November 29 — December 12
12 Years A Slave
|Sat & Sun||2:00||5:00||7:45|
Unless otherwise noted, films begin on Friday and run through the next Thursday.
When discussing British director Steve McQueen’s new film, references to Quentin Tarantino’s recent Django Unchained are inevitable. Many criticized Tarantino for exploiting actual suffering and cruelty that flourished during the slave era of the 19th century American South. Intended to be a cathartic figure, Django was a superhuman angel of vengeance whose climactic rampage encouraged several critics, media pundits, and regular movie fans to admit that the emotional wounds haven’t healed completely. But where in Hollywood was the serious film about the reality of American slavery—a sober depiction of the era that didn’t conclude with an audience-pleasing scene of the triumphant hero, his slaveholder-killing rampage complete, plantation symbolically blown up behind him, reunited with his wife, casually leaving the scene on a moonwalking horse? Where was the film, in other words, that had the guts to look at slavery as it was actually practiced, supported, and ideologically defended at the time—without flinching from its horrors—and suggest that we, the audience, can’t rely on Django to destroy evil and make the world better. We are the ones who need to confront this shameful legacy and come to terms with it. Spike Lee wasn’t the only one asking for the more honest film to be made. Following the critical furor caused by the Tarantino film, 12 Years a Slave almost seems like a deliberate antidote, as though McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley saw Django Unchained and felt compelled to rewrite the history Tarantino had rewritten. That’s not really the case, but comparisons don’t hurt McQueen’s film; in fact, this adaptation of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup gains even more power by offering some definitive statements in the discussions started by Django Unchained. The film’s biggest statement is the searing performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Northup, an African-American free man—an educated, articulate man; a gifted musician, relatively well-to-do, and comfortable in white company—who is kidnapped while travelling to Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in Georgia. Ejiofor’s accomplishment is more than just embodying the sorrow and pain of millions of African-Americans, though he does this exquisitely well, with subtlety that underscores the evil done to him far more effectively than histrionics. The challenge of the role cannot be overlooked: Ejiofor is portraying someone with the mindset and outlook of a free man, a person who sees himself as a human being, with dignity and value—but is forced to hide any trace of what he thinks or how he sees himself. Yet, there are occasional flashes, sometimes as fleeting as a slight facial expression or posture or movement, that show us that the “free man” is still trapped in Northup’s shackled body, longing to get out. As we see the gradual disintegration of hope, those flashes become more sparse—Northup is becoming acclimated to the degradation, seeing himself the way the slave owners see him: as an animal. It’s a transcendent performance. There are other great actors on hand, though: Paul Giamatti plays a casually brutal slave trader (ironically named Freeman); Benedict Cumberbatch a pious slave owner who somehow reconciles his Christian principles with the inhumanity practiced on his plantation; Alfre Woodard is a slave who’s become inured to a lifetime of sexual abuse; Lupita Nyong’o is astonishing as a beautiful young girl whom Woodard encourages to accept the inevitability of her master’s sexual advances; and most memorably, Michael Fassbender as the epitome of evil slaveholders, a man who uses his slaves like toys in twisted games of his own psychotic imagination. He is the most lurid character in the film, yet like the other events depicted here, his actions are documented in Northup’s memoir and represent the extremes of dehumanization possible because of slavery. McQueen’s greatest achievement, though, is that he doesn’t dwell on the physical horrors of slavery to the exclusion of the emotional suffering: not just the pain of families ripped apart, children separated from their parents, siblings from one another—but the emotional consequences that are more abstract, like the difficulty of slaves, human beings treated like animals, to express love and feel trust for one another. 12 Years a Slave explores relationships among slaves, too, which is just one of the ways in which it breaks new ground on this troubling subject. If Django Unchained made many moviegoers think a great deal more about American slavery than they previously had, this film will make viewers really understand it better. That doesn’t make this a lighthearted cinematic experience, but McQueen is first and foremost an artist—he started his career making experimental short films that conveyed meaning through imaginative use of visuals and sound—and he knows how to make simple, stark, almost poetic images resonate with greater impact, as opposed to filling the screen with blood and screaming. There is torture and rape and deprivation here, but these incidents aren’t used to bludgeon the viewer. McQueen presents the most honest depiction possible of this historical tragedy; even Northup’s struggle to survive isn’t presented as an uplifting tale of coping against impossible odds. It simply happened, and Northup’s most heroic act was to tell the world—and future generations—what happened, so that it can never happen again. This film does justice to Northup’s legacy and is an unforgettable film. Some movies make us happy; some movies make us ashamed; 12 Years a Slave makes us more enlightened, and maybe a little more confident talking about race relations in this country, and where those relations began.
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