published Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Review: '12 Years a Slave' a draining, compelling film

Chewitel Ejiofor, left, plays Solomon Northup, a free man taken as a slave in "12 Years a Slave." Michael Fassbender, right, plays one of the sadistic owners.
Chewitel Ejiofor, left, plays Solomon Northup, a free man taken as a slave in "12 Years a Slave." Michael Fassbender, right, plays one of the sadistic owners.
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The scene is excruciating. Not violent. Not brutal. Not bloody. But unbearably painful just the same.

Solomon Northup -- a former free black man now known only by his slave name, Platt -- stands next to the grave of another slave who has dropped dead in the cotton fields of a Louisiana plantation. As the other slaves around him sing a soulful hymn, raising their voices in the only form of joy they know, Solomon refuses to sing, just as he has steadfastly refused to think of himself as anything other than a free man who must endure the degradation of slavery before somehow being rescued.

But the years have taken a toll; he has lost his freedom, his name, his family, his dignity, he even must hide the fact that he is intelligent and can read and write. Bit by bit, his self-image has been chipped away until, at the graveside, as his eyes reveal the depth of his pain, the depth of his self-loathing, the depth of his disgrace, he starts to sing, quietly at first, then louder and louder until he's singing along with the rest of the slaves.

In that moment, he has truly become a slave. And with nothing more than his eyes and his facial expressions, you understand what it has cost him.

Everything.

Director Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is perhaps the grimmest movie about slavery ever made. Yes, there have been other films in which the slaves are brutalized, whipped, beaten, raped, killed and treated no better than any other livestock on the plantation. But it's hard to think of a film that is so unrelentingly bleak, one that never breaks away from the slaves' point of view, that never lets up about their actual day-to-day lives. It's a miserable existence.

Except for scenes early in the film, when Solomon is still a free man before being kidnapped by slave traders, there is no happiness in "12 Years," no uplifting singalongs around the campfire after the work is done; no camaraderie among slaves. There are only two scenes in the entire movie in which the slaves even smile, and they are brief. The only plantation-based scene that seems even slightly idyllic features a young slave humming as she makes dolls out of corn husks -- while fellow slaves are being whipped bloody a few yards away.

Stark and unsentimental and unflinching, "12 Years" is a remarkable film and will undoubtedly bring in its share of Oscar nominations -- a Best Actor nomination for Chewitel Ejiofor should be a given -- but it is not a popcorn, date-night movie. There is physical brutality, including drawn-out scenes of a near-hanging and shockingly realistic whipping that will make some avert their eyes, but it's not constant, although its threat hangs over everything.

What's far more uncomfortable is the never-ending emotional cruelty, with plantation owners' wives telling female slaves that they'll "soon forget about" the children that have been ripped away from them, with overseers protecting slaves not because they see them as human, but because they're a financial investment.

Yet it's the slow, downward collapse of Solomon's ideals and hopes that takes the biggest toll.

The film, based on an 1853 memoir by the real Solomon Northup, centers on his desperate attempts to survive as a slave after losing his life as a well-off musician in New York state. Just after being kidnapped, he tells other slaves: "I don't want to survive, I want to live." It's an ideal that impossible to maintain.

Whether the plantation owner is (relatively) benevolent, like the one played by Benedict Cumberbatch, or is psychotic and depraved, as Michael Fassbender frighteningly portrays, slaves' main concern is survival. With that mindset, you can only protect yourself. So if another slave is being hung, you walk around him, doing your assigned chores. If a female is taken from the slave quarters to be raped, you turn over on your mattress and say nothing. And, when you've reached the absolute bottom, you find yourself standing on the same level as the slave owners.

Solomon tries to rise above it all, but each time he does, he gets in trouble and is forced to lose another part of himself just to stay alive. He refuses to claim his slave name of Platt and gets beaten with paddles and whips, so he accepts the name. His intelligence shames an ignorant, sadistic farm manager and he almost dies for it, so he hides the fact that he's smart, although it's impossible to hide completely.

As insult and injury build up in case after case, scar by scar, the audience reaches the same level of understanding as Solomon. Survive at all costs.

A scene about midway through the film begins with Solomon running through the underbrush and your first reaction is: Oh no, he's trying to run away; they're going to kill him. But it turns out that all he's doing is obeying his master's orders and you breathe a sigh of relief. Alive for another day.

While Fassbender's performance is the showiest, alternating between honeyed evil, twisted love and outright psychosis, Ejiofor's performance holds "12 Years" in its grasp. He is masterful as he depicts Solomon's spiraling collapse into the reality of his life. While he never gives into despair completely, he sinks deeper and deeper into resignation.

Contact staff writer Shawn Ryan at sryan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.

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