12 Years a Slave
I’d like to talk about Steve McQueen for a second. Not the actor who starred in such 60’s actioneers as Bullitt and The Great Escape – although he’s definitely worth talking about. Rather, I’m referring to the Black British video artist turned filmmaker who gave us such films as Bobby Sands biopic Hunger and sex-addiction drama Shame, both of which starred Michael Fassbender. McQueen’s new film is 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free-born Black man from Saratoga Springs who was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. The book was adapted by John Ridley, an African American screenwriter who penned the scripts for such films as U Turn, Red Tails, and – wouldn’t you know it – Undercover Brother.
12 Years a Slave won this year’s People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is a pretty sure sign that a film is going to get serious Oscar nominations (The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire, which also won the People’s Choice, went on to win Best Picture.) That gives the sense that 12 Years a Slave is an ‘awards picture.’ And in a sense it is. But it also something very different. It is not just a documentation of the institutionalized savagery that was American slavery. It is an experience of it. Normally, I’d hesitate to use such an expression to describe a film for I feel that errs towards hyperbole, but I don’t think this is hyperbolic. It wasn’t until after I’d gotten into my car afterwards that I realized my jaw ached from how tightly I was clenching it during the last 30 minutes.
There are many reasons why 12 Years a Slave is as powerful as it is, but perhaps the most immediately apparent is that the acting is unilaterally excellent. This ranges from Chiwetel Ejiofor, another Brit who’s spent most of his film career in (well-judged) supporting roles but absolutely shines as Northup, to Kenyan newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who embodies Patsey, arguably the film’s most tragic character, to McQueen’s not-so-secret weapon Fassbender, who plays Edwin Epps, Northup’s greatest owner in both time and cruelty, and who from frame one is absolutely fucking terrifying. But every role, no matter how great or small, from Paul Giamatti’s ‘businessman’ to Michael K. Williams’ quickly dispatched prisoner, is expertly cast and played. It’d be difficult for me not to imagine this film scoring a nod – if not a win – in every acting category at the Oscars this year. In fact, the only disappointment would be Brad Pitt, who shows up late in the game as a Canadian laborer with abolitionist beliefs. The problem isn’t with the quality of the performance, because Pitt is not a bad actor. But when an actor of Pitt’s celebrity, noted for his humanitarian work, and also one of the film’s producers, gets the role of what is essentially the ‘savior’… well, it’s pretty distracting.
Regardless, the other driving force behind 12 Years a Slave – and the key to its emotional power – is its violence. I don’t say that lightly, as I consider myself as having a pretty strong constitution when it comes to screen violence. It is graphic and upsetting, but it also isn’t exploitative and gratuitous. The violence is not necessarily always bloody, but in a combination between McQueen’s directorial sensibilities and Sean Bobbit’s exceptional camerawork, the brutality is choreographed in such a way as to make you feel every blow and every lash. Hell, even something a relatively tame as a slap carries immense power in this film – largely because you don’t know if a slap will be the end of it. There is one scene in particular near the film’s final act. I won’t describe much other than it’s catalyst is a bar of soap and it is filmed in a single handheld shot. It felt like it was 15 minutes long, but maybe it’s eight. Or five, I’m not sure. It is a scene so expertly shot, choreographed, and acted that although it is arguably less graphic than something like The Passion of the Christ, it is harrowing enough to give anything in that film’s two hours a run for its money.
12 Years a Slave is a difficult movie to recommend. It’s very different from other ‘awards films’ like The Artist or Argo, which, wonderful as they are, still feel very much like ‘movies.’ Yes, at the end of the day, 12 Years a Slave is still a movie, and no, it doesn’t actually tie you to a post in the Deep South and whip you half to death. But it is perhaps the most authentic feeling movie about this subject that I’ve ever seen. I can’t really recommend it if you want to spend a night at the movies, or even if you’re in the mood for a drama. And I can’t really tell you to ‘prepare’ yourself, because Christ, what can? I thought I was prepared going in. But if you’re looking for a film to challenge and move you, then 12 Years a Slave is the one to do it. As I’ve said before, I don’t cry very often at movies anymore. This film’s final minutes – and its final line – wrecked me.
If you think you can, see it.
About Time (2013)
My dad ascribes to a belief that any movie with the word ‘about’ in its title will probably be pretty good. About a Boy, There’s Something About Mary, What About Bob?, About Schmidt – these are just a few of the titles he uses to prove his point. For my money, I think you could throw About Time in there, as well.
Whether or not you know who Richard Curtis is, you know his work. He started out in television writing for such Rowan Atkinson creations as Mr. Bean and Blackadder, but also went on to write (and occasionally direct) such films as Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, the Bridget Jones movies, and Pirate Radio (known in the UK by its marginally cooler title, The Boat That Rocked.) About Time marks Curtis’ third outing as writer/director, and it’s pretty par for his course, for About Time is nothing if not a sweetheart of a movie.
About Time follows the story of a young man named Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, son of the great Brendan), who on his 21st birthday learns from his father, played by Bill Nighy (who seems to be contractually obligated to be in every British film ever made and improves all of them simply by being there), that all of the men on his side of the family can travel through time. The rules are simple: to do it, simply go into a dark place (closets are preferable), close your eyes, clench your fists, and think of where you want to go. You can only travel back to experiences you’ve had in your own life; similarly, you can only travel ‘forward’ to places you last time traveled. “You can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy, unfortunately,” Nighy informs us. It’s about as lo-fi as you can get with a science fiction concept, and yes, it’s as prone to plot holes as any other time travel narrative, but hey, at least the film is consistent with them.
So anyway, Tim promptly sets about trying to use his time travel powers to get laid. Being a ginger, this doesn’t come easily to him, even with time travel on his side. (Aaahhh, ginger jokes…) That is until he meets Rachel McAdams at a ‘Dans le noir’ dinner (which is one of the film’s genuinely sweeter moments) and falls for her hard and fast. Which means, basically, that Gleeson had to do no acting at all.
In any case, Mary (that being McAdams’ character) seems to fall equally as hard. But through a series of plot contrivances and some dunderheaded behavior on Tim’s part that I don’t have the energy to get into, Tim then chooses to go about wooing Mary in ways that are a trifle manipulative (yes, yes, I know that’s what time travel would suggest, but still.) If I were to be generous, I might characterize these plot points as representing how young people are not always aware of how their actions effect others, but that’s a little more generous than I’m feeling. Fortunately, the chemistry between Gleeson and McAdams is genuine, and it’s not long before the movie starts to move into the stuff that actually makes you feel all fuzzy inside.
If I may, Curtis’ films can feel like his protagonists at times. Awkward and relentlessly self-interested at first, hard to warm up to, but when they do, reveal themselves to be very smart, very warm, very British, and have just the right amount of crass. The ‘crass’ in this case is mostly carried by Tom Hollander as Harry, a boozy, sweary playwright who is temporarily Tim’s landlord and gets what are easily some of the film’s most wickedly funny lines.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve got some problems with the film’s opening hour, but those are almost all outweighed by how wonderful its second half is, where the film basically quits its romantic comedy aspirations and becomes a platform for Curtis’ ruminations on marriage, parenthood, death, and yes, time. It’s hard to not make that sound self-indulgent – and hey, at two hours, it kind of is – but Curtis is a good enough writer that if his observations aren’t coming from a place of real warmth and wisdom, he certainly makes it sound like it does.
You can probably tell if this is gonna be your thing or not. If it is, give it a shot. You’ll probably like it.