12 Years A Slave debuts in N.O. Civic Theatre
14th October 2013 · 0 Comments
By Michael Patrick Welch
The largest crowd in the 24-year history of the New Orleans Film Festival helped kick off eight days of high-quality new movies, starting at the Civic performance space in the CBD. The mood on the genuinely star-studded red carpet outside of the venue was ebullient — in direct emotional contrast to the gruesome and darkly beautiful movie they’d all gathered to see and promote, 12 Years A Slave. The only people who could have possibly been traditionally happy at the end of the film were the cast, and director Steve McQueen, whose movie has already flattened the Telluride Festival, and won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto. Many will soon be calling McQueen a genius, with the most powerful movie of 2013, and perhaps the most pitch perfect slavery movie of all time.
Though 12 Years A Slave will probably end up filed under ‘historical biopic,’ it is as much a horror movie. We are not told the way in which talented and educated free man of color Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) earned his initial freedom, only that he’s living in 1830s New York with his wife and children. He travels to Washington to take a three-week job, playing violin with a traveling show — but then wakes one morning in chains. He is told he is not who he is, that he’s now a runaway slave, being shipped via paddleboat to Louisiana. The ominous boat’s loud, steady creak permeates even later scenes at cotton and sugarcane plantations on hot Southern land.
The many destined to write about this important film will be, at least this year, unable to resist comparing and contrasting 12 Years A Slave with Quentin Tarantino’s recent spaghetti western slave revenge fantasy, Django Unchained. The two movies share several precise details and a couple of scenes almost note-for note — some moments feel like McQueen speaking directly to Tarantino: This is how it should be done. Where Django was more an anti-authoritarian bit of cathartic “fun” at best, McQueen’s movie bleeds a heavy sadness that Tarantino never dared touch. 12 Years validates most of the criticisms against Django. It is the movie Spike Lee wanted when he flat-out refused Tarantino’s version of the story.
On the first of several plantations, Solomon belongs to a “kind” Christian master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who appreciates Solomon enough to warn him, “You are an exceptional n—–, but I fear no good can come of it.” All the slavers proclaim Christianity, but Ford sticks closest to its rules — despite buying and owning human beings. Still full of rebellion, Solomon cannot accept this kinder, gentler situation and ends up, in one eternally long shot, hanging by a noose over the mud, with only his slippery tiptoes between his life and death. In the background slave women go about washing clothes and their children continue playing — and McQueen has laid bare slavery’s all-permeating bleakness in one sweeping, dreadfully memorizing shot.
To save Solomon’s life from angry whites after a particularly rebellious incident, Ford sells him to a more treacherous slaver, Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), who suffers in sadistic love with his young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). The slaver’s jealous white wife ignites a triangle so vengeful that Patsey begs Solomon to take her to the river and drown her. Still, when Fassbender’s crops are destroyed by a plague of insects, he blames the Black heathens who brought God’s wrath to his pious Christian home.
Solomon possesses the education to write a letter back home and alert family and friends, who could then use his federal papers to free him. But like the victim in most truly terrifying horror films, the protagonist’s every attempt to return to his personal reality sucks him deeper into helplessness, hopelessness and pain. Cut off from the north where slavery was dying out, the entire south becomes Solomon’s vast prison.
The startlingly brilliant cast also includes cameos from Bryan Batt (Mad Men), Jay Hughley (Tremé), and Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild), plus heavy co-signs from the likes of Paul Giamatti as well as the film’s producer Brad Pitt, playing a Canadian who fails to make Fassbender understand the difference between man’s temporary, evil laws, and God’s eternal truths.
The gold Oscar statue is even now opening its arms, offering welcoming embrace to most everyone who participated in 12 Years A Slave. The New Orleans Film Festival could have done much worse than opening their 24th year with the most powerful film in years.
This article originally published in the October 14, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.