Predictably an Oscar hopeful (and isn’t pretty much any high-profile movie these days with the word “slave” in its title or within its thematic scope?), 12 Years a Slave is based on the true story and memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black musician from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery for 12 years in the South.
That’s an interesting twist on the subject of slavery, but as presented in 12 Years a Slave, it doesn’t feel as original as it should. What the movie offers is not so much one man’s unique story as yet another expose on the horrors of life on a Southern plantation circa the mid-19th century. I wanted less of that sort of sensationalist exposition and more of Solomon's inner life. And what about his family? What was going on with his wife and kids during his absence? Did they realize that he’d been abducted? How did they cope during his long absence? There's an Odyssean element to this story that begs to be presented from both sides.
Watching scenes of the family's struggle would have made Solomon’s resonate beyond that of thousands of men in captivity. I may have been more invested in a reunion, too. Coming two Oscar seasons after director Steve McQueen’s thoroughly original Shame – it’s not every day, or year, that you see a film with a sex addict at the center, which may have crushed Shame's Oscar chances from the beginning – it makes me wonder how a guy who made such an uncompromising second full-length film ended up giving us such tried and true for his third.
One can only witness so many whippings, so much brutality, hear the N word so many times before one becomes somewhat desensitized to it. Over the course of more than two hours, it can start to feel a little bit like porn, both in the repetition of certain behavior (yet another beating, yet another racist tirade, yet more unbelievable disregard for human life) and in the viewer’s potentially mechanical reaction to it.
For all its now-too-commonplace elements, 12 Years a Slave is a well-made movie, with astonishing attention to detail, right down to the fly that’s buzzing around between the heads of slave owner Edwin Epps (Shame star Michael Fassbender, once again owning his character, without judgment) and a slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, a lovely revelation) in one scene of dark, brutal afterglow. (Panning to the U.S. Capitol building as Solomon is wailing in captivity nearby is another awesome touch.)
The acting can be uneven, but when it works, it’s Oscar nomination-worthy. Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (as Epps's bitter, brittle wife) nail their characters’ bigotry and cruelty, and Nyong’o offers a near-wordless performance as Patsey that’s beautiful and haunting. At least two of the three (Fassbender and Nyong’o) are all but guaranteed citations from the Academy, but Paulson, a long-dependable and versatile actress who turned in stellar and quite different work earlier this year in Mud (and a few years ago in Martha Marcy May Marlene), deserves to be in the Oscar discussion, too.
I know I was supposed to be horrified by Epps, and I was, but Fassbender gives him so many layers that I kept finding myself wanting to know more about him. Though he’s the most savage of beasts, Fassbender infuses him with, if not humanity, humanness. There’s so much going on behind his eyes. Is he being the devil for the hell of it, or is something else driving the force of his evil?
At one point, he makes a speech about how slaves are property, and one can do whatever one wants to do to one’s property. This is ironic because people generally treat their property with more care than many slave owners treated their human possessions. They often compared them to animals, but right up to the slaughter, they took better care of their animals than they did of their slaves. Why the specific, over-the-top cruelty to slaves? It’s an interesting question. I don’t know if it’s an answerable one, but if a movie were to try, at least it would be a new twist on old material.
Still, this is supposed to be Solomon’s story, not Epps', and likely Best Actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (like McQueen, a black Englishman) does strong work as the main character. His performance, however, doesn’t feel quite definitive. It’s easy to imagine a number of other actors (say, The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie, for instance) in the role, working wonders with the material. Ejiofor doesn’t own the character of Solomon -- not the way Jamie Foxx, for all of the issues I had with his performance in Django Unchained, owned Django -- and for me, the film suffers for it.
Like Forest Whitaker’s title character in The Butler, though to a lesser degree, Solomon occasionally seems too much like an observer, watching his own story from the sidelines, being upstaged by everything that's going on around him. During one particular centerpiece whipping scene during which Solomon reaches his breaking point, I found myself focusing more on Patsey's pain (I can still hear those devastating howls ringing in my ears!) than Solomon's, even when she wasn't even in the frame.
Ejiofor does subtle well, though, and he has one of those faces that makes you want to stare at it, so when he’s required to quietly convey Solomon’s thoughts with facial expressions only, he never falters. Faring less well are the two Pauls – Giamatti and Dano – who are all studied mannerisms and Southern ticks. They're not convincing racists or scary ones because they don’t inhabit their inglorious bastards the way Fassbender does Epps. They’re ACTING too hard, playing stock characters the way we’ve seen them played so many times before, since the first time Roots aired on TV in the late '70s.
Or maybe it’s just that I’ve seen these types of characters too often now. What was so shocking in 1977 is just maddening after three and a half decades of it. Coming a year after Lincoln and Django Unchained, less than a year after the opening scene of The Butler, and a few months after I saw Spartacus for the first time in its entirety, I simply may have had my fill of slave stories. They’re no longer educational or enlightening, and they’ve never been entertaining. I don’t know why Hollywood keeps going back to them, but 12 Years a Slave is my final one. I’m good.