I saw Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave last night, and I could so identify with the protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — because I, too, have been subject to the twisted whims and brutal hand of cruel fates and a merciless master. I saw the movie in the Arclight’s Cinerama Dome, and as the final credits rolled, I was struck by a peculiar feeling of melancholy and despair. Not because I’d just been witness to an innocent man’s dozen years of brutal torture — no, something far worse. I searched my pockets, my wallet, under my seat… and yet I knew, without a doubt, that my parking ticket had been displaced some time ago, and certain suffering awaited me in the near future.
I checked my car, knowing it fruitless. I proceeded back to the Dome, which had already all but shut down for the night. I was told to try the box office, so I embarked upon a journey there, only to be met with a long line and an employee sympathetic to my plight who scoured for lost tickets, finding none. He printed me a movie ticket for my showing (since I had only a digital copy) and suggested I tell the people at the gates of my plight.
Slightly emboldened, I returned to my car and presented my ticket to the middle-aged Latina woman. Surely she would show mercy? I plastered on my best dumb blonde look (not really an act — I am pretty stupid), informing her that I had lost my ticket but the people at the box office said to present this movie ticket so I could be on my merry way. She would have none of my nonsense. “Did they tell you a lost ticket pays twenty dollars?” she hissed, having been through this charade before. Finally she surmised that since I had the movie ticket, I could get away with paying the $12 daily maximum rather than the $20 nightly maximum (what the difference is is beyond me). I complied, realizing I would never bargain myself down to the $3 charge per validated ticket. I was resigned to my fate.
Negotiating a $20 fine down to $12 is a lot like being a slave for a dozen years rather than your entire life — a little better, sure, but it doesn’t exactly erase the sting of those twelve years (or, in my case, twelve dollars). I drove away from the theater with a murderous rage in my belly, which only subsided when I compared my bad luck to that of Solomon Northup. Then I decided that it was a bit silly to feel sorry for myself after watching the abject horror and unthinkable torture he was subjected to oh so long ago. But still.
I couldn’t help but feel Solomon and I were a little simpatico. I should write a tale of my own misfortunes at the hand of an unforgiving master — Twelve Dollars A Slave, coming never to a theater near you.
All kidding aside, Steve McQueen is one of the most exciting filmmakers out there, and though he’s been notable mainly to hardcore cinephiles thus far (for his Michael Fassbender showpieces Hunger and Shame), he’s about to join the mainstream conversation with 12 Years A Slave. (Which isn’t to say he’ll be a household name any time soon, though the movie may very well be.) The slave drama got some excellent buzz out of the Toronto Film Festival and is already one of the top contenders in premature Oscar conversations, drawing comparisons like “it’s the Schindler’s List of slavery.” Neither Hunger nor Shame was made to appeal to a particularly wide audience (which is partly what made them so good), but 12 Years A Slave stands a good chance at being seen by a lot of people. Lee Daniels’ The Butler has made over $114 million domestically so far, and last year’s Django Unchained grossed over $400 million worldwide and scored a slew of Oscar nominations (and a couple of wins). Clearly, there’s a willing audience for these stories.
12 Years A Slave isn’t like either of those movies — especially since it’s much better. It’s neither as palatable as The Butler nor as sensational as Django Unchained, which might diminish its box office (if not its shot at an Oscar). Last year’s Lincoln earned $272 million worldwide, meaning that today’s moviegoers really will see an earnest historical drama set in the 19th century — and again, Lincoln has some factors that 12 Years A Slave doesn’t, including a very recognizable historical figure and the trusted Spielberg name. Still, audiences will turn out for the right historical drama, even one as hard-hitting as this one, every now and then. It’s a big year in black cinema, and if justice is served, 12 Years A Slave is the main course. African-American audiences tend to show up for movies that speak to them, and while 12 Years A Slave is about as nasty a depiction of their ancestry as we’re ever likely to get, it’s a respectful and honest one. There’s a chance that the mainstream will shy away from the experience altogether, but I’m guessing they won’t. I think this is one of those harrowing film experiences people (of all races) actually want to sit through. It might just be the definitive movie on American slavery, after all.
12 Years A Slave is the story of Solomon Northup, a free man living in New York who takes what turns out to be an ill-advised sojourn to Washington, D.C., where slavery is still legal. After a night of drinking with supposed friends, he wakes up literally in chains, and thus begins the worst dozen years of his life. 12 Years A Slave is, in ways, a straight-up horror movie, because we easily identify with gentle-hearted family man Solomon in the beginning. He’s just another cinematic everyman who finds himself in an impossible situation, unlike most slave characters we’ve seen on screen. There’s a petrifying “what if this happened to you?” element in what happens to him — to him, this is almost as unthinkable as it is to us, that a free man could suddenly be anything but. Ejiofor portrays both utter bewilderment and terror at his extreme turn of fortune — and if it can happen to him, it’s almost like it could happen to us.
12 Years A Slave is an unspoilable movie, since the duration of its story is given away in the title. Solomon is a slave for twelve years, then finds his way back to freedom. (Obviously we’d know nothing of his story if those twelve years ended in his burial as an anonymous slave at a Louisiana plantation.) Along the way, Solomon meets many heinous white people, including but not limited to those played by Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Garret Dillahunt. He also meets a nice one (from Canada, natch), portrayed by Brad Pitt, who ends up being instrumental in his freedom. (It must be said, Benedict Cumberbatch’s plantation owner is also halfway decent, considering.) Of course, several slaves also figure notably in his dozen miserable years of servitude, primarily the cotton-picking whiz Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, in a performance likely remembered come Oscar time). Regardless of the ways these characters fit into certain archetypes of the era — the sadistic plantation owner, the helpless slave beauty, the cowardly brute with a whip — each is a specific enough character that they feel real, rather than trotted out from the Oscar bait factory. There are many famous faces here, most in relatively brief roles, but this isn’t The Butler. (That means no Mariah Carey, no Robin Williams, and no Alex Pettyfer.)
The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt is gorgeous, the score by Hans Zimmer alternately beautiful and brash, the screenplay adaptation by John Ridley just about perfect. (And all, in my eyes, Oscar-worthy.) The movie, I am told, closely follows Solomon Northup’s own account of those dozen years, but Steve McQueen directs it to feel fresh, vital, and visceral, without losing perspective of the subject matter. The man is no stranger to cinematic suffering — both Hunger and Shame chronicled various miseries endured by Michael Fassbender, though those were largely self-imposed. Hunger was hard to watch, a test in endurance; 12 Years A Slave has some of this, but is less willfully challenging. (Shouldn’t a movie about slavery be hard to watch, after all?) Shame, meanwhile, was my #1 movie of 2011, largely because I found McQueen’s filmmaking so fascinating. Not everyone appreciates a showy director, but I do.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Alfonso Cuaron — these are the guys I admire most, and now McQueen is very much a part of the same conversation. He shows a fair amount of restraint in that regard — pulling out only a handful of tricks when he really needs them. (As in his other films, there’s a particularly long take here, and it’s a stunner.) Mostly, though, McQueen’s filmmaking feels appropriately muted for a 19th century story, though his flair for the visceral is apparent here and there, such as when we creep through the brush during Solomon’s work day, or when we get a long, unbroken shot of Solomon staring out at the distance, then staring into us. His visuals are carefully considered — the way he composes a shot of Solomon laying next to a slave woman, then cuts to a flashback of Solomon laying next to his wife at an opposite angle, is quietly brilliant visual storytelling. There’s a lot that goes unsaid in this movie, but the actors and direction are strong enough that we get all the information we need, and then some.
Even without 12 Years A Slave, 2013 would’ve been a strong year for black cinema. Inclusive of it, it’s a momentous one. Between 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, and Fruitvale Station, filmmakers are running basically the entire gamut of the African-American experience in this country (with varying degrees of success). It’s astounding to view 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station side by side, for example — despite the difference of roughly 170 years, there’s a shocking similarity between the way Solomon is unjustly shackled and beaten for his protestation, and the way Oscar Grant is unfairly detained in a subway station on New Year’s Day in 2009, leading to his death at the hands of a white police officer. Both films are true stories depicting gross abuses of power, and neither ends with justice being served to the oppressors (as we’re told in title cards at the end of both movies).
Comparisons to Lee Daniels’ The Butler are less favorable to Lee Daniels. I expected The Butler to be a provocative mess like his other movies; and in a way, it was, though not exactly a bad mess. It’s a well-intentioned one. Forest Whitaker delivers a solid performance as Cecil Gaines, even if his (heavily fictionalized) character is passive and ultimately not that memorable a guy. The film suffers from stunt casting, with most of its presidents ranging from distracting to ridiculous — Liev Schreiber, James Marsden, John Cusack, and Robin Williams amongst them, none of whom quite work in the roles. Surprisingly enough, it’s Oprah Winfrey who delivers the strongest performance as Cecil’s not-so-faithful wife Gloria, a more dynamic character than Cecil himself. Cecil’s passive role as servant to a slew of white presidents is presented in stark contrast to the activities of his son Louis (David Oyelowo), who goes from Rosa Parks-style Civil Rights protests to joining the Black Panthers. The Butler certainly bites off more than it can chew, endeavoring to tell essentially the entire story of race relations over 90 years, from a 1920s cotton plantation in Georgia to the election of Barack Obama. Obviously, a lot of glossing over is necessary, and even with all that, the movie still doesn’t know when to end, overstaying its welcome for an extra ten minutes or so.
So yes, The Butler is flawed, deeply flawed — but seriously flawed movies have been nominated for Oscars before and even won them. A strong performance at the box office and mostly positive responses from audiences and critics meant that it stood a fighting chance at major Oscar nominations — at least until 12 Years A Slave came along. I won’t underestimate the general public’s taste for easily palatable pap — like last year, when I assumed Zero Dark Thirty would blow Argo out of the Oscar conversation, only to watch the opposite happen. Often, a nice “safe” movie that follows the rules trumps a more challenging one. But could the Academy seriously agree that The Butler is better than 12 Years A Slave? It’s hard to fathom. 12 Years A Slave is just about perfect, and as lame as it sounds to say, it’s also an important movie. It’s a film that humanizes everybody it depicts, even while depicting some of their ugliest features. (Sarah Paulson’s Southern belle, for example, is a complex villainess, and she delivers a terrific performance.)
12 Years A Slave is at once incredibly subtle and totally in-your-face — few movies find that balance. Already it has the feel of an instant classic, a film that will be discussed and admired for years to come. That doesn’t guarantee it’ll win Best Picture (though it probably should). As history has proven, justice isn’t always served. Either way, Steve McQueen has made his masterpiece. It makes the unhappy ordeals titularly depicted in Shame and Hunger look like Bliss and Too Much Cake in comparison, and yes, it pretty much blows every other slave movie out of the water.