Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Cinema File #291: "12 Years A Slave" Review

Steven Speilberg's Schindler's List set the bar pretty high in terms of depicting the epic scope of history's greatest tragedies, encapsulating the horrors of the Holocaust about as completely and as viscerally as one possibly could in a single movie. Though many have tried, no film has come close to it when trying to address America's own bloody past, be it the slaughter of the Native Americans, or the institution of slavery. Steve McQueen seems to be keen to take up that challenge with his latest film, assembling a travelogue of the life of a slave in all its inhumanity and evil, and if only because the last movie to tackle the subject was last year's brutally unsentimental action romp Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave feels like it should be a much needed authentic antidote. Unfortunately, in its rush to raise the hackles of modern moral outrage, it forgets a few of the basic tenants of storytelling, ultimately serving as little more than a polemic against something every decent person already accepts as horrifying and despicable (outside of the GOP anyway).

12 Years A Slave is the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York in the 1840s with a wife, children, and generally happy life, all of which is robbed from him when he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Being a true story taken from the direct account of the man who lived it, it would already be insensitive to criticize the structure of the narrative as one would a fictional piece, even before you get to the part about slaves and torture. Having not read Northup's autobiography personally, I can't speak to the fealty this film has to its source material and can only give it the benefit of the doubt that its depiction of the man's life is as respectful as possible. The problem is that even though the story is set up to be completely about him, Northup is never really explored as a character beyond the trauma of his plight. At the risk of sounding callous, in addition to being heartbreaking, the personal anguish of a man forced into slavery, whether for twelve years or a lifetime, should amount to more of a take away than "Slavery was terrible."

In a way, the film suffers from the same problem as Fruitvale Station did earlier this year, namely that just because a true story is harrowing and seemingly filled with dramatic potential on the page, it doesn't automatically mean it would work as a movie. Reading Northup's own words as he describes his twelve years of torment would no doubt be very intense, akin to reading The Diary of Anne Frank with full knowledge of the events that followed, but translating that empathetic response to film requires more than just a litany of outrageous examples of man's inhumanity to man. Northup never really learns anything throughout his journey, and he never really grows as a person. His life is taken from him and then given back some years later, but he is essentially the same man throughout, just more burdened by the weight of his experience, and because I didn't actually go through any of those experiences with him directly, I can never connect with him as well as I think I should be able to.

What the movie lacks in complex characterization, it more than makes up for with an endless onslaught of real life historical horror, depicting the dark side of humanity at its darkest (at least in the American experience) without hesitation or restraint. If only as a primer for a new generation perhaps too far away from it, and without a Roots-style cultural touchstone to draw from, 12 Years is useful as shock value for something that truly should be shocking and never forgotten, but other than that, it has very little to offer as a movie. The performances are good and the cast is filled with some of today's most talented and engaging actors, but they are all so one note and shallow that it just feels like a waste of so many great people. Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberbatch show up for all of five minutes a piece, while others like Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson overstay their welcome, chewing the scenery with unrepentantly evil caricatures never given any room to grow even as villains.

There is a moment about two thirds into the film where Northup pauses and stares directly into the camera for a good minute of screen time, with a painful, haunted look on his face as if he is beseeching the audience itself to help him escape his suffering. This image more than any other best encapsulates the film for good and for ill, powerful in its raw expression of one of this country's greatest sins, but otherwise bereft of anything else meaningful to say about this era of history. Maybe there isn't that much more that needs to be said, and a similarly quiet moment where Northup is left hanging, struggling to keep himself from choking to death as the world nonchalantly passes by, probably says as much as anyone needs to know. In both of these scenes you acutely feel as if you are there in his place or right along with him, unable to help, and maybe that's enough. And yet, I can't help but feel like something is missing.

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