It swings for the fences so hard, that only the keenest-eyed umpires(I am not considering myself in their company)appear to be noticing that it’s closer to a ground rule double than a pure blast to the upper deck. Honestly, when was the last time that a film’s buzz was so steeped in nobility that you had to be afraid to give it anything less than the highest possible rating? “Saving Private Ryan”? “Schindler’s List”? Damn, now it seems like I’m singling out Spielberg. “The Color Purple”? There I go again, but you can include “The Last Emperor” and “Gandhi” in this category too. And for a film that arrives with the reputation of “groundbreaking” and “unprecedented”, I find its expected horrors lukewarm and its narrative journey pedestrian. We have, in fact, been down this road before—as far back as “Roots” and as recently as “Django Unchained”. “Slavery was really bad” are the hushed tones I keep hearing. Yeah, no shit. But is that all that “12 Years a Slave” is here to say? This is going to be a positive review, btw, but I’ve just got to let some of the air out of this rapidly ascending balloon. Is a Best Picture coronation inevitable come March? Quite possibly. Thankfully though, it does have the amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is given the task of carrying this historical(based on a true story)behemoth on his thespian shoulders. He is more than up to the task.
Solomon Northrup(Mr. Ejifor, deservedly on his way to the Best Actor glory I’ve been hoping for him since “Dirty Pretty Things” a decade ago)is a free, black husband and father living in New York State. An accomplished musician, he is tricked into joining a touring orchestral group by two seemingly sincere white men. After a celebratory night of drinking with the pair, Solomon is drugged—and later wakes up chained to a floor. To his utter horror, Solomon quickly realizes that he has been sold into slavery. He is renamed “Platt”, and transported by boat to Louisiana where he is bought by a plantation owner named Ford(Benedict “Khan” Cumberbatch—quite good as a mostly benevolent slave master). Solomon is almost immediately at odds with a carpenter named Tibeats(the always fine Paul Dano)who envies “Platt’s” relationship with Ford, and torments him at every turn. This leads to an astonishing scene, where Tibeats tries to lynch Solomon after a physical altercation. Solomon survives, but is left hanging by his neck from a tree limb, only saved from strangulation by struggling to stand on the very tips of his toes, while his fellow slaves stay out of harm’s way by simply going about their business around him. It’s an incredibly powerful and remarkably still moment(that you’ll recognize as one of the director’s specialties if you’ve experienced McQueen’s “Hunger” and “Shame”). Solomon is then transferred to the ownership of the volatile Edwin Epps(McQueen perennial Michael Fassbender—breathing fire here)and his calculating wife Mary(a wonderful Sarah Paulson). He becomes close friends with Epps’ prized slave Patsey(expect an Oscar nomination for newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o), and even briefly attempts an escape. There are whippings and rapes and constant degradation, all while Solomon desperately tries to hide his ability to read and write(punishable by death), yet still attempting to author and stealthily transport a letter to his friends in the North to come save him. When Brad Pitt shows up for a cameo(he’s one of the film’s producers, but what a terrible casting decision to have him appear onscreen), it pulls you right out of the picture, but it also notifies you that Solomon/Platt is achingly close to fruition.
Listen, I’m a white, 48-year old, liberal, married, father of two, living in a 2/3 Republican suburb, after being born and raised on the urban streets of Jersey City, New Jersey. Please, believe me when I say that I’m not trying to pat myself on the back when I predict that I won’t, in the coming weeks, happen across one man, in my town of 8000 people, who is ready to discuss the virtues of “12 Years a Slave” after seeing it by himself while it’s still in theaters. It’s just not going to happen. Too much football for them to watch, and too much Candy Crush to play. Hey, I don’t think I’ve gone off on a tangent in a while, but culturally this country is in pretty pitiful shape. People will speak of “12 Years a Slave” like it’s genius without even seeing it. You know when and how most will watch it for the first time? In bits and pieces when it pops up on cable television next year. But they’ll line up for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” this coming weekend. That is a built-in audience, and(of course)it boasts a sea of caucasian actors(so much for progress). So, it pains me to have negative things to say about the film, because it’s such a well-mounted piece. Really, I’m tickled pink that a film directed by a man of color from England(Steve McQueen-no relation to the “king of cool”), also starring a black actor from the UK, and written by an African-American screenwriter from Wisconsin(John Ridley), is getting so much press. That’s the cool part of this overwhelming praise parade. But I won’t be sucked into the revelry based on that alone. It humps the anti-slavery note for over two hours(is anyone in its intended audience actually pro-slavery?). The movie also has a built-in safety feature right in the title(and I don’t care if the book is of the same name). As far as being the most important portrait of slavery ever filmed(something I’ve read more than once), I harken back to Stanley Kubrick’s comment regarding his friend Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”. To paraphrase Stanley K, “the holocaust is about 6 million people who were murdered, and this film is about 600 who made it”. So, don’t hit me with that “most important ever” crap, because I’m not buying it.
It’s still wincingly fresh to me how powerful it was when a brutal whipping finally broke Levar Burton’s Kunta Kinte into acquiescing that his name was now “Toby” in 1977’s “Roots”. Or how heartbreakingly sad it was when Oprah Winfrey’s Sofia only got to spend a few minutes with her family, when that hysterical white bitch of an employer couldn’t figure out how to drive an early motor car in 1985’s “The Color Purple”. Then there’s the gut-wrenching horror of a group of chain-linked slaves being yanked overboard one-by-one(by the weight of the others)in 1997’s “Amistad”(you know, I’m really amazed now that Spielberg didn’t end up directing “12 Years a Slave”!). I’m so pleased that Rottentomatoes is now providing pictures of most of the critics on their roster. Scroll through and gander at the sea of white faces! “12 Years a Slave” is the most self-congratulatory major film release since “The Help”. It isn’t a bad piece of work. In fact, it’s mostly a very good one. But it stinks of middlebrow awards prestige. So, everyone needs to calm down just a bit, because it’s hardly the masterpiece that it’s being made out to be. Ejiofor is superb, though, and that’s your impetus(from this corner, at least)to make sure you see it. Grade: B+