^ 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