Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Twelve Years A Slave: A Review
The making of this film, TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, must have been more like a mission than like a job. It brings us a new perception of pre-Civil War slavery and gives us a look into the psychology of both slaves and slave owners. The tragic face and huge eyes of Chiwetel Ejiofor dominate the screen as Solomon Northup. His characerization rings true and brings us to believe in his dignity and his suffering.
The human mind is capable of rationalizing absolutely anything. If an activity or institution is profitable, people will accept grotesque intellectual distortions in order to make that activity seem moral and desirable. People believed ardently in Adolph Hitler. Pol Pot's gunmen cleaned up Kampuchea (Cambodia) in the name of Year Zero ideology. Slavery, genocide, mass rape have repeatedly been rationalized into sweetly benign activities, ostensibly for the benefit of society. American racism is a rationalization. Slavery was a product of that rationalization. The fuel for this rationalization was the staggering profitability of purchasing human beings and working them without mercy for the rest of their lives. Slaves were the wealth of the South. The Civil War was fought to protect that wealth. This film examines the brutality of slavery but it also reveals important aspects of slavery's impact not just on slaves but on those who did the enslaving.
The film TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE intends to shock the audience but carefully weighs the degree of shock to keep the audience from recoiling. It's brutal but tolerable within the story's context.
Solomon Northup was an upper middle class freedman in Saratoga, New York. When he accepted an offer of a lucrative short term job away from home he made a fateful error in judgment. He put himself in the hands of white men that he didn't know. After dinner and drinks at a restaurant, Solomon awoke in chains, stripped of papers, identity, rights, stripped of his humanity. He was shipped south into 1840s plantation slavery. It took him twelve years to find an opportunity to get a message to his friends and family. Twelve years of the most brutal slavery passed before a brave man risked his life to carry Solomon's message.
The ability to read and write was illegal in Solomon's slave world. Any tendency towards intelligence was viewed as insolence. A slave who was too smart risked severe punishment: whipping, torture, even lynching. In order to survive, Solomon had to conceal himself. He was forced to play the dumb "nigger".
The film touches upon the corrosive effect that slavery brought to the owners of slaves. Plantation owner Edwin Eppes and his wife lived in a twilight world of marital loathing. Actor Michael Fassbender plays Eppes with a convincing edge. He's a dangerous man not just because he's the Master but because he's haunted by temptation, guilt and the shadowy confusions of his own hypocrisy.
"Massa" Eppes was obsessed with the slave girl Patsey (played with incredible passion by Lupita N'yongo). He raped her again and again, yet Patsey would rise from her shame and pick twice as much cotton as any of the other slaves. During a clandestine meeting Patsey offers Solomon her life savings if Solomon will take her to the bayou and drown her. Shocked, Solomon refuses. After this exchange Patsey begins to take more risks until she's caught in a minor transgression and is tied to the whipping post. Massa Eppes forces Solomon to whip her savagely, then takes the whip himself and nearly kills the woman. He stops before he beats her to death, saying "Don't push me any further because I like what I'm feeling right now."
This film deftly illuminates the corrosive effects of owning other human beings. In the American South of the 19th century it was a common belief that slavery was good for both white and black, that slave owning was sanctioned by the Bible and was in harmony with the natural order of the world. No one believes that any more but the emotional legacy of such a mindset lingers in the musty attics of our national consciousness.
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE is more than a good film. It's a necessary film. It won't change anything. Slavery still exists in many parts of the world. The film vividly demonstrates how atrocity can only exist when one group of human beings decides that another group is less than human.
I didn't know what to expect from this film but I was surprised (and relieved) by its pragmatism. Director Steve McQueen admirably got out of his own way and let the story tell itself. Sometimes the transitions were abrupt but I didn't care. The story was told. The performances were beautiful. Lupita N'yongo as Patsey deserved her Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. She was gut-wrenching. When Patsey begged Solomon to commit an act of euthanasia upon herself the film stopped time and delivered its consummate message: a life of slavery is not worth living. I will never forget the crushing disappointment in Patsey's face when she accepted that Solomon would not put her out of her misery like an injured dog.