Steve McQueen’s slave era epic slides in among a fresh set of films dealing with American racial equality. But unlike Lincoln, 42, The Blind Side, The Help, and others, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t focus on a single moment or tipping point. Instead, it follows the journey of Solomon Winthrope, wrongfully imprisoned to a life of slavery, and a host of characters weaving in and out of Solomon’s story over several states and a dozen years. Lincoln showcases the crucial few days surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment but the story of Solomon meanders, not needing emotional climaxes or courtroom debates to emphasize the gravity of his situation. This is Solomon’s story, not a nation’s.
The visuals on screen give the movie the space it needs to play out. Our eyes linger on long shots, not just the uncomfortable beatings and lashings but the harsh heat of a cotton plantation, dense leaves of cane fields and the canopy over southern swamps. We start with a cold opening of Solomon and a team of slaves getting ready to harvest sugar cane. Like Solomon, we get right to work, dumped into the slave life of Solomon before we see his free life. From here we follow a mostly continuous story line with flashbacks tossed in at mostly appropriate times, reminding us of the life stolen from Solomon. The chance for freedom only rejoins us late in the film, and we are led to a dramatic climax at the end.
Whenever a movie deals with content like 12 Years there is always the risk that the movie-makers will weigh us down by moral lessons they somehow feel the need to force feed. But here, the movie gets out of its own way. After all, there really is no need to convince anyone that slavery is wrong or immoral. Direct moral musings are blended in near the end of the movie as Brad Pitt, playing a Canadian contractor, argues with the drunk slave owner Michael Fassbender. Fassbender shrugs off Pitt’s stance that slavery doesn’t hold up to moral scrutiny. Any other reaction by Fassbender would have been disingenuous. As much as many people hate to see morality spelled out on screen obviously, the movie needs this moment and character. Other than the plot based needs for Pitt, we needed a sympathetic character outside of the slaves themselves. By the time Pitt shows up we’ve spent over an hour with a cast of mostly terrible people, by and large played by faces we like. Paul Giamatti is a ruthless slave dealer who splits up a family to increase profits rather than allow Benedict Cumberbatch to keep them together. I couldn’t help but see Giamatti as his normal goofy self. (Unfortunately for him, I always think of Lady in the Water when I see him. I’m not sure why my head picked this movie, but it’s stuck now). Like Giamatti, I can’t help but think of Paul Dano as his old roles. Dano plays Cumbermittens’ slave overlord and is as creepy and deranged as his Eli from There Will be Blood. His blank stare with half-open mouth is his go to look and it works. In Dano we see a jealous white man, intimidated by the more able Solomon. The exchanges between he and Cumberbun are some of the movies best and allow for quick contrasts between the ruthless Dano and the caring (to a limit) Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch’s line “Well, I’ll admit that I’m impressed even if you won’t” got some of the movie’s best laughs. Solomon’s beating of Dano got the most cheers. (Don’t be misled, overall the happy moments are few and far between. Even the ending feels as mournful as it is elating).
One of the more fascinating subtleties in the movie’s story line is the fact that Solomon and his story are constantly described as “exceptional.” He is a well-educated, formerly free man, easily distinguishable from his peers. But how does his exceptional nature play into the movie and our feelings for the character? Would we be as sympathetic for a character born into slavery? One that is not so relatable? I suspect we would. And to the movie’s credit, the characters born into slavery are given similar depth and content. Solomon’s “exceptional” status reminds me of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Set during WWII, a German boy named Bruno is accidentally killed in a Nazi concentration camp near Berlin after he mistakenly follows his friend, a Jewish prisoner, into the camp gas chambers. Many found the ending uncomfortable as their sadness went out largely to Bruno, not the dozens of other prisoners, adult and children alike, who are killed. 12 Years doesn’t treat Solomon like Pyjamas treated Bruno. The sadness we feel is not exclusively for Solomon but Patsy, Eliza and the others.
I was a little sad that a Canadian, an outsider, needed to get involved for Solomon to be rescued. It would have been more satisfying for our consciences if one of the other characters went to his aid. But that would have played out awkwardly. Pitt can’t convince Fassbender to turn against his way of life and against slavery. Toward the end of the film while Fassbender is whipping another slave, Solomon cries out that “somewhere, somehow, you will be punished for this sin” (that quote is way off, but the gist is right), to which Fassbender responds “What sin? There is no sin here. A man may do as he pleases with his property.” There’s no convincing him. He quotes the Bible at other points to show his justification for the treatment of his slaves. Allowing Fassbender, or one of the other white characters, including Cumberpatch, to save Solomon would shift the focus away from Solomon and the injustice the film is rooted in, back to the white characters. There’s a chance we might sympathize more with the character who risked everything to save Solomon than with Solomon himself. Letting Pitt come into the movie late and giving him a relatively short screen time allows us to keep our focus on Solomon, where it belongs.
When reviewing Goodfellas in 1992, Roger Ebert wrote that “most films, even great ones, evaporate like mist once you’ve returned to the real world; they leave memories behind, but their reality fades fairly quickly.” In the review he argues that Goodfellas isn’t one of those films. I’m not sure where 12 Years a Slave fits in that criteria. I’m sure it will come up often when we talk about new movies dealing with racial issues, but I’m not sure yet if the “mood of the characters [will linger] within me, refusing to leave” like Jimmy the Gent and Henry Hill did for Ebert. The content is heavier here than in Goodfellas but I don’t see the content weighing on me for years. It’s a great film that allows each viewer to take from it what he or she chooses. And that’s the way it should be, since we all approach its content on our own anyway. Movies like 12 Years a Slave will keep coming, and they should, as long as they are crafted as well as this film. Anything less can taint the message.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 96 (Difference of -1.6)
The movie is obviously excellent. Not heavy handed or overbearing, like it absolutely could be. The acting is incredible as well. My main complaint is that I wanted to get into Solomon’s head a little more. I’m not sure why. Would it have made me more sympathetic? No, my sympathy was won before the movie started. Would it have let me understand what he went through more? No, there’s a point of diminishing returns in trying to let people “understand” the plight of other people. When talking about the life of a slave there’s no real way for me to understand any further. I just did not feel as though Solomon changed a great deal throughout the film internally. From beginning to end he seemed relatively unchanged, or at least not as transformed as I would expect given his journey.
Where to see it: In theaters. A woman to my right squirmed throughout the movie and a guy in the front offered some voice-over with a constant stream of “Oh shit” and “My god”. Normally that drives the crazy out of me and I want to throw Junior Mints at the silence breaker, but here it added to the movie’s impact and showed that the visuals playing out on screen landed the emotional punches they were throwing.
That’s all folks,
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