It seems to be a coincidence, no more, that the two extraordinary 2013 films that are truly primal moments in American movies – J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” – are both opening here Friday. “All Is Lost” is a brain boggling man-against-nature tale. “12 Years a Slave” is the slave tale that finally upends and annihilates every egregious and invidious film previously made on the subject.
And when you consider that a film as aesthetically pioneering as D.W. Griffith’s silent film “Birth of a Nation” and as commercially monumental as “Gone with the Wind” have both purported to show us American slavery, the achievement of “12 Years a Slave” is nothing less than the triumph of cinematic justice itself. (It should be mind-bending to one and all in the 21st century that “Gone with the Wind” actually thinks it’s showing us a tale of vanishing “gentility” in the Old South, a bit of moral blindness that could have been accomplished only by decades of racism so institutionalized no one noticed.)
“12 Years a Slave” changes everything. And as brutal as it is, and frequently tough to watch, it exists for truth’s sake, not exploitation.
It’s based on what is, for all anyone now knows, a true story originally told in the slave narrative of Solomon Northup, first published in 1853.
It’s an outrageous tale, a nightmare like some deeply sinister adult version of “Pinocchio.”
We first meet Solomon leading the comfortable life of a black musician with wife and family in Saratoga. When he is talked into a profitable stint traveling with a circus, he is, in fact, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Such nightmares were more than possible in 1841, when almost half of America postulated that human beings were as much “property” as horses, wagons and plows and could be legally treated worse than any of them.
“That peculiar American institution” was the contemptuous epithet for American slavery in the 19th century outside of America.
So we watch Solomon’s ordeal in those 12 years of slavery. The first relatively humane “master” who owns him (Benedict Cumberbatch) has to sell him after a dispute threatens plantation “order” and the second, viciously cruel one (Michael Fassbender) is a sadist whose reputation among slave-owning peers is that of being a successful and vicious “slave breaker.”
What Solomon – prosperous, free citizen of New York State – is told by his newfound slave community is the heartbreaking wisdom of the truly oppressed everywhere: that he must never give any indication he can read or write, much less manifest any other bit of intelligence or cultivation beyond his ability to play the fiddle for the entertainment of his “masters.” To be “uppity” is to volunteer for abuse.
So he learns to go through plantation life with a mask firmly in place, to keep his true nature hidden from oppression. It is that mask that is still so often found centuries later in black/white relations. It is the discarding of that mask that one could argue still causes upheavals in the fear-driven soul of America.
That dozen years of slave life on the plantation is a nightmare odyssey of cruelty, despair and terror, no matter how careful Solomon tries to be.
It’s just that he’s too decent and too humane a man to keep himself completely out of the middle when his “master” and “mistress” battle over the former’s sexual infatuation – and continual abuse – of his most productive cotton-picking slave, Patsey.
Everything about the lives we’re watching is fundamentally vile and obscene, but British director Steve McQueen not only films it matter-of-factly, but with stunning moments of pictorial beauty and artistic cunning and subtlety. In one scene, Solomon is seen slowly tortured in a foreground tableau reminiscent of lynching, while in the background of the film frame everyday plantation life goes on oblivious to the horror and pain.
It’s an episodic tale of a dozen years in a man’s life within a society that is pretending he’s not a man.
The performances are truly harrowing – Chiwetel Ejiofor a near-certain Oscar nominee as Solomon, Fassbender as the sadistic “slave breaking” plantation owner and Sarah Paulson as his even more inhuman wife.
Finally, a free-thinking Northerner (Brad Pitt, one of the movie’s producers) shows up and hears Solomon’s brave, impetuous and dangerous declaration of his true identity.
He becomes the man who went on to publish a best-selling book about Solomon’s 12-year nightmare in 1853 while his fellow slaves who never had the luck of his free origins remain slaves until war would emancipate them – but not really free them.
Some patterns of life and habits of the heart would stubbornly and tragically remain in the 21st century.
This, at long last, is the film America has needed for as long as American films have existed. If it’s tough to watch sometimes, it’s superficially because McQueen is never one who wants his films (“Hunger,” “Shame”) to go down easy. In this case, he has decades of loathsome exploitation and euphemism to explode for the sake of all of us.
And that, thankfully, is what he does with immense power.
12 Years a slave
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson
Director: Steve McQueen
Running time: 134 minutes
Rating: R for a great deal of violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
The Lowdown: The harrowing story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery.