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12 Years a Slave

12 years a slave (2013) - McQueen

Tales of wealth and prosperity

The set-up? Head hunters come to Sarasota Springs, New York, circa 1841, looking for a few exceptional men to fill choice positions. Solomon Northup(Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a talented musician. By chance, his wife and children have just left to visit her parents for a couple of weeks, so a well paid, temporary gig in Washington couldn't come at a more opportune time. Solomon steps up to the plate with no false modesty, unaware that "exceptional" in this context means urban.

At first I was puzzled by opening of the film. It seems a rather odd place to begin the story. However, on reflection, this precedes Solomon's last moments as a free man. After this temporary idyll on the Turner plantation; he finally lets go of every trace and memory of his previous life. Because of a "so called" biblical plague that decimates his crops, Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) rents out his slaves to the neighboring plantation for a season or two. Judge Turner is a much kinder and gentler slave owner, his place is more relaxed, although to be perfectly honest, anything beats the back breaking labor of picking cotton. He sets Solomon up with a gig and even allows him to keep the handful of coins that rightfully belongs to him; allowing Solomon to create a tiny little nest egg, of which he will use to make his final bid for freedom.

I'll name three supporting actors who really shine in the film. Paul Dano, who I'll openly accuse of appearing to have way too much fun playing a Louisiana cracker. Sarah Paulson as the desperately unhappy wife of Epps, who's traded her crowded one room shack for a sterile marriage in the big empty house. There's a joke circulating the plantation that if you want your drink of lemonade ice cold, you get Mistress Epps to hold onto your glass for a couple of minutes. And on the short list of cinema's most miserable, God forsaken characters, Lupita Nyong'o's girlish Patsey must surely rank high on the list. Patsey is well aware she's on a one way trip downwards, forever spiraling into deeper and darker levels of the living hell that has become her life.

Although much of the film is grim and harrowing (on the other hand, it could have been much much worse) there are moments of subtle humor. When Solomon aka Platt is off loaded at the port, he gets cuffed in the ear, for not responding when his name was called. Of course, no one had actually bothered to inform him of his new slave name. Or when Platt is banished to the Epps plantation, first day there, Master Epps assembles his slaves and brings out the mother of all justifiers to thump them senseless; the sacred writings from God. The Holy bible states right there, in black and white, that he can whip unruly slaves with many, many lashes, he then arbitrarily interprets many many as meaning 40, 60,or even 150, depending on his ill temper that day. Or when the slaves return from the Turner plantation; Epps takes the time to stop and tell Platt, he knows he's been positively luxuriating over at that other plantation, but he's back home now, back in his clutches, so he better get his mind right; while Epps lectures him, he uses one of shorter slaves as a arm rest.

Likes? The crane shot outside Platt's basement conditioning cell. As he cries out for someone to rescue him, the camera moves from the barred window up the brick wall to reveal Washington and the Capital building in the distance, which seems to suggest a profitable (and extremely well protected) niche business.
  • The bustle and industrious movement of the north contrasts with the slow moving south; where even the trees are so shiftless, Spanish moss makes a home upon their limbs, then dreams of riffling in the breeze.
  • The sound design: the swell of cicadas; the crack of the bull whip in the open fields. I think it was "Inception" that first introduced those really deep sonorous blasts, I loved that borrow, although upon checking Hans Zimmer seems to have borrowed that from himself.
  • They've also taken the right moment to age Platt, the shock of white hairs appears in a scene showing just how dangerously accustomed he's become to this world and one that he's growing old in.
  • Platt is pictured several times either, building and visually framed in within empty houses.
The stories of the three favored women; if you put them all together, they seem to suggest a complete turn of the wheel. Patsey visits the black mistress of a neighboring plantation; the white owner there has taken a fancy to her, and she no longer has to work in the fields; she believes happy days are here indeed. Eliza (who was shipped south with Platt) was also the favorite of her master and bore him a son and a daughter and enjoyed the sweet life for seven or eight years, until he passed. Then his white daughter gave full reign to the simmering hatred she had been storing up for all those years, and returned them all back into slavery, including her half-sister and half-brother. Patsey has been forced into that cycle, she's beginning to attract the unwanted attentions of Epps. Despite a brief moment of stillness and repose, the happiness of a slave is extremely tenuous. It takes a very long time indeed before Platt he figgers out how the masters have marked him with favor.

It's important to emphasize that slave owners are not mental defectives, but basically normal everyday people like you and I with one small exception: they've been given the extraordinary power of life and death over other human beings. Within a short amount time that kind of power corrupts anyone and produces a kind of moral blindness; a carapace hardens over their heart. If they're vexed and venting and they strike someone ... nothing happens. They notice there are no consequences to their actions. So they do it again and again until one soon begins to exult in that cruelty and the delicious sensation of relieving yourself. At the end of the "bar of soap" scene; Epps basically says to Platt, incredibly: "don't harsh my buzz, dude"

Of course, when one no longer wants to comport like a civilized human being and behave like a complete, knuckle dragging brute. They don't loose their Dobermans after you, they let loose their ... lawyers ... and become litigious. It's important to remember slavery was perfectly legal; the laws were carefully trimmed and modified over time to allow this miscreation. It's the astonishing power of the law to level any and all opposition; it's the legal malice of being bankrupted by wealthier opponents; it's the fear of financial ruin that keeps everyone in check and allows the system to keep humming along. Several times during the film, vicious men, evil men, are stopped dead in their tracks and made impotent and useless by the whisper of legal action.

Quibbles? I thought the film would have been made instantly more interesting, had Pitt and Giamatti simply switched roles. The constant, unceasing motion of Platt's fall isn't always obvious. He would be lynched immediately if it was discovered he knew how to read and write, so once Platt learns the external modes of dissembling and shucking (there's a scene in the film where he gives a master class in this) the real work begins; the internal process of becoming inured to his own circumstances, and oblivious to the suffering and misery of those around him. To such a point where he can bear witness to utter depravity without batting an eye or reaction, and more importantly, actively participate.

There's also thematic bookends, where the film began with Platt's last embers of hope, so it ends on lost hope. Before leaping into the carriage, Platt rushes back to embrace Patsey. She's shot from behind so we can't see her face, her eyes are momentarily wild with jubilation―he's going to return to his old life. Only at a safe distance does the camera dare to look back at the cluster of people diminishing in the distance, the director chooses not to show the moment when Patsey suddenly realizes she's been utterly forsaken ... and collapses off screen. Like snuffing out a candle in a cell that will go unlit forever, that look on her face, before darkness claimed her would have been unbearable to see.

"12 years a slave" wants to get into the nitty gritty of plantation life, and look deeply at the blood and guts of slavery—it does this, however I think the film achieves something more. The film shows just how depraved slavery is as a economic system. It's almost like a moral virus that corrupts and defiles everything it comes into contact with; by the lightest touch, it immediately enters the host and devours everything up from the inside, making hollow men of slaves and masters alike, and rendering any kind of humanity impossible.

12 years a slave -