The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Just a year ago or so in theaters, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained was a huge hit with audiences and critics alike, making over $425 million. It was a story about a pre-Civil War slavery that was horrific and over the top, almost cartoonish in its portrayal of slavery. An interesting companion piece because it tackles the same historical issue in far darker, far more somber fashion, 2013's 12 Years a Slave.

It's 1841 in Saratoga, New York, and Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man. He works as a carpenter, is also a skilled musician and lives comfortably with his wife and two young children. When his family goes away on a quick work/vacation, Solomon is approached by two musicians who offer him a two-week job working with their traveling circus performers. Solomon is intrigued by their offer, dining and drinking with them one evening. He wakes up the next morning in chains, realizing he was drugged the night before. Solomon has been kidnapped and will be shipped south to be sold as a slave in the deep south. Listening to other kidnap victims in the same situation, some runaway slaves, he learns he's in more of a spot than he thought. If he tries to convince anyone of his plight, they'll punish him (with the possibility of whipping) if not kill him. Can he survive? Can Solomon find a way to endure and somehow gain back his freedom?

Wow. What a movie, one of the most uncomfortable experiences I've had watching a film in years. Technically speaking, it's excellent, but this next part might sound obvious. Anyone who knows their history -- or even those who don't -- realize that slavery existed in the U.S. less than 200 years ago in the 1860s. It's a known thing, but knowing and seeing the horrors are different. It is a terrifyingly uncomfortable movie, and it's supposed to be. It pulls no punches in telling the true story of Solomon Northup, director Steve McQueen (not that one) at the helm of a movie that won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. Be forewarned heading in. This is a film, not a popcorn movie that you come away with with a smile on your face. '12' is a film to watch and appreciate for what it is. A true story from one of the darker periods in American history. I won't be revisiting this one anytime soon. Once was enough.

Chiwetel Ejiofor or Matthew McConaughey? Which actor for the Best Actor Oscar? Having seen both '12' and Dallas Buyers Club, it's fair to say that either man deserved the win. It's a push, both performances worthwhile in their own respect. For Ejiofor, this is a great performance and hopefully one that propels him into stardom. I've always thought he was a solid actor with some poor choices in films (2012, Four Brothers), but this film shows his ability. Playing Solomon Northup, this is an emotionally draining, physical, very expressive part. Ejiofor allows the rest of the cast to chew scenery at times, letting a quick, hard-hitting diatribe here and there fill in the blanks. He does so much with a look here, his tired eyes telling the story. Dubbed Platt (the name of a runaway slave from Georgia), Solomon tries to survive however he can, almost willing himself to keep on and return to his family. This is a human, visceral performance. Unbelievable stuff.

In a part that won her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Lupita Nyong'o delivers a gem as Patsey, a young slave who's hard-working, does her job and puts her head down, unfortunately becoming a favorite of the plantation owner, Epps, played to evil perfection by Michael Fassbender (nominated for his part, didn't win). Nyong'o is strong across the board but won the Oscar with one key, emotional gut-wrenching scene late. A great supporting performance. Fassbender (a favorite of mine) is intensity personified, a vile slave owner who quotes the Bible at all times, making his slaves do odd, bizarre things to suit his random wants and desires, Sarah Paulson playing his equally unhinged wife. Some other key supporting parts include Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford, a decent slave owner but still a slave owner, Paul Giamatti as a bottom-line slave dealer, Paul Dano as an angry, clueless overseer, Alfre Woodard as a slave woman turned mistress, Garret Dillahunt as Armsby, a hopeful overseer, and Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam as the men who kidnap Solomon.

As I mentioned, this was a difficult movie to sit through. It's not boring, the subject matter just hard to watch. '12' is 134 minutes long and does drag at times. The story isn't the most pointed thing, drifting along at times. My biggest issue is that there is no sense of time having passed. I kept waiting for a title card or something to pop up on-screen and say '8 Years Later.' There's no way to tell how much time has passed. Has it been weeks or months? Has it been years? The incidents are horrific, the truth of the story hard to fathom, but then out of nowhere there's a solution to it all. That was my biggest issue with '12,' no idea of the time that's passed. It sounds simple and something minor to complain about, but it's a legit issue.

This is a difficult movie to watch, plain and simple. I do like where it heads in the last third or so, Brad Pitt making a memorable appearance as a Canadian carpenter working in the south who meets Solomon while working on Epps' plantation. We get several scenes analyzing the horror and truth of slavery that come across as slightly heavy-handed, but that said, I guess there's very little subtle about slavery itself. The ending is heartbreaking in itself, especially the title cards that play out before the credits. Also worth mentioning is Hans Zimmer's score, almost minimalist in its execution, a simple, soft, trance-like theme resonating the most. Listen HERE. An interesting movie, one you're not necessarily going to like, but one you'll be able to appreciate and experience.

12 Years a Slave (2013): ***/****


  1. I agree with everything you say. This is what Roger Ebert once called a "Gandhi movie" - a film that it's great, maybe even important, but so grim and portentous it's hard to imagine rewatching it. (Though I've watched Gandhi at least three times - it's his term not mine.) That said, it's hard to portray slavery accurately without being grim and portentous, and the cast alone makes it worth a look.

  2. Yeah, that cast is something else, not a weak performance in the bunch. Ebert was Ebert for a reason too, that theory is spot-on!