12 Years a Slave

tn_12yearsaslaveWe all know the grand American tradition of the movie about the black man but in the POV of the white man. It’s the story of the civil rights struggle and the brave white FBI agent or country lawyer who stood up and made a difference, or the spunky white lady who gave the mistreated black maids of Jackson a voice, but with her name on the cover. These are well-meaning, sometimes good movies, but they’re suspect in assuming the audience can only follow if they have a white surrogate on screen. They don’t trust us to put ourselves in the shoes of black characters. If Spike Lee hadn’t made MALCOLM X I bet it would’ve been about a white dude trying to understand Malcolm X, or giving him his ideas.

Steven Spielberg’s AMISTAD is one of the best of these types of movies, the story of a bunch of white people arguing a court case over a group of kidnapped Africans, debating property law with the “property” sitting right there in the court room. Chiwetel Ejiofor from REDBELT made his big screen debut playing Ensign Covey, a free man whose knowledge is crucial in winning the case. Now, in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, the great and upsetting movie from director Steve McQueen UK (SHAME, HUNGER) and writer John Ridley (UNDERCOVER BROTHER), Ejiofor plays a similar character with a much worse fate.

Solomon Northup is a free and educated gentleman living comfortably in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife, two kids, a violin and a top hat. But some scumbags (Scoot McNairy and a guy from Saturday Night Live) pretending to be interested in his musical talent are able to abduct him and others and sell them as slaves in Louisiana.

And here’s the thing: the movie follows Solomon. He even has a white friend who the movie could’ve been about, trying to find out what happened to his friend and rescue him. But it’s about Solomon.

mp_12yearsaslaveTo get away with it the kidnappers convince him to come with them to Washington DC, where he’d have to carry his “free papers” to prove he’s a free man. All they have to do is separate him from those papers and lie about who he is and he has no recourse. There’s a haunting shot where his unheard cries echo from a barred window within sight of the Capitol.

If you never want to hear Paul Giamatti say the n-word, by the way, don’t watch this. He has a brief appearance as the guy that sells them. Probly not one of the more enjoyable cameos he’s done.

The enslaved in this movie are different from most depictions, partly because many of them haven’t lived their whole lives this way. They are eloquent, even poetic. But the slavers beat and terrorize them until they’re afraid to speak. When they’re first abducted Solomon and the others buy into an idea of slaves being different than free men. They want to try to escape the ship they get transported on but they assume they can’t count on any of the other people onboard because they’re “niggers” and will be too afraid to fight. (They must’ve heard that famous Chris Rock routine.) But they soon learn what it’s like to be that scared.

We see how Solomon stubbornly tries to maintain his identity – not responding to the new name they give him, asserting his knowledge of the correct way to build a house, demonstrating a better way to transport lumber through the swamp, even grabbing the whip from an overseer and defending himself – until he realizes that this endangers him. He eventually crumbles and begins to hide, even deny his intelligence.

Solomon is not allowed to be Solomon. He’s forced to beat a woman, to miss his children growing up, to hide his intelligence, to lie about his education and abilities, to hide his past, his name. White people call them animals, then get mad at them for not fitting the description.

He doesn’t want to take it like anyone else. He doesn’t want to find solace in religion and music, like you always hear about. In one unique scene he sits silent through a long closeup before he finally joins in on the singing. I think he doesn’t want to just be another member of the group. He doesn’t want to give up on being a unique individual. But eventually he has to take the plunge.

His first owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of these MANDINGO style “nice” ones. Solomon describes him as a “good man” (as the real Northup did in the memoir this is based on) but McQueen doesn’t let him entirely off the hook. At best he’s too wimpy to stand up for Solomon, whose talent and correctness he’s more aware of than the other white people around. Paul Dano, who specializes in playing little shits who demand a hard kick to the nuts with every smarmy sentence out of their mouths, is an overseer who can’t stand  to be outsmarted or shown up by this slave, which is gonna happen alot because Solomon is way smarter than this chump. So he looks for every excuse to whip or kill him.

There’s something vivid and true about Dano’s depiction of hatred. Obviously it comes from this monstrous racist system, but also it’s recognizable as one of those dumb assholes you meet sometimes, they hate you for some reason you don’t even know and they will not let it fucking drop. Remember, he pulled this same type of shit on Daniel Craig in COWBOYS AND ALIENS, so you can only imagine how bad he gets when you throw white supremacy into the equation.

McQueen likes to bluntly show the audacity of people believing in their own religious righteousness while involved in a wicked system. Cumberbatch is a preacher who performs an outdoor church sermon for everybody on his plantation. One time it’s juxtaposed with the sound of Dano singing a racist folk song, another time you hear a woman sobbing the whole time, still mourning that her children were taken away from her days or weeks ago (it turns out that the white lady was wrong when she told her she’d forget all about them after some food and rest). At first I assumed it was just playing the sound of one event over the footage of another, like the earlier scene. Then we see that she’s sitting right there with the congregation, bawling non-stop. The service just goes on anyway.

This is a time and place so evil that most of the good things that happen are done by accident or for the wrong reasons. When Solomon is rescued from being lynched it’s more of a “that would be a waste of resources” than a “stop, murderer!” And even his rescuer leaves him dangling by the neck, standing on his tip toes in the mud. McQueen shows this in an agonizingly long static shot like it’s a Michael Haneke movie. Worse, a group of slave kids play nearby, not even paying attention to it. They’re used to this kind of shit, obviously. Unimpressed. That’s the world Solomon is trapped in, and the best his “good man” master can do is say that it’s not safe for him here and send him somewhere even worse.

Of course, Cumberbatch sends him to his fellow British-actor-from-the-British-Isles-who-is-in-pretty-much-every-movie-now-being-released Michael Fassbender as Epps, an even more hateful bastard than the one Dano played. This part actually has alot in common with MANDINGO, because Epps is obsessed with a young slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, who’s gonna get an Oscar nomination I bet) who picks the most cotton of anybody but he obviously has other interests in her. He has a jealous wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) who sees right through him and takes it out on poor Patsey. Any time Mary stops her husband from doing something bad to Solomon it’s just part of their petty domestic dispute and not the result of actual kindness or honor. And he can’t always count on that happening.

By historic necessity the plot does hinge on a nice white man, and he’s played by producer Brad Pitt in LEGENDS OF THE FALL long-haired hunk mode with abolitionist beard variant. He’s a carpenter from out of town who Solomon hears expressing anti-slavery views to asshole Epps so he risks telling him his story. This movie is so bleak I was worried even this Caucasian angel wouldn’t help, but mercifully he does get word to Solomon’s friends back home. Another white man comes to get him but what’s significant is that this guy is not his savior, he’s his friend. They’re peers. His attitude is “what the fuck are you doing to my buddy here?”

Also important: the carpenter doesn’t relate to the slavers because he’s Canadian. In Canada slavery was not nearly as common, mostly didn’t involve Africans and had been abolished a good 20 years before this scene takes place. So he’s like, “these fuckin Americans and their slavery, what’s that all aboot?”

It goes to show what drastically different ideas of morality we can have going on in different places at the same time, not just in other countries but also within our borders. In that sense I think this story is very relevant today, even separated from anything it has to say about race relations and the legacy of slavery. Thankfully those days seem like a million years ago, but it’s easy to see echoes of that division in the modern United States, where different states allow different rights, and have such starkly different attitudes. It seems insane to me that there are other states where you’re encouraged to carry guns and “stand you ground” on neighborhood children and where governors openly go out of their way to prevent access to affordable health insurance, birth control and voting. It seems like a different country and century than I’m living in, and I’m sure some of the people in those states think my state is nuts for having marriage equality, legal marijuana, a $9.19 minimum wage, a good WNBA team and Phoenix Jones.

But the divide also exists within states, with tension between liberal cities and conservative rural areas. We’re dependent on each other but we’re politically at each other’s mercy. Here’s a pretty good article about this phenomenon in Washington state. The Eastern half feels like it’s not fair that their right to not have gay rights is being taken away by a bunch of yacht owners (that’s what a guy says in the article) in Seattle, while the western half feels like since we have 2/3 of the population plus Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, Starbucks, Nintendo, the Seahawks, Mariners, Bumbershoot and Bruce Lee’s grave it makes sense that our agenda wins at the ballot box and those motherfuckers should just cool it and be nice to gay people and hey thanks for the apples though guys, not being sarcastic those are real good. My favorite is Fuji. Buy local.

The whole country is divided like that, you can’t just slice it into North and South anymore. I don’t know how the fuck we’re gonna get anything done again. That civil war didn’t exactly tie up everything, there are still some loose ends. They even still use that fuckin flag.

But whether 12 YEARS A SLAVE makes your mind go off on tangents about contemporary politics or if I’m just being an idiot, I tell ya it’s a hell of a powerful movie. All of the actors are great in it, with Ejiofor knocking it out of the park as one would expect if they ever saw him in a movie before. He’s been killing it for years but now he finally has his universally acclaimed role, so expect to see him in a comic book movie within 3 years, playing Black Panther or somebody. That’s how it works.

Hats off also to the excellent score by Hans Zimmer, getting a chance to do something different from both THE ROCK and INCEPTION, so I was surprised when I saw his name at the end.

This movie is as grim and upsetting as you’d think, maybe worse because yeah, he gets away (SPOILER) but it doesn’t feel like that much of a victory. He gets back to his family and it all seems broken and weird, his wife stands back while his daughter hugs him, and for some reason he feels he needs to apologize to them. The dramatic true story text appears, and this is where we expect to get some kind of closure, some hint of a happy ending at least in this one case. Instead we’re informed that although he took the kidnappers and slavers to trial they all got off. No justice at all.

(It could’ve been even harsher, though. The text mentions that no one knows when or how Northup died, but not that he later disappeared and that there were rumors he’d been enslaved again or killed.)

This movie has really stuck with me since I saw it on the weekend. Yeah, that probly sounds like a bad thing. It’s haunting. But it’s powerful filmmaking telling a fascinating story, based on one of the few first hand accounts we have of what it was like to be a slave. And the more I think about it, and the echoes it has in modern life, and the stupid shit that some people still say about race or the civil war, the more I feel like our culture still hasn’t come to terms with this horrible part of our history.

With the Holocaust it’s easy to focus the blame on one particular dead guy with a funny mustache. For this there was no leader, no originator, no specific name or face to pin it on. It was our country, our ancestors, who were the perpetrators and the victims. We white people don’t like to think that we come from that, or that we would take part in that, or that any of our attitudes are shaped by it. So it’s easier just to not talk about it, to forget any of this happened. But that’s no answer. This is a great story, and a great movie, about a not-great part of America. But it is America, so let’s face up to it. This movie is as American as the real Steve McQueen.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 14th, 2013 at 3:15 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

45 Responses to “12 Years a Slave”

  1. Great review Vern. While I do totally agree with the first few paragraphs about it not having to focus on a white lead, I did think it was still sort of guilty of that kind of behavior by focusing on a rich person. It was as if we couldn’t empathise with an actual poor slave, and only the plight of this middle class man was worthy of our attention. It the climatic scene (mild spoilers for a 150 year old true story), a lot of people in the cinema were crying, but I couldn’t help think that it was almost as it didn’t matter that Lupita Nyong’o was still in slavery – the rich man got out and that’s what’s important. It strangely re-enforced class barriers, saying that a rich person having to suffer this was the worst tragedy, and while obviously Lupita Nyong’o and the rest being enslaved was horrible, it’s something we could live with. I know it’s based on a true story, and that’s why its presented as such, but as a motion picture made in 2013, I couldn’t help but fined it weirdly classist.

    Apart from that though it was a fantastic, important piece of work.

  2. Fassbender is Irish. A small point, but there you go.

  3. Born in Germany, of German and North-Irish parents and raised in Ireland, now lives in England…I think British will do.

  4. Slavery is a part of our history that will always be there…just like the genocide of the Native Americans. How do you reconcile it? Watching a movie? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Armond White made me ask why I should see the movie. I don’t want to see black people getting whipped and beaten and humiliated and sent to hell and back. And I find it kind of messed up that other people want me to, in order to reconcile the past. Uh, that isn’t how I go about reconciling the past. The only way I can think of reconciling the past is to never repeat it. But to see a horror show about it, maybe that moves the needle closer for some people…but not for me!

  5. I didn’t have to wait long for this review, thanks Vern.

    I had a couple of thoughts watching this last night. It is remarkable that you don’t see more films about slavery or enslaved people. The only ones I could think of were Roots, Armistad, Mandingo and Drum (stretching it quite a bit). Vern points out Armistad is about the court case. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted for 1987 TV movie and a 1967 Euro production (“The REAL story of how it all happened–the SLAVES, the MASTERS, the LOVERS!” Hm.) We had to wait until now for a memoir adaptation.

    As a Southerner, I thought a lot about how personal interactions in the film are echoed today in relationships between whites and blacks. Cumberbatch and Fassbender play very different characters. One is kind and polite, the other is absolutely rolling in the power he has over his ‘property’, but both are bottom-line the same exploiter. The best a good man can do when he won’t challenge the system is make things worse. “You’re a remarkable nigger, but I fear no good will come of it.” There’s Southern Manners for you.

    Fassbender absolutely nails the attitude of a certain type getting off on people as props for his own self-satisfaction. Cumberbatch’s character has a slightly larger world view, but fundamentally they are the same. The contrasting use of religion just shows their similarities really.

    I can’t recall when I’ve seen a fil play out a person’s adaptation to conditions like these. Solomon Northup’s experience reminds me of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, another memoir. That’s the only comparison I can think of.

    If Armond White’s total take on this was, you’re just seeing people getting whipped, then he really doesn’t have anything to say at all. Many more people will read Northup’s memoir as a result of this film. That’s great. The film is damn good. Ejiofor is amazing. Highly recommended.

  6. Pegsman;
    Germany and Ireland are not part of Great Britain, unless you were to argue that to be “British” means being part of the British Isles, in which case you would probably come across as pernickety as me ;^).

    I believe Fassbender has dual German-Irish citizenship. I live in Madrid, but am not Spanish, for example. My cousin was born in Ireland, but has lived here for almost twenty-five years, so he considers himself both.

    There’s a long-standing joke in Ireland about actors/writers/directors being “claimed” as British once they become a success. The old adage “success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan” is the basis of the following article: http://www.oxygen.ie/michael_fassbender_feature.PAGE4940.html

  7. “Born in Germany, of German and North-Irish parents and raised in Ireland, now lives in England…I think British will do”

    Because of the German part or the raised in the very southern tip of Ireland where many people still bear grudges from our own civil war?

    If you wanted to call him German, then fair enough, but I could be three different nationalities by now if all I had to do was live somewhere for a while.

    Fassbender describes himself as Irish and speaks with an Irish accent when not performing, I think that’s a pretty good indicator of his identity.

    I never noticed Scands or Northern Europeans being so casual about assigning identities, in fact I once watched a somewhat drunken Dane start a fight on…all of Sweden. And of course we all know that Norwegians talk funny.

    Back on topic, I often wonder if Elijofor’s being a handsome motherfucker who radiates intelligence has held him back, apart from a few memorable villain roles (Serenity, Children of Men that capitalise on his Ubermensch vibe) he seems to always get cast as generic guy, when he’s clearly someone who is well able to use his acting in major starring roles.

  8. Glad you reviewed this, Vern. I thought this movie was amazing.

    Two thoughts:

    – Like any honest depiction of slavery, it showed it as a system that, in some sense, everyone was victim of — everyone involved gets twisted up by it. Obviously, the slaves had it infinitely worse. But you can see how it corrodes every human being in the film. Cumberbatch’s character, crucially I think, is shown as a decent man who is isn’t strong enough to break away. And that’s the evil of slavery — it’s wasn’t a system perpetrated by villains and bad people, it is itself an evil system that makes decent people bad, and bad people into sadists. It’s telling that the only “good” white people in the film — Pitt, and Northup’s northern friend — are those from outside southern culture.

    – I get Wil’s point about the class issue of telling the tale from Northup’s view rather than, say, Patsey’s. But I think that’s a smart move — by making the protagonist someone we can easily identify with (he’s just like you and me!) his descent into slavery feels all the more horrifying. And as the film progresses, the pretense (for both the audience and Northup) that there is an essential difference between himself and the other slaves gradually falls away, until at the end, his rescue feels almost shameful, insofar as he is no more entitled (in the eyes of God) to be removed from those circumstances than any other slave.

  9. Relax guys, I was just making a humerous comment on what Jam chose to take away from Vern’s whole review. If Vern mistakenly wrote British somehow I don’t think that takes anything away from the movie.

  10. Thanks for this review, Vern. I’ve been hoping we would get to hear your thoughts on this one.

    PS, I’m a honeycrisp man myself, but viva la difference.

  11. I don’t know, man, I had some mixed feelings about this one. Obviously it’s great in so many ways, especially in Ejiofor’s performance and McQueen’s direction. But their hands are kind of tied by the fact that it’s based on a true story of this poor guy being stuck, completely powerless to help himself until he finally gets a chance to pass word on to someone to come save him. It’s a true story, but it has the effect of putting the white people at the movie’s center, since they’re the ones who shape every single narrative tick. Ejiofor’s great, but his character doesn’t DO anything — he’s being acted upon, not acting. Yes, he undertakes small things towards his ultimate goal, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the end result is that the movie ends up being another slavery story which is actually about white people.

    It doesn’t help that because the movie is so narratively focused, it doesn’t really spend much time delving into the individual lives of it’s characters, particularly the black characters. White people are villains (or embarrassing white Jesus cameos, what the fuck were they thinking doing that?!) and black people are victims, and that’s mostly what the movie is about. Lupita Nyong’o does a great job in the role, but man, do we not ever really find out anything about her except on the most superficial level. Even Northrup, ostensibly the main character, remains pretty opaque. Any characterization is done with Ejiofor’s face, not through the script. And those are the only two black characters who get any substantial screen time! Do the other slaves even have names? You’d think with Northrup spending day in and day out with these guys for 12 damn years, we’d at least get a scene or two of them just hanging out, getting to know who they are and what their lives are like. But it doesn’t really happen; if it’s in there at all you gotta get it through the implication of the background details. Meanwhile, you have a bunch of famous white stars in big showy villain parts.

    I dunno, I know they stuck pretty close to the original memoir by Northrup, but I think making such a narrative film might have been a mistake, they should have either changed the facts to make the black characters more proactive or focused more on their day-to-day lives and personalities than the big dramatic moments. As it is, the movie seems like it misses a big opportunity to really give the slaves a voice.

    Still, obviously a pretty great movie. I can’t deny that the audience I saw it with was completely into it, and so was I. So many great scenes in there, so many great performances. I don’t mean to be a downer about a movie this good, just musing on some of the issues that came to mind after I’d chewed on it for awhile.

  12. Wil, I think I understand what you’re saying, but so much that’s dramatic in the story comes directly out of that class difference. Solomon had been born to a freed ex-slave, he grew up a free man and had no experience of slavery. In that sense he’s relatable to modern people regardless of race.

    At the beginning he even seems to look down on a slaves a little, see them as different from himself. Again, relatable to modern audiences regardless of race, and a lesson that he has to learn. In all cases where there’s a difference in attitude between the life-long slaves and the ex-freemen it’s the latter who end up looking foolish or naive. He finds that he’s lived somewhat of a sheltered life.

    At the end, like Zed said, and like I mentioned in the review, he seems to be overcome with guilt as he’s taken away from the plantation. He’s gotten what he’s dreamed about for years but he sees his friends and peers left behind without anyone to come get them. There’s definitely not a feeling of “oh thank god, now everything is okay because the important one who plays violin is free.”

    For what it’s worth I don’t think Solomon Northup was exactly rich. In the review I said he was living comfortably, because that’s how it looks in the movie with his top hat and everything, but he went around doing violin and carpentry gigs to try to make money and apparently it wasn’t always easy (which is why he accepted the fake circus gig). And as you see in the movie his wife periodically left town to work for extra money.

  13. Mr. Subtlety, sometimes life is just like that. And that loss of control is definitely part of the definition of slavery. Maybe that’s why there haven’t been more films with slaves as central characters. It just doesn’t fit in traditional movie tropes about the powers of a protagonist. Makes for a more difficult and interesting story in my opinion.

    Forgot to mention Glory and Django above in the movies featuring slaves or former slaves in the center. Haven’t seen either. But Glory is at least 1/2 about Broderick’s character and Django seems to be a hot-house fantasy like Drum.

  14. Republican Cloth Coat — I know real life isn’t like that, but this isn’t real life, it’s a movie. As far as I’m concerned, picking the most dramatic scenes out of a 12 year period to show us is equally unrealistic to just rewriting the story with a more active protagonist. Movies are an inherently untruthful medium, which makes it kind of weird and unsatisfying when they get too reverential for real history. At least in my opinion.

    I completely agree with you that it’s actually kind of an interesting angle to have a protagonist who we like but is completely unable to improve their lot, specifically in the context of slavery. Unfortunately, the movie also doesn’t do much to explore that. We see Northrup doing a lot of things, but we never really learn much about him, or how this all effects him personally and emotionally. We just know that it sucks and he’s trying to figure a way to escape. Since that’s the onus of the narrative, his lack of agency gets to be a little problematic. I would have accepted this story much more if it had been a more character-driven, introspective experience instead of a mainly narrative one.

  15. Great review Vern. This was more concise and thoughtful than the negative review from Filmdrunk. That guy only seemed to focus on the brutality as “torture porn for intellectuals”; as if anyone would be stimulated watching what happened to Patsey and getting an enjoyment out of it on the level of Hostel 2. He felt the white characters were cartoonish and one-note. The guy seemed to be more uncomfortable about the portrayal of Fassbender and Paulson’s slaver characters than what Ejiofor’s character endured. The reviewer almost had this smug air about himself saying: “Yeah, I didn’t like this movie. i dare you to call me a racist now!”

    He spent most of his review attacking McQueen for his stylistic choices (particularly his handling of Northrup’s lynching scene) and basically accused him of fictionalizing what happened. Well, duh! 12 Years a Slave isn’t a documentary (even Schindler’s List had to take dramatic licenses), and it’s alright to have a dissenting take. However, the movie was based on Northrup’s diary. I just don’t understand how you can watch that movie and say “Ah, that’s bullshit! That didn’t happen!” Very bewildering. I wouldn’t say the guy is a racist, just a massive tool.

  16. I thought that handled it really well by making Brad Pitt’s character not that different than Garret Dillahunt’s earlier in the film. It makes it less a stroke of tremendous luck for Northup, and highlights how dangerous it is even to talk to a guy who SAYS they’re morally uncomfortable with slavery.

    I thought the scene where he finally leaves and has to leave Patsey nicely mirrored the scene earlier, when they get off the boat and the guy he’s become closest to is “rescued” while Northup desperately calls after him.

  17. I disagree strongly that the movie is classist. In the memoir, the man played by Fassbender had started out as a sharecropper and eventually owned his own plantation, and there was the suggestion that his lower-class background was partly to blame for why he behaved that way, which I don’t think is the case, and clearly McQueen and Ridley chose to dispense with that element from the book because they didn’t want it to appear so.

    As Vern states, Northrup gaining his freedom at the end is a relief, but there’s no feeling of triumph. The last thing you hear as he is driven away is Patsey gasping and falling to the ground. It’s genuinely tragic. I can’t imagine any feeling person seeing her fate as some kind of afterthought. That’s ridiculous. Before he was kidnapped, he didn’t give a thought to all the people in bondage, just as we don’t think of those less fortunate in other parts of the country or the world. After he’s freed, there probably isn’t a moment in his life when he’s not thinking about them. I appreciate your perspective, Wil, but this is movie is about the harsh education of a comfortable middle-class man. There’s nothing classist about that.

  18. 12 YEARS DEUCE: THE RISE OF SOLOMON: The reason Northup disappeared from history? He was recruited by President Lincoln into the Secret Service for a top-secret op in the South to rescue Patsey, because it turns out she’s the only one outside the Confederate High Command who knows Robert E. Lee’s secret plan to blow up Washington, DC. Along the way, Northup recruits an A team: a jive-talking black Harvard graduate, an actress who knows killer martial arts, and genius inventor Samuel Morse. Oh yeah, and he kills vampires too.

  19. I don’t really get the whole White Jesus complaint thing. The movie reminded me of that behavioral experiment where the test subjects are supposedly administering electrical shocks to people, and the point is to see how many people actually will buck authority and intervene when injustice is being perpetrated. That it takes twelve years to happen on someone who a) belongs to that small percentage of people, and b) has the logistical means of intervening (eg, is white). I do agree that casting Pitt in the role was a weirdly distracting, immersion-breaking choice though.

    Subtlety says: “It’s a true story, but it has the effect of putting the white people at the movie’s center, since they’re the ones who shape every single narrative tick.” But are the only slaves whose stories are worth being told the ones who took extraordinary action beyond what we see from Solomon? The tension between his desire to take action and to survive was one of the film’s primary themes; the moment towards the end where he shrugs free of Patsey to climb on the wagon is some serious shit. The movie IS about the slaves. Subtlety’s suggestion that the film would have been more effective had the movie been less honest about the power dynamic inherent to the institution is frankly baffling.

  20. Vern, you gotta check out Dano’s performance in Prisoners. It’s a great subversion of his contemptible persona.

  21. Just wanted to point out this interesting behind-the-scenes piece:


  22. Vern, kudos for no Django Unchained comparisons/mentions as every other review I’ve read of the film seems to have lazily done.

  23. Thanks for the intelligent comebacks to my point, guys. You guys have definitely made appreciate that it is a story about someone discovery of a horrible underworld, and there’s a very interesting (and deliberately left ambiguous) idea that Northrup either had a sense of guilt for living so well when other black people were suffering so much and he was happy to ignore that as long as him and his family were ok, or maybe that he was genuinely ignorant to what was going on. That’s a sign of how complex, and great, the film is – I’m still unpacking a lot of it and I saw it 10 days ago.

    You’ve made me appreciate it a lot more, but I still have a problem with the ending. BTW I’m going to go into proper spoilers now. The fact that the last scene is so personal, as opposed the much broader scope of the whole country as the time (I’d say the true horror of slavery wasn’t any individual act, but that it was so widespread and normalised and deemed to be legally and morally right at the time), makes it seem, at least to me, that the story was actually just about Northrup, and therefore by extension a middle class person (Middle class might not be the best term, but I’m not an expert on 19th century society, and hopefully you know what I mean). Having him reunited with his family as the big dramatic closer, at least to me, at least seemed a bit insulting to Patsey. The end credits state that he spend the rest of his life campaigning against slavery, and to me I think have some sort of scene showing this would have work better. Then the character arc would have been that a man is ripped form his comfortable lifestyle, and shown the horrors that are going on is his society, over comes them and at least tries to do something about them when he is returned to his privileged position. With the final scene being about him being reunited with his family, to me (and I get to others it didn’t seem this way) it felt like it reduced the character arc to a man who is ripped away from his family and has to battle his way back to see them. That kind of reduced ‘slavery’ to a plot device – it was just an antagonist, in the same way that the storm is an antagonist to George Clooney in THE PERFECT STORM, or whatever. And that kind of re-enforced the classist idea for me. (Ok, it didn’t reduce slavery to a plot device by any means, and anyone not moved by the earlier scenes must not be human, but I hope you can see my point).

    I am being a bit reductive I know, and there is so much more in the movie, but it’s just how I felt coming out. It’s still definitely top 5 things I’ve seen this year.

  24. Renfield — I’m not objecting to the character of Samuel Bass (who, after all, was a real person) but rather to the way he reads on-screen. What, this dude just wanders around doing work for isolated rednecks plantation owners and then delivering eloquent speeches to them about how they’re assholes? In front of the slaves? And Fassbender just takes it? Seems weird. But the bigger problem is casting Pitt in the role. First off it feels like such a vanity cameo that it’s kind of uncomfortable. But then, you’ve got a bigger problem of handsome, charismatic Pitt dropping in at the last minute to do these two big showy nice guy scenes and then save the day. Casting a big star shifts the attention to him, particularly since he’s the onus for the actual narrative change that happens, totally stealing Northup’s big moment of hope away from him. Yet another case where Northup’s story gets co-opted by the white guy. The part could have worked if Bass just seemed like some average Joe who just happened to have a modicum of decency. Cast some good character actor, Stephen McHattie or John Hawkes or someone, tone down the speechifying, dirty him up a little, make him believable as just some regular carpenter dude who happens to be an OK guy. Then, the focus of the movie would shift back to Northup and make his decision to trust this guy the prevailing dramatic element.

    Honestly, that’s a microcosm of my issues with the whole movie. Too many big showy roles for famous white actors, too much of the drama and narrative comes from their actions and characters (even though they’re villains). Here we’ve finally got a movie which is ostensibly about an actual slave (and an amazing actor playing the role) but the movie ends up being defined by the white people, anyway. It’s not that it makes it a bad movie, but it does feel like kind of a missed opportunity. Next time, I’d love to see the slaveholders shuffled into the background, played by minor actors who don’t have a whole lot of dialogue or screen time, or much emphasis placed on their characters. Give us a little greater voice for the actual men and women who are enslaved, and what his means for their lives, psyche, and relationships. You don’t have to make it up, you could just tell the other half of this story, i.e. what the slaves are doing when the white people aren’t around causing trouble. You get a few tiny morsels of that here, and they’re a lot more interesting and meaningful than watching scene after scene of drunken Fassbender being an asshole.

  25. Agreed that Pitt’s performance and characterization were the worst part of the movie. Made sense when I saw that he’d produced the thing.

    I think you get the major relationship content among slaves in the interactions of Eliza (the mother introduced in Washington, D.C.) and with Patsy and smaller things like the Indian hunting party, the riverboat and the funeral. Maybe that’s all the space for yourself you get. And serious discussions about your hopeless condition are avoided or no use. Or totally useless to the protagonist, like the teatime conversation. Sounds about right for most people.

  26. Mr. Subtlety, I think the movie foregrounds the slaveowners because it’s as concerned with how slavery warps those in power and as it does the enslaved. And I think McQueen is pretty interested in complicating our idea of the power-relationships between master and slave, which is why so much time is giving to the freighted and perverse Patsey/slaveowner/wife triangle. If the slaveowners were instead a more remote, background force, the emphasis would change completely — which could be fine, and might be more interesting for you, but it just isn’t the movie McQueen wanted to make.

    I agree Pitt was definitely a distraction — both the actor himself and the over-saintliness of his character. John Hawkes would have been a great choice.

  27. Can we at least give Pitt credit for doing a version of his weird Aldo Raine voice and speech patterns that contrasts his romance novel looks?

  28. Zed — I think you’re right, that McQueen is definitely more interested in the relationship between slave and master than he is in the lives of the slaves themselves. That’s fine, although I sort of feel like Northup’s unusual status and history makes for a weird venue for doing that. He’s not a regular slave, he knows he has a way out if he can find his chance, and that alters that relationship in some fundamental ways. Patsey’s relationship is much more interesting, but she’s also kind of an underdeveloped character, so although her situation is interesting it’s meaning is somewhat obscured. Like I said, I still liked / borderline loved the movie, I just can’t help but feel like it was a missed opportunity.

    Vern — I think that’s a Canadian accent? I know they had a dialect coach to help them get the accents right, maybe that’s what Canadians sounded like in 1853?

  29. The film would not have been made without Pitt being in it. If you want to get real about it, the film would not have been made without the other famous white actors in the picture too. There is a reason why there have not been more films on this subject.

    But you’re correct that Pitt was a bit disjointed in this. But like others have stated he gets to come in and play hero. And who would not want to do that?

  30. nabroleon Dynamite

    November 15th, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    When My Japanese Slave Masters Give Me A Day Off, I Plan To See This…

    But I Did Win A Playstation 4 w/ Battlefield 4 Today At Our Monthly Meeting, So Slavery Ain’t That Bad.

    Massa Good!

  31. GQTaste — You definitely have to give Pitt credit for getting the movie made. And he didn’t ruin the film for me by a long shot. But I would give him a little more credit if he’d recognized he wasn’t the best fit for the part. (Unless he had to be in it get it funded? But his part is so small that seems unlikely to me?)

    Vern — I thought he acquitted himself as well as possible, given that he was in the film at all.

    Mr. Subtlety — I agree, we never quite get into Patsey’s head. I think in general there’s something about McQueen’s style that keeps us on the surface of the characters; I don’t know if that’s intentional, or if it has something to do with his background as a video artist and his relative inexperience with narrative filmmaking. (Talking out of my ass since I’ve seen none of his pre-Hunger short films.)

  32. that’s not a review that’s a touchstone

    thanks Vern

  33. Mr. Subtlety: “I’d love to see the slaveholders shuffled into the background, played by minor actors who don’t have a whole lot of dialogue or screen time, or much emphasis placed on their characters.” Interesting stuff. It’s been years since I saw Beloved but I don’t remember any of the white guys playing a large role in it?

    I do think Fassbender’s character is quite fascinating and I’m glad I got to see a movie with him in it. He’s weirdly intimate with his slaves; while Cumberbatch seems to sort of not want to look the whole thing in the eye, Fassbender positively revels in it. “Luxuriates” as he would say.

  34. renfield — yeah, I mean, I’m not complaining about Fassbender’s performance or character; it’s a unique and weird character and he’s great in the role. It just feels like all the villanous big name actor white people end up competing with the slaves for screen time and for dramatic heft, which is kind of a shame since there are lots of movies with scenery-chewing white villains but very few about slaves during this period. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh on the movie, which is obviously great in so many ways. I just can;t help but wish its focus had been a little different. But oh well, maybe I’ll make the movie I really want to see someday.

    Zed — re: McQueen’s introspection of characters, I’m not quite sure. The film is pretty superficial to it’s characters in a lot of ways (although the actors help a lot through their excellent portrayals). I might say that I think the script itself might be something of a problem; it’s actually a very action-packed script, moving pretty rapidly from one dramatic situation to another and barely pausing to let the characters catch their breath. To me it strongly evokes THE ODYSSEY –and maybe that’s intentional, the 1984 adaptation of Northup’s book was even titled SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY– in it’s long string of dramatic, sometimes unconnected, incidents which bedevil our poor hero. But while that makes for a surprisingly exciting movie, it doesn’t allow for a lot of character development. It did occur to me, too, that this may actually be a problem with the source material. Northup’s book, written after his captivity ended, was certainly intended as anti-slavery propaganda, and perhaps he wagered that his mostly white audience wouldn’t care much about a bunch of introspection.

    Anyone actually read the book? I read a few summaries online, which seem nearly identical to the movie. But Ive never read the source itself. Also anyone see the Gordon Parks (LEADBELLY) directed PBS version starring Avery (STAR TREK DEEP SPACE 9) Brooks as Northup? It sounds awesome but Im having a bit of trouble acquiring it. Not the kind of thing people torrent, it seems.

  35. Nobody’s done a Nat Turner biopic yet. Get on that Mr. Subtlety.

    Somebody uploaded the last 30 minutes of Solomon Northup’s Odyssey to youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YHOb9yhobws.

    Looks a bit less polished to say the least. There are some pretty big differences in the order and depiction of events. You do see more interaction between slaves, though. Note that John Saxon plays Epps. The whole thing is up on Fandor, and you could watch it with a free trial, presumably. http://www.fandor.com/films/solomon_northups_odyssey.
    Apparently it was retitled Half Slave, Half Free for home video release, so you might try looking for that.

    Makes me more interested to read the book. You can find the audiobook on youtube.

    PBS also produced “Denmark Vesey’s Revolt” as part of the same series as Northup’s Odyssey. That would be interesting to see.

  36. Mr. Subtlety:

    You raise a good point. Sure, this film is no AMISTAD, a slavery movie that’s really about the White Saviour. Instead, it’s a slavery movie about an upper-class black guy who endures slavery, and then is rescued. Isn’t that declasse, in 2013, to make a film about enslaved blacks that doesn’t give them agency?

    Sure it is. It’s not like there are so many movies that address this part of the American past; why can’t we have ones that take black agency seriously? Sure, it’s based on a historical account, but then what you do is change the story, fictionalize it, so that you have a character that gets to free himself, that doesn’t depend on deus ex machina white saviours. I’d like to see that movie too.


    One of the trends in the history of the antebellum South (in my former career, I was a university professor… even taught a course on the history of slavery from antiquity to 1888) is just this: a desire to find, highlight, even celebrate black agency. The “celebrate” part is whispered, because the modern academy prefers not to obviously take sides, but c’mon, that’s what it is. And many of the reasons you propose are offered. The problem with this is, the sort of agency that blacks had is not the sort of agency that contemporary viewers find sympathetic. We want slaves to have fought The Man, led slave revolts, escaped to freedom, etc. Most black folks that tried this got horribly killed, and the rest of them knew it; so they practiced low-grade sabotage. They pretended to be stupid. They pretended to be lazy. They fucked up Massa’s fields by mistreating the crops or the soil, or damaged the tools, and covered for themselves by pretending they didn’t know any better. That sort of thing. Others turned to religion, or even to pride in their work, simply to assert their dignity as human beings against a system that tried to deny it to them.

    That’s agency, for sure. And it’s worth celebrating. Sure, it’s not as compelling to moderns. I bet it wouldn’t make a great film, which is why they’re not making one. But what we owe to the slaves is to see their lives for what they were and their resistance for what it was, not what we’d have preferred it to be.

    Please note – I’m not saying your desire to see black agency is wrong! I’d like to see it just as much as you would – I certainly want to see Django kick some righteous ass, rather than some house slave simply spit in Massa’s soup and not do more, for fear of retaliation. But like Vern has said on other occasions, sometimes what the audience wants is not what the film gives us, or what the film should give us.

  37. Andrew — “so they practiced low-grade sabotage….I bet it wouldn’t make a great film, which is why they’re not making one.”

    Actually I’d really like to see that film. I’m not saying we need to turn 12 YEARS A SLAVE into DJANGO UNCHAINED, or that agency always means action (although I would dearly love to make that Nat Turner bio). It would be great if they changed the end so Northup learned capoeira and broke Fassbender’s wrists and threw him through a window, but I’m open to plenty of possibilities. Honestly, a movie which really centered on subtle ways in which slaves rebelled in order to keep themselves sane sounds pretty great to me. My problem is that the structure of this particular movie is so focused on the narrative action, which is motivated by the white cast. If they had made it less narrative and more focused on the day-to-day life of the actual slaves, that would have been perfectly fine with me, too. And hey, I still really liked the film that we have and enjoyed watching it, so I guess I shouldn’t complain, I just hope 12 YEARS doesn’t become the final word on the subject. There are so many more stories to tell, big and small!

  38. I finally got around to seeing this. The only thing I would add to the discussion is that the conversation between Pitt’s Bass character and Fassbender’s Epps reads differently in the original slave narrative. The dialogue between the two characters is almost the same as it is in the book, but it’s suggested that Epps and the other slaveholders think of Bass as just a funny eccentric. They aren’t threatened by his abolitionist talk because they’re in the very heart of the south, not in the border states. And the idea of equality between the races is so utterly absurd to them that they find it humorous. The book even suggests that Epps enjoys having these discussions with Bass, because he finds them so funny. I though this moment was a wonderful example of how completely slavery has shaped the way southerners see the world at this time that no amount of logic will ever undo the ideology of slavery.

    But in the film Epps is portrayed as somewhat pissed off with Bass, which I think is a little less complicated and not as true of a reflection of the relationship between the two. Still, the book does say that Bass pretty much has to get the hell out of there after Solomon leaves, because he’s afraid the plantation owners will exact revenge on him. Overall, this was a really fantastic film, and I was surprised by how closely it matched the book with a few details thrown in here and there. I’ve read a number of slave narratives, and I think they are absolutely fascinating and heart breaking. I’m glad Hollywood is finally revisiting this period of American history. I think we need to be reminded of it on a semi-regular basis.

  39. I came to this late cause it was only released yesterday in the UK.

    Three thoughts, based on the premise that this is a phenomenally powerful movie, one of the best of the year etc.

    (1) ACTING
    Chewie Ejifoor is indeed brilliant, it’s a great performance and he plays this role better than anyone could have, in my opinion. HOWEVER I am not as amazed by it as everyone else seems to be. Sure he’s great in it but (a) as Vern said, anyone who’s seen him in anything knows he’s a terrific actor, (b) I think this role is just too suited to him for it to constitute a great stretch of acting – it’s kind of like a more intense and teary eyed version of his honourable, stoic, silent man of great depth, dignity and intelligence. Let’s face it, he’s no better here than he was as Redbelt, and even when playing the bad guy in Serenity he was still similarly intelligent and noble, (c) because of the material itself, which is deeply depressing, I almost feel like his (great) performance was more about mastering that teary eyed expression, i.e. it lacked the variety of e.g. Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine and maybe even some of the subtlety of Oscar Isaac’s one in Llewyn Davis.

    I reiterate that this is a wonderful performance, but honestly? The showstopper for me was Fassbender here.

    (2) BRAD PITT
    This part of the film annoyed me. It was unsubtle because literally the first thing Pitt does in this movie is come out and say “this is injustice!” and talk about blacks and whites being equal. Talk about on the nose, that’s all there is to his character here, he’s the guy who is against slavery. Nothing more to him. I think they should have given him a couple more scenes and shown him to be a decent guy before he came out and criticised Fassbender and slavery. He would have seemed just a bit more multidimensional. Plus he was doing his Aldo Raine accent, which kind of pulled me out of the movie. Finally, I was irritated by Pitt, whom I usually love. Thinking, why does this guy always have to be the great guy, the superhero, why does he always have to be awesome these days? Just look at how brave Fassbender’s choices are in this film acting-wise. He makes himself utterly repulsive a human being.

    (3) DJANGO
    This film finally really made me understand QT’s point about Django Unchained being this cathartic moment, about creating a superhero for slaves. Man, I adore Django Unchained, but now I really, really, really wish I could unwatch it, and rewatch it after having seen 12 Years A Slave, to get the full emotional impact of that scene with the electric blue suit on, where he whips the shit out of that overseer, and the final shootout too. I realised that in 12 Years A Slave when Fassbender is trying to stop him from getting onto the carriage and leaving. Everyone in the audience would have cheered had he punched the shit out of him instead of just brushing him away. It wouldn’t have been as realistic or as emotionally authentic, but damn would it have been earned. Maybe in the DVD extras.

  40. I really didn’t like this, it just didn’t work for me as a film at all although I imagine that the memoir on which it is based would be an incredibly moving and harrowing piece of work.

    And I really thought that the majority of the performances by the white cast were over, not mega, acted including Fassbender’s. The whole thing felt weirdly caricatured and theatrical and stilted and *really* heavy handed to me. I’m not sure what kind of an experience I was anticipating but it definitely wasn’t something as clunky and inauthentic as this. And I don’t mean that the events depicted are inauthentic, just that I felt that the *way* in which they were depicted felt inauthentic to me. Maybe a less bombastic and more reserved, intimate, raw approach would have effected me more.

    If I had seen this without knowing how well received it had been then I think I would have expected there to have been some heated discussions as to its relative merits but nothing close to the universal acclaim it has seemed to achieve. I’m well aware that I am in the minority here but I’m just being honest about how I feel and I’m not trying to stir shit be contrarian or anything. I wish that it had kicked my ass with the same ferocity with which it has seemed to kick everyone else’s. My loss really. Glad to see that those who love it are really passionate about it though.

  41. Just saw this tonight with the wife; we both loved it and thought it was a wonderful movie and all. This isn’t a criticism of the film, but I was just curious about something. In his 12 year absence, how did his wife manage to stay affluent? I figured he was the major breadwinner. I was shocked to see not only were they living in a nice place, but they had nice clothes and jewelry, etc. Any thoughts?

    I completely agree with the above comment about seeing Django after this movie. I need a good kill-the-white-folk film to wash this one down.

  42. Finally got around to this. Good movie. Only weird touch was Pitt’s angel carpenter. You knew he couldn’t help but do the right thing. Would have been more interesting if they’d swappd his part with Garret Dillahunt, kept the audience on their toes.

    That is all.

  43. According to the original source material, there really was a Canadian carpenter named Bass that helped Solomon Northup by writing letters to his family.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>