Saturday, November 23, 2013

12 Years A Slave (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's (Shame) new film "12 Years a Slave" is a cinematic and nerve-rending vision of Solomon Northup's account of being kidnapped and sold as a slave in Washington DC in 1841. This is a volcanic and harrowing film, not to mention a sinister and tragic story of a forthright and quite creative man who is treated worse than a dog. The film is also about the spiritual sin of slavery itself and its profound  disgusts.

At the start of the film, two flamboyant  circus hands that resemble the villains in Pinocchio  Hamilton (SNL's Taran Killam) and Brown (Scoot Mcnairy ) seduce Northup (perfectly interpreted by Chiwetel Ejiofor) into playing the fiddle for their traveling group. Inexplicably with a sudden and surreal horror, Northup is drugged as he collapses unconscious and is taken to Louisiana, where he is sold, bound, whipped, and ultimately subjected to devastating emotional abuse.

McQueen directs with an unflinching authenticity which is almost Gothic in its power, but this vibrational and focused intensity is no maudlin melodrama or cheap parlor trick and only strengthens its subject.

Most Caucasians here are repulsive monsters and McQueen pulls no punches. 

Nor should he.

There is the solid actor Paul Dano (Prisoners) who is nothing less than a virulent boiled weasel. Not to mention the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti  as a slavetrader with the ironic name of Freeman. Chief among them is Edwin Epps, a pathologically violent but tormented man who seems in the throes of demonic possession. Much of this is excruciating and hard to watch, almost bringing to mind a Passion Play. Horribly, this appears accurate and sadly the actuality of slavery was most likely much more humanly reprehensible.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the oasis of sanity and grace that holds it all together and he has a striking and holistic poetry within his Expressionist face that communicates all that we need to know.

The excellence in the film comes from its pathos, jarring surprise and symbolism throughout. Keep an eye out for the caterpillar munching on the cotton, the repetitious cravats and spools of paper turned to cinders like burnt constellations and last but not least, the cane dolls that are held together by the sound of field songs.

McQueen grasps both the terror and the existential, almost literary charge of history and makes it unavoidably confrontational to us in the 21st century.

With every inhuman episode we half expect Northup's environment to shift and transform into stability and peace while the abhorrent henchman wake from a nightmare. Neither happens. 

When Northup is hung by a rope and left to hang in space, time stands still. Birds sing on. A pleasant breeze stirs and the sun appears. We realize in disbelief that no one will come to his rescue. He is near asphyxiated in suspense, near death. In this moment, Northup mirrors the audience and challenges us to act.

By the end of the ordeal in a dressed in a neatly pressed suit on a perfect summery day, he finally returns home. All Northup can say is "I've had a difficult time." It is a singularly disturbing and dreamlike moment that speaks for the entire film.

Solomon Northup went on to publish 12 Years a Slave as a memoir in 1853. Even though it was considered a bestseller with 30,000 copies, it fell into obscurity later with details of Northup's death falling into mystery and unknowns. Because of this obscurity in death and also because of Northup's spirit and humor, he seems to me in the same family as Ambrose Beirce and just as important as Frederick Douglass. Hopefully more generations to come  will know of this film, and also, Solomon Northup's actual words.

Write Ian at

No comments: