MEEK AT THE MOVIES : Twelve Years a Slave ( 4 stars )

 ^ being sold off like livestock : Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Steve McQueen’s “12 years a Slave’ (Paul Giamatti as the slave trader)
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The stain of slavery on American history has seen many vast renderings on celluloid, from the misguided pro-South, silent masterpiece by DW Griffith, “Birth of a Nation” (1915), where Klansmen are embossed in a heroic light, to Quentin Tarantino’s recent revisionist fantasy, “Django Unchained” where the Klan are little more than Keystone cops in hoodies, and an embolden slave, freed of his shackles and armed, rains down his wrath on skin trading vermin. Both are cinematic achievements in their own right, but neither gets at the foul plight of rooting day-to-day under the duress of an overseer’s whip. Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” came close, but that sweeping epic took place centuries ago, long before the pilgrims hit the shores of Massachusetts and our European forefathers began an unwritten policy of treating people of non-white pigmentation, like pests and livestock. The good (or grim as it may be) news is that director Steve McQueen, who is black, British and an auteur of recent reckoning, goes at the matter in “12 Years a Slave” in a fashion that gets under the viewer’s skin in unexpected ways. It’s uncomfortable and telling. What McQueen achieves is a visceral experience that, while not a history lesson in the factual sense, becomes the de facto moral rendering of an era that should only be recalled with remorse and shame.
Ironic too, as McQueen’s last movie also bore that same notorious branding. “Shame” plumbed the torment of a sex addict trying to come to terms with himself. In “Slave,” Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in antebellum upstate New York, too is a tormented soul, but his torments are not self-inflicted. Not in the least, they come at the hands of amoral slave traders and sadistic, bourbon-soaked plantation owners bearing jealous outbreak and a cat-o’-nine-tails.
How, one might ask did a free man in the Abolitionist North come to be a slave? Northrup’s ordeal really happened, though the film based on his 1851 memoir, plays loose with the circumstance that delivered Northrup into slavery. In quick wisps we understand that he’s an educated man, a talented violin player and has a family and a revered reputation among both black and white in his community. We hardly get all this when he’s hastily introduced to two traveling performers who want to recruit him for a well-paid, short-term gig in DC. After a handshake we then see Northrup with the two men dinning and drinking liberally in a fine establishment. It’s the last time Northup’s face bears a smile. Next, he’s throwing up in an alley, and then waking up in chains in a hellish dungeon right out of a cheap horror flick. It’s a very bad hangover indeed.
It’s here too that McQueen makes his most stinging social observation as the camera slowly pans up and out through the grating of the cell and over a brick wall to reveal the Capital in the tantalizing near distance: so much injustice, so close to a bastion of justice.
While questions of Northrup’s incarceration persist (Who are these guys, what drives them and how could Northrup be so naive?), the film delves into the denied existence of the slave as Northrup and others are covertly boarded onto a boat and shipped to Louisiana where they are sold off (Paul Giamatti playing the head slave trader). Northrup quickly learns that to appear educated or to protest his incarceration (he is given the name Platt) only means a lashing, so then it becomes a sheer matter of survival. He tells one grieving woman, ostensibly once free herself and separated at auction from her son and daughter, that she needs to get over it and save her own skin for as long as she can. His cruel words are just about the kindest act that occurs on a plantation. Northrup is initially sold to a benevolent owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who allows Platt to engineer the fording of lumber down the bayou to make the harvesting process more efficient (like the British prisoners in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”) which enrages the short-fused overseer (Paul Dano, really coming into his own) and leads to his near hanging.
Platt’s next passed  on to a drunken cotton plantation owner (Michael Fassbender, who starred in each of McQueen’s previous features) who regularly beats slaves so gruesomely it’s vomit and tear inducing and freely takes pleasure with young slave women; much to the protest of his equally turbulent wife (Sarah Paulson). In short, it’s hell where abuse comes from all angles and there is no right or safe path to stick to. All one can do, is but endure.
How the ordeal comes to term, is somewhat redeeming, but not just. If you’ve ever seen “Amistad” and recall the disturbing scene in the ocean where slaves, shackled to each other, some weak, some hale and some dead, are dumped into the ocean, where they all go down in a daisy chain of certain death, that’s the type of grim inhumanity that fills the middle third of “Slave.” And, as a viewer you can’t escape the oppressive torment of the bayou’s humidity and bugs, which McQueen serves up as a sensual feast akin to a gauzy Terrence Malick immersion.  It gnaws as you the way the American tragedy as relayed through one man’s eyes (Ejiofor is more than Oscar worthy) does.
The power of “Slave” is not so much its rote plea to ‘not forget,’ but its invitation to understand. 
— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies



^ Old politics, good friendship at Ward 15 Democrats’ dinner rally for Marty Walsh (at John Barros’s restaurant Cesaria on Bowdoin Street, Dorchester)

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Much is being made, in this second phase of Boston’s Mayor campaign, of who is the progressive candidate. Marty Walsh’s campaign has claimed the title. John Connolly’s supporters beg to differ. I agree with John Connolly’s supporters. Connolly is the progressive. Here’s why:

To be a progressive, a candidate has to offer progress. A progressive must seek to change things, evolve, develop, innovate. Boston is changing even as I write, and we need to elect a guiding hand for that change rather than allowing it to be a matter of chance. The change begins in the campaign itself. In that regard, Connolly has already delivered. Not since the 1967 election — to which I often refer — have I seen such an uprising of new activists; indeed, activists almost of an entirely new culture. Many are new to Boston. Few have any awareness of, much less connection to, the old tribal, ethnic, neighborhood insularities that defined Boston politics for 100 years at least. The new activists live in the world at large. Their Downtown is a European-ized marketplace of ideas, goods, talk, and music. Their neighborhoods, too. Radically they do not live the past. Radically they are about creating a future device by device, code by code, connection by connection, and creating social circles based on that connectivity, code, and device creation.

Perhaps not since Americans of 1910 to 1930 created the car, the radio, the national highway system, subways, and the movie and music industries has a generation of Americans so utterly rewritten the book as these new Bostonians are re-writing our city’s annals. Connolly is their avatar, their political voice, their trekkers’ guide, their enabler.

The word “Progressive” first came to use in the 1890s and continued into the 1920s. It was a vast movement with five components : reform of government; civil rights; conservation of natural resources; school reform, and financial regulation. Progressivism also had a temperance component that has long since dated — nobody today would take a hatchet to saloons as Carrie Nation did — but it retains a moral fervor, directed now to a celebration of skin color, cultural, and lifestyle diversity.

The moral component of progressivism is present in Marty Walsh’s campaign, but is the cutting edge of Connolly’s. Walsh has himself been a hero of civil rights fights, but Connolly has lived it. So far, so good for both.

But when we look at government reform, schools, and conservation — today, green agendas, bicycles, and parks — the win goes to Connolly. Looking at the two campaigns’ cultures, it’s no contest.

Marty Walsh is far the less radical of the two candidates. His agenda seeks adjustment, not transformation. He is the candidate of an interest group which itself has but a single agenda : jobs and better wages. (Not that jobs and better wages are not important. Of course they are.) He doesn’t grasp what Downtown is all about — and admits it; a likable humility to be sure — and has nothing to say about the kind of Boston he envisions four, eight, 20 years from now. I question whether he thinks ahead at all. It is said that Marty Walsh has helped a lot of people. I believe it. He is all about helping others. His heart is in it. But that is a 1900 ward boss’s definition of politics. You can’t today just help people, because for everyone you help in a huge city there’s 1000 others you can’t get to. And even then, what ? The Mayor has to see the future for everyone and build them a road to it.

Attending the Ward 15 Democrats’ dinner rally for Marty Walsh last night at John Barros’s restaurant Cesaria, I found great food and several dear friends from the old politics. It was like going back to the 1983 Mayor campaign : politicians, laborers, ward heelers. Face to face and hugs. All great people, I have sweated precinct work with many of them (or with their predecessors). Theirs was — still is — a politics of the physical, just as was and is their labor. Boston was built by their ancestors, long-shored by their parents. But it was distressing to me to see just how back in time many of these folks walked. And yes, I walked with them back then. Theirs was for a long time my politics too. But the City has changed, and is changing, and if I do not change with it, that’s my fail.


^ new beats, new dance, new politics ; BREK.ONE SUPREME dropping a set at GEM and introducing John Connolly

At the same time that Ward 15 Democrats were gathering, John Connolly’s new-city supporters were dancing at GEM Night Club, downtown, to the beats, rumble, and strobe light dark plush of DJ’s Akrobatik and BREK.ONE SUPREME.

I do not mean to disparage Marty Walsh’s Ward 15 people. Not at all. The next Mayor of Boston badly needs to bring them into the new City being made even as I write — made, re-made and made again so rapidly that what ripens obsolete today will rot like a mummy before you know it.

It may well be that entrusting the leadership of Boston to a radical transformer like Connolly is too risky for a vote base that seeks immediate security first; that dares not chance tomorrow’s job for next year’s career; that sees admission to a union as the ultimate accomplishment. Understood. But to call the urgency of Walsh voters progressive is a mistake. It is a politics of safety and security, of resistance to change because it sees — has learned to know — economic change as a grave threat.

It is a threat — if one takes it as such. It is hard to chance jumping onto a moving train. But what do you do otherwise ? Those industrial jobs are NOT coming back, and the well-paying union jobs at Verizon and National Grid won’t all survive technology change forever. Even the Boston building boom — the rain that water’s Marty Walsh’s political crops — won’t last forever. What then ? If not the John Connolly, technology future, what then ?

— Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere