12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor steals the movie. With innumerable close ups of his face contorted in anguish at the indignity of not being recognized for who is truly is, Ejiofor brings enormous emotional intensity to the role of the free man who gets thrust into slavery and only escapes, not through heroic feats of daring do but through, essentially, the kindness of a stranger who is willing to risk seeing him for the man he is. It is an implication, then, that those not so recognized and not legally declared free within the United States, ought to be, but they are left behind as Solomon Northup regains freedom and returns to his home and family in upstate New York where they seem to live with a level of comfort that would put a lot of middle class whites to shame even now.
McQueen gave us the frenzied Fassbender as a sex addict completely out of control till film’s end in Shame, and here he gives us Fassbender as a not at all genteel southern plantation owner (did the rural, cotton-economy have a different ethos from the South of the cities; where did that mythic gentility reveal itself?) whose infatuation with a slave woman (Lupita Nyong’o in her first film role) exceeds his love for his wife. Infatuation is no barrier to cruelty, though. Epps, the de Sadean sadist, is always willing to see a good flogging imposed on the slowest of the cotton pickers or on any who appear insubordinate, including Patsey (Nyong’o) when she visits another plantation without his knowlege, to obtain, as she puts it so powerfully, soap. Soap to wash away the smell and grime of slavery. Soap that Epps wife, an avenging fury if there ever was one, denies her.
McQueen is no stranger to intensity. He seems to thrive on it. A hunger strike in his depiction of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in prison; frantic sex addiction in Shame and now the horrific violence of slavery in 12 Years. There is the profound violence of having your identity stripped away, of losing all sense of dignity in the eyes of others, of that great reduction to “property,” and there is also the appalling violence of physical punishment. McQueen shies away from none of it. Unlike the jaded, clever but empty play with generic conventions that are the cruz of Django Unchained, McQueen goes to the historical heart of the matter: what slavery felt like for those who suffered its immense indignities, without cardboard heroes riding to the rescue. Ejiofor deserves enormous credit for bring it all alive with his understated and deeply human performance, a performance that denies the unalterable assumption of his “masters” that is less than they at every turn.
This is a wrenching, disturbing, deeply affecting film and we will probably hear much more about it come Oscar time.


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