Manuel Betancourt

12 Years a Slave, or How “I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!”

March 2, 2014 · in Film, Oscars

Top 8 - 12 Years12 Years a Slave

Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Adepero Oduye & Angela Bassett.

Oscar Nominations: 9Best Picture, Directing (Steve McQueen), Actor in a Leading Role (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Actor in a Supporting Role (Michael Fassbender), Actress in a Supporting Role (Lupita Nyong’o), Writing – Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley), Costume Design, Film Editing, Production Design

“I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!”

Of all the nominees I set myself to review, 12 Years a Slave was the hardest so that it is my pick for Best Picture tonight is not the only reason why its review is dropping today. I’ve written about the raw force of Blanchett’s performance, the acidly delicious if toothless script behind August: Osage County, the action-packed bravura of Greengrass’s film, the strength of the ensemble in O. Russell’s con-film, the beauty in simplicity of Cuaron’s vision, of the wonderfully queer romance of Her, of the lack of biting comedy in Payne’s latest, of the vexing LGBT visibility issues in Dallas Buyers Club, the debauched world of Scorsese’s Wall Street opus, and the delicious Dench performance in Philomena. I even wrote up Before Midnight without (gasp!) having seen its two predecessors. And yet, I kept putting off writing about McQueen’s powerful and necessary adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoirs of his years as a slave in the 1800s. It’s a hard film to watch and it is hard film to discuss outside of its own place in history, American and Hollywood alike. In following Northrup’s struggle to “live” (not just survive, as he notes) is a harrowing experience mostly because McQueen doesn’t recoil from the pain Northrup is subject to: we watch him hanging longer than we’d feel comfortable with, we see him whip a fellow slave (the luminous Lupita Nyong’o) in an extended long shot that’s painful to watch precisely because it attempts to erase the presence of the camera even as its turns and pans cannot help but remind us of its presence. The framing is exacting and calculated but for that it becomes a way for McQueen and his DP Sean Bobbit to present an old story wholly anew.

But the strength of the film lies not in its near-perfect ensemble or its fantastic below-the-line production values (from its hard-worn and sweat-stained costumes to its haunting score): it lies in the way it represents the very banality of evil that so easily made the institution of slavery such a natural facet of American life and such a bristling wound of American history. This is nowhere more apparent than in Fassbender and Paulson’s portrayal slave owning couple, whose complicated relationship with Patsy so encapsulates the various ways religion, sexuality, and law came to dominate the rhetoric of slavery. Parting glances, imperious silences, furrowed brows; in the plantations McQueen shows us simple gestures become loaded with hatred and an indignity at slaves’ own sense of self. This is not a grandiose formal exercise where history is re-written for one slave as a revenge western nor is it a mere history lesson; it is an examination of the aching pain of the day-to-day life through the eyes of those who never got to own their own time. gestures that are hard to dismiss when we continue to encounter them into the twenty-first century, when that opportune moment within which to find freedom may yet never come, when all we might witness (from Trayvon to the birther movement, from stop-and-frisk to the prison industrial complex) may still yet send us to despair.