Thursday, December 26, 2013

12 Years a Slave

I grew up in Louisiana. The best thing I've ever had to say about that is that I was not born there. Fortunately, though, in having to grow up in Louisiana, I did at least grow up in the best part of the state. Well, the least Louisiana-ish part of the state. And I went to the best high school in the state (which is still the best high school in the state the last time I checked). At the time I went there, at a time when Louisiana was ranked around 47 in education, my high school was one of the top ranked high schools in the nation. That's an aberration that no longer exists.

All of that to say that my educational experience was in no way typical of the area in which I lived and, actually, not typical to most of the nation as a whole. At least not at that time.

And all of that to say that the evils of slavery were strongly impressed upon us, and I picked up a firm belief that all men should be treated equally. At the time, I thought these things were normal for all people; it wasn't until later (only a couple or few years, actually) that I realized that a belief in equality is not a universal belief. In fact, it's a minority belief.

With all of that in mind, it was somewhat difficult to sit through 12 Years a Slave, which is set in Louisiana.
And not just set in Louisiana; being a true story, that's where it actually happened. And with that comes the acknowledgement that a lot of the beliefs displayed in the movie are still very much prevalent. That makes me sad. I mean, I grew up around people that routinely referred to unemployed African Americans as "porch monkeys" or "porch niggers" and knew plenty of people that believed "blacks" would be better off if they were still slaves.

Let me state explicitly at this point that I grew up in what was probably the least racist part of Louisiana and Louisiana is probably not the most racist state in the south, although Louisiana did do a good job of trying to elect a KKK dude as governor in the early 90s. That still horrifies me, especially so considering that David Duke got the majority of the white vote, something he claimed as a victory.

12 Years a Slave is possibly the most brutal movie about slavery I've ever seen. It's unflinching in its portrayal of the inhumanity involved in selling slaves and the attitude of them being nothing more than just, basically, livestock. This is summed up no better than a line delivered by Mistress Ford to a female slave just separated from her children, "You'll forget about your children soon enough," as if she was a dog being separated from her pups. Of course, Eliza did not forget about her children.

However, as brutal as the film is, it is very much detached from the emotion of the things that are happening in most circumstances. You see the horror, but you don't really feel it. In that, it's almost like watching a documentary. It's more clinical than visceral, a drawback for a movie like this, and I'm not sure what causes the disconnect. It's not a lack in the quality of the acting.

Chiwetel Ejiofor does a great job of bewilderment after he's kidnapped at the beginning of the movie. He make us believe in the unreality of his situation. At least, it's unreal from his perspective. Solomon Northup was, after all, born a free man and the idea that he's been taken into slavery is a bit beyond his conception. The problem, I think, with the movie overall is that Ejiofor never really seems to believe in the situation he's in. It's as if every moment he's waiting to wake up, and that may have been what made me feel removed from the action of the movie. I'm not sure that's all of it, but I know that's some of it.

Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, is completely "within" his character, Edwin Epps. Fassbender is not someone I've thought much of as an actor thus far. Not that I've thought he was bad, he's just been someone I've mostly shrugged off as, "eh, what's the big deal?" But he did a great job as Epps. He was completely believable as cruel and erratic. And Sarah Paulson, who played his wife, was wonderful(ly horrible) as his cold, bitter wife.

Many of the other actors were also quite good in their smaller roles. Giamatti, Cumberbatch, and Pitt were more than adequate, but their roles didn't require anything more of them than to be the kind of characters they frequently are. Pitt, in particular, seems to have chosen hos role specifically (he did produce it) to deliver the message he wanted to deliver, and he fit well in that part. Paul Dano was also quite good. Actually, Dano is good enough that I always have a hard time remembering who he is when I see him on screen. He seems to gravitate toward parts that are kind of slimy, but he fits so well into them, that he mostly disappears.

The most unsatisfactory part of the movie, though (and this is kind of spoilery, but, if you have any grasp of racial history in the United States, it shouldn't be anything unexpected or surprising), is the bad guys go unpunished. Of course, this is because the bad guys went unpunished, so it's more that it's an unsatisfactory part of history; no fault of the movie. It does, however, stir up feelings over the injustice of how Northup was treated. That's actually a positive aspect of the movie, because you should feel that Northup was treated unjustly. He was treated unjustly.

It was a good movie but not one that I felt was great. There's almost no way it won't get a best picture nomination, but I don't think it's going to win. I don't think it ought to win. From a movie standpoint, it was just missing... something. Something ineffable, I guess. That doesn't make it a movie you shouldn't see, though. Evidently, the message that all men should be treated equally is still a message that needs to be delivered.


  1. It's strange, watching a film set in a place that is so familiar to you. Especially when it doesn't necessarily relate to your own experiences, but points out what could be lurking beneath the surface. And on that note ... I live near, and swim in, one of the beaches where parts of Jaws was filmed.

  2. It sounds very powerful but those movies are always very emotional. I have to be in the right frame of mind to sit through that.

  3. I'd heard it was incredibly brutal. So a likely Best Picture that really isn't the best? We've had several of those in the past decade.

  4. It does sound like a very heavy film. I doubt we'll have a chance to see it in theaters but it seems a likely rental in the future. Yours is a very thoughtful review.

  5. Sounds like an interesting movie, albeit not an easy one to watch. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. :-)

  6. No way I'll be watching that anytime soon. Movies are about escapism for me. I have to be tricked into seeing something like that. Sounds way too real.

  7. Have yet to check this one out, but my pales in the movie side of things keep praising it. I know I'll see it eventually. :)

  8. I've been waiting to see this one. Fassbender is a favorite of mine, and the story sounds fascinating. So many moral conflicts at play.

  9. Maybe the thing missing is that slavery was wrong, not just for a man born free? Cuz it was. I've planned on watching it, and am glad for your well- written and thought out review. As to the Best Picture thing...don't get me started. Seems "the academy" feels it needs to pick an "important" movie. (I guess Shakespeare in Love was an aberration there...) I quit watching the Oscars when it became all campaigning and bribing and timing of the release of your movie. I hate being manipulated.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  10. Kathryn: Unfortunately, it's not that far beneath the surface.

    JKIR,F!: There are certainly parts of the movie that difficult to watch.

    Alex: Well, it's very good, and it may belong in the top 10 which would let it deserve the nomination; I just don't think it's "best."

    TAS: It's not the kind of movie that has to be seen in the theater.

    Misha: No problem.

    Rusty: It is real since it's based on the book by Solomon Northup.

    David: It's probably worth the praise.

    L.G.: Fassbender is really good in this; the best I've seen him.

    Tina: There's a pretty strong antislavery message in the movie; Pitt makes sure of that.
    I have to say about the Oscars: The Artist in no way was an "important" film; it was just about Hollywood.

  11. Slavery is a terrible thing. Sadly it still exist in many parts of the world today. Even if at times in different forms.

  12. Sheena: It is a terrible thing. In all of its various forms.

  13. I hadn't even heard of the movie. I will look out for it.

  14. There are plenty of horrible injustices happening all over the world right now (Afghanistan, Myanmar, Paupau New Guinea, and half of the African nations, to name a few). No need to dredge up things that happened 150 years ago. Too bad Americans don't realize how much worse off so many people are around the globe.

  15. I wouldn't think so (regarding the need to see in a theater). We did just hear of people who walked out of the theater because of the violence. I'll admit, I'm kind of a wimp on that front - don't know if I'll have the stomach for it.

  16. I guess it's maybe a blessing that there was some kind of emotive disconnect - it sounds like the kind of movie that would leave you hollowed out and miserable for long afterwards if it did manage to connect on that emotional level. Probably not one I'd want to see. I am the sort of person who's realised she's happier living in ignorant bliss when it comes to some particular facts of history!

  17. Jo: It may be hard to find at the theaters; it didn't get a wide release.

    Lexa: Well, that's true, but the film isn't really about that. I mean, the messages of the film is still pertinent; it's just using the story of Northup to illustrate the point.

    TAS: It's not really all that violent on the whole, and the violence that's there is mostly unseen. It's not like Gibson's Passion.

    Trisha: Yeah, I actually wondered (out loud to my wife, even) if that was purposeful so that people would be able to sit through it. Which is kind of sad considering we made people live thought it.

  18. Good to know. I'm sure we'll watch it at some point.

  19. I'm sure I'll see this at some point on DVD, but I have to be in a certain mood to want to see a movie with such depressing brutality. I'd rather come out of a movie feeling inspired or having had a good laugh.

  20. I've yet to see this film, but it is one film that I definitely want to see. Have you seen the 70's film Good-bye Uncle Tom? It's a very strange film done in documentary style. Filmed by Italians, but in English, I thought this was the most realistic and brutal slavery film I've ever seen. I don't know how much is true in it, but I would imagine that not much was made up and they did an incredible job of bringing many things to light that we often don't think about.

    Tossing It Out

  21. TAS: I'll wait to see what you think, then.

    ABftS: Yeah, I know that feel (as everyone in my family but me would say). I have a review of one of those coming up soon(ish).

    Lee: I have not seen that, but I will look it up.