of the finest films of 2013. It is an unforgettable movie experience.
Solomon Northrup was a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was an accomplished violin and fiddle player and a married man with two children. His story is documented in his first-person account, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northrup, published in 1853, not long after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin garnered rage and attention as the seminal work of the era. After selling well and praised by abolitionists, the book was forgotten for nearly a century until scholars and researchers rediscovered Northrup’s work in the 1960’s and were amazed by its valid and accurate details of the slave market and plantation lifestyle. Shaft director Gordon Parks adapted the book into a 1984 PBS television movie entitled Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey starring Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Avery Brooks to minor noteworthiness far under the popularity of the epic 1977 Alex Haley miniseries Roots from years earlier that shared similar themes.
Shame director Steve McQueen arrives with screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails) to give Northrup’s story a feature film treatment centering on faithfulness and accuracy to the source narrative. In 1841, Solomon Northrup (British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor of Children of Men, American Gangster, and 2012) is propositioned by a pair of well-to-do traveling performers named Brown and Hamilton (Argo‘s Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam of Saturday Night Live) to join their troupe for a brief, but high-paying musician job in Washington, D.C. Tricked and poisoned, Solomon awakens in chains and is beaten severely for claiming to be a free man. He is bundled with other kidnapped blacks to a ship transporting them by sea to the New Orleans slave market. Put on display by the greedy Theophilus Freeman (Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti), the man responsible for his kidnapping, Solomon is renamed as “Platt,” an escaped Georgia slave. Fearing being targeted as an educated black, Solomon admits to the Platt identity and never speaks of his real name, talents, or education.
Freeman sells Northrup to slave owner and Baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, the man who is everywhere this year). The benevolent Ford values Northrup’s clearly above average intelligence and talents, even going so far as to gift Solomon a fiddle of his own to keep. His superior carpentry skills crosses one master, John Tibeats (Paul Dano of Prisoners and There Will Be Blood), the wrong way, leading to a dangerous confrontation that forces Ford to sell his debt of Northrup to another owner in order to separate Solomon from Tibeats.
His new owner is the notorious hard-liner Edwin Epps (Shame and X-Men: First Class star Michael Fassbender), a unforgivably cruel cotton plantation owner. It is here that Solomon must further hide his talents through the years to survive the excruciating work of the fields and the unyielding demands of Epps. While on the Epps property, Solomon befriends Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), a female cotton picker that is the doomed and lusted target of Epps’ desires away from his strict wife Mary (Sarah Paulson of FX’s American Horror Story). The one crucial glimmer of sympathetic hope presents itself in visiting Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Oscar nominee Brad Pitt, also a producer of the film). The meek and wise man is an ardent non-supporter of slavery that Northrup’s confides his identity to as a possible means of renewed freedom.
12 Years is a Slave is, at frequent times, an extremely difficult movie to watch and must be accompanied by a stern warning. The film is a strongly R-rated affair with very troubling scenes of graphic violence, harsh language, and disturbing graphic nudity. 12 Years a Slave is on a level with Schindler’s List and The Passion of the Christ in each of those categories. This is not a film for children whatsoever. If you want to express to them a lesson in civil rights and racism, let them see things at the speed of The Help, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, or 42. Do not bring them to this film until they are mature enough to handle the deplorable nature of this historical era. This is not a wised-up, high-brow Django Unchained. This is a solemn and serious exploit.
Those that can handle this content will be left with an undeniably powerful experience and stark reminder of one of America’s gravest and longest atrocities. The realism is frightening and moving at the same time. It rarely lets up. The detail and cinematic artistry to deliver that realism is phenomenal. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who already impressed many earlier this year with The Place Beyond the Pines, sumptuously brings every wide expanse of suffocating southern landscape and searing close-up of emotional distress to a palette of imagery you cannot easily escape. Longtime composer favorite Hans Zimmer’s haunting musical score frames moments with fiery suspense and resonating tone while never wringing the material for a cloying moment of weakness, plainly because there are none. There are no prepackaged crescendos or hooray moments that accompanied similar fare like Amistad or other Spielbergian happy endings to grim historical stories. The sense of realism is that strong and supported by the true story’s facts.
For as cruel and graphic as 12 Years a Slave can get, McQueen and company convey an astounding amount of elegant humanity that is central to Solomon Northrup’s story. That’s what warms 12 Year a Slave from being too visceral to watch or enjoy. When you do a little homework into his full story and narrative account (which is highly recommended), you will see that this 134 minute film is only a fraction of what the man went through or what his book detailed. Left out of the film are episodes of disease, additional slave owners, failed attempts to communicate home, court cases, and more of Solomon’s own unfortunate experiences when forced into the role of a “driver” in charge of working and punishing his fellow slaves. It’s scary to fathom that this is a condensed and streamlined version of a man’s livelihood stripped away from him for a dozen years wrongfully separated from his wife and children. There is a diligent and just poetry in making sure this story gets told, dark chapters and all.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the performance of his career under tremendously demanding circumstances. He had to go to another place to make his Solomon tortured and soulful from within. You can’t take your eyes off of his own longing eyes of sorrow when present on screen. Ejiofor’s class and dignity have long been compared to that of Sidney Poitier. This role cements him being among that impressive company. He has to be, at this point, the leader in the clubhouse for Best Actor Academy Award next March. There’s no one else close right now.
The unhinged and maddening Michael Fassbender also had to go to another place to flesh out his character of Edwin Epps. Grossly overlooked for Oscar contention when he last worked with McQueen on Shame as a crumbling sex addict, his work in 12 Years a Slave will not be forgotten this time around. Fassbender had the task to make Epps’s embroiling inhumanity as powerful and rooted as Ejiofor made Solomon’s steadfast humanity and courage. The final surprise discovery here among the two male leads is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, in her feature debut enlisted by McQueen straight out of her 2012 graduation from the Yale School of Drama. Her anguish is alarming and absorbing. She too might find her way to the Dolby Theater stage with Ejiofor and Fassbender.
It takes a special level of performance to pull off this difficult story in 12 Years a Slave. Performances that convince the truth and emotion involved must have layers and scope beyond the tendency to make one-note, simple characters. We’ve seen the proud and petulant slave before. We’ve seen the stereotypical racist overseer before. The cast here had to go further and did. It is by their extraordinary dedication and effort that the Solomon Northrup story rises from obscurity to resonating legend going forward. Tackling a true first-person account such as this is worth a dozen fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin imitators. One wishes Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could have went the true story route with 9/11 two years ago over a fictional frame. 12 Years a Slave truly feels like a movie people will look back on for years to come as a watershed moment in truthful and faithful storytelling and performance.
LESSON #1: WHEN ONE’S EXCEPTIONAL TALENTS CEASE TO MATTER— Solomon’s own first lesson in preserving his survival is not admitting his education and trained talents to everyone he encounters. He learns very quickly that no one will believe his kidnapping story and that he will be punished at the bold claim of being free. Furthermore, an educated slave is perceived as a threat and inciting influence that is treated differently and harshly, meaning that for as special as he is, his talents cease to matter in this brutal setting.
LESSON #2: THE COURAGE TO LIVE INSTEAD OF JUST SURVIVE— There is a quiet internal power that Solomon carries with him through his forced indentured servitude. He is constantly advised by his peers how to selfishly survive and leave his past life behind. Solomon bends to the needs of survival by not revealing his true name, talent or family, but never loses the courage to live instead of just survive. For a time, that gifted fiddle comforts him. Solomon knows his rightful place is returning to his freedom and family. He refuses to let that life go.
LESSON #3: NOT FALLING INTO DESPAIR WHEN SURROUNDED BY NOTHING BUT DESPAIR— The emotion of despair is central to 12 Years a Slave. The lifestyle of slave workers is shackled as much by despair as it is by chains and the lashing end of a whip. The cruel work and control of their masters and property owners slowly extinguishes the scarce hope and connections they had as real men and women over time. With little possible chance for escape, refuge, or freedom, slaves on hard plantations before the Civil War had very little to live for, even to the point where having each other meant nothing and only added to the despair. Like living over survival, this is another feeling Solomon refuses to accept.