12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Running Time:  133 mins.                      Rating: x Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Steve McQueen

Genre: Biography/Drama/History

Country: USA

Language: English

Distributor: Fox Searchlight

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Garret Dillahunt, Taran Killam, Quvenzhane Wallis, Ruth Negga, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard

Reviewed at Toronto International Film Festival

This searing and heartfelt portrayal of the African American slave experience is definitely more powerful than many an American director would dare attempt. Set in the 1840s, the story follows Solomon, an affable middle-class Free Black family man from New York State. He is quite cultivated, educated and highly skilled. Solomon is accommodating and most considerate in manner and temperament, just ripe for what awaits him.

Two White traveling circus promoters trick Solomon into working as a musician for hire.  After his performance and some good liquor, he is kidnapped, mistreated and beaten into accepting the false identity of Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia.  In route to his new existence he takes a bit of folk wisdom from each enslaved person he meets. Solomon is made to suffer countless indignities and dozens of humiliations; beatings, whippings, and an undeserved and unprovoked hanging. Beyond portraying these soul-wrenching destructions, the film explores the psyches and sensibilities of a people trapped in a living hell. Perhaps Sartre’s “No Exit” was more than prophetic,  ‘Hell is other people.’ To cope some slaves dream of the hereafter, others of resistance, some others pacify themselves with Christianity. Some betray one another, while many try embracing and humoring their master and the lady of the house, as well as their overseers. But most, just resigned themselves to the worst of it all.

The film examines how the examined life is not always worth living, despite Plato’s maxim.  For example, on the first plantation an overseer is jealous and mean spirited because Solomon has better skills and reasoning abilities. On the second plantation, another overseer befriends him–actually in earnest; so Salomon pays him handsomely, to send a message to his family in the North.  The overseer double-crosses him by telling the master for no reason at all. On one plantation Salomon encounters a former slave woman who, so charmed by her master, became the mistress of the house and his seductress in this privileged position, so in turn, she acts as a gatekeeper  keeping others in line.

Things really get interesting when the lady of the house at the second plantation, who is estranged from her husband and takes her many wifely frustrations out on the slave aptly named Patsey, as she is the object of her husband’s carnal desires.  The wife tortures and vilifies Patsey, but she won’t help her escape her husband’s sexual violence. On one occasion, the wife all but breaks Patsey’s jaw with a beer mug, just to get even with her, feminism in reverse if you will. A moment of truth among many is revealed when Solomon refuses to kill Patsey, though she begs him to drown her.  She despairs at the loss of her children and her lack of courage to take her own life.

Thereafter, Solomon is forced to inflict some other cruelties upon his friend Patsey, to save her. An awful lesson indeed. Solomon discovers many insights in this shadow of death journey.  One equally meaningful is an incidental act of kindness from a total stranger, artfully captured by McQueen’s directorship.  Perhaps the Russian composer said Igor Mussorgsky said it best, “Art is not an end in of itself, rather art is a means of addressing humanity.”

Historically noteworthy, it should be pointed out that the South fought to extend slavery to the western territories, while the North fought to contain it in the South.  Neither side fought to end it. And Lincoln, possessing an astute legal mind, finally realized that if the slaves didn’t fight for the North, the Union would lose.  So, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1st 1861, which “freed” Southern slaves, whom he had no jurisdiction over, but didn’t free any Northern slaves, the very ones he did have jurisdiction over, in order to preserve the Union.  When the war ended, the South was bankrupt and could no longer afford to keep slaves.  Incidentally, Free Blacks always had a precarious existence, case in point Alabama which had a state tax law which forced Free Blacks to pay a fee to the state while residing there, otherwise they would legally be enslaved.

Although tragic, for this critic, the film has this all the hallmark features of greatness. The plot is well structured and sequenced with self-disclosing characters that are multi-dimensional; by its subject matter and content emotionally engaging, intellectually honest and morally complex.  In addition, the film is transformative in that it touches both the psyche and the soul.  Finally, it will, I predict, influence visionary directors who choose to deal with sensitive themes to take a more disarmingly intimate styled approach.

Incidentally, this film won The People’s Choice Award, the top audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, voted on by an international audience of several thousand cinemaphiles.


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