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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Review: 12 Years a Slave

Stanley Milgram taught us the peril of obedience with a series of psychological experiments - putting subjects in a position to, under order, seemingly inflict pain on others - that demonstrated how frequently humans will exchange morality for authority. Of the experiments, Milgram said: "Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

What's even more notable of the experiment is the criticism it drew for the moral duress and stress it placed on participants, who would sweat, tremble, groan and even nervously laugh while they believed they administered painful shocks. The experiments, however brief, wore on them psychologically but did not stop their actions. 

I can think of no better comparison to make for 12 Years a Slave, a movie based on the story of Solomon Northup, a free African American man living in the north who was captured and sold as a slave in the south. 12 Years is likely one of the best films you'll see this year, but it's also a gut-wrenching, harrowing story that feels much like a movie portrayal of Milgram's experiment. And as in the experiment, all of the players suffer. 

The focal point of 12 Years is Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as well as other slaves he encounters as he moves from one plantation to the next. Northup lived as a free man in New York for most of his life, so his capture into slavery progressively changes him from a person with convictions and ideals - a man who puts his children to bed every night and, when captured, refuses to take a beating - to someone who closes his eyes at night when other slaves are raped and will not only take a beating, but also give one. This progression is done so naturally that Northup's change is not only painful but understandable and relatable, based on his circumstances.  

What's more unusual about 12 Years is the focus it places on the slave owners. The passing of Northup from one owner to the next marks the passage of time in this film, and with each owner we see deeper beneath the surface than we do in traditional portrayals. 

Northup's first owner, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is portrayed as the most benevolent slave owner of the film. Northup is later passed off to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a ruthless, psychologically-disturbed drunk. Superficially Ford and Epps are quite different, but the film gradually unravels the similarities between these men, who cling to Bible scriptures and the law of the land, but clearly mentally suffer for doing what they believe is lawfully and socially correct. And so it seems the worse the torture these men inflict, the more they themselves suffer. In this movie, slavery is a system - a machine that churns and destroys everyone involved.  

There are a surprising number of high-profile actors in 12 Years - some well-cast, while others simply distracting - but three actors stand out among the phenomenal ensemble: Ejiofor for his lead role as Northup, Fassbender's portrayal of slave owner Epps, and Lupiita Nyong'o's portrayal of Patsey, a slave who lives alongside Northup and receives unsolicited attention from Epps. All three of these actors would deserve Academy Awards for their performances. Surprisingly, the worst part of this movie comes in the form of a short appearance from Brad Pitt. I don't have strong predilections for or against Pitt, but in this particular role he sticks out like a sore thumb, speaking with a strange accent and distracting from the overall film at a rather crucial point in the movie. It wasn't quite as bad as Quentin Tarantino randomly showing up in Django and trying to do an Australian accent, but it wasn't far from it. 

In addition to the acting, there are clear technical and directorial achievements in this film. 12 Years is no Lincoln; there's no sense of triumph or sweeping grandiosity. It's visceral, uncomfortable, gritty, and forces the viewer to look when we would ordinarily look away. These sort of directorial choices are the signature of director Steve McQueen's ever-improving craft, which turned heads in 2011's graphic drama Shame, and is likely to land him on the shortlist for this year's Best Director awards. What you're seeing is so ugly, it can be hard to realize how well it's being shown, but this film is also very stylish. The shots are beautiful, and often long-held, though this may try some viewers' patience. Select scenes are scored with gentle and inobstrusive music from Hans Zimmer, using motifs that borrow heavily from Zimmer's previous work on Inception and The Thin Red Line. 

If Gravity is an exercise in tension, 12 Years a Slave is an exercise in patience - or perhaps even misery - but it's a worth-while endeavor. As hard as it is to watch, it's well-worth the undertaking. I give it an A. 
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1 comment:

  1. wonderful analysis. great to bring in the milgram experiment indeed. thank you


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