Tuesday, October 22, 2013

12 Years A Slave

This Fall is turning out to be one of the best in terms of films having Oscar potential, especially this early in the game! Tonight I had the much-anticipated pleasure to see 12 Years A Slave with other OSU students and Wexner Center members. Before the film I confidently said it would win Best Picture hands down; after the film I (still) feel it has much exceeded my expectations and emotions. Where do I start?

The all-star cast: Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberpatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Adepero Oduye (Pariah), and the shorter performance by Quevenzhane Wallis (Oscar nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild). Fassbender is obviously McQueen's choice actor, and his role transition from sex addict in Shame to slave owner (still donning his Shame cap) is more than fitting. His vivacious performance creates even greater scenes with the phenomenal Platt (Ejiofor) and Patsey (Nyong'o). The harsher the scene, the more intense the acting; consequently, the harder it is to look away even though the material becomes more graphic.

If only I could showcase 100 stills from this film to capture only part of its perpetual beauty. Here, Patsey defends her life against master Epps.
Not only is this the first slavery film that shows Platt arguing with or fighting back against his owner and getting away with it, it is the only one (that comes to memory) with multiple owners challenging the horrific, yet seemingly realistic conditions slaves endured. Tibeats (Dano) plays the common, rotten, and enraged Slave-hater, but Ford (Cumberpatch) and Bass (Pitt) show that challenging bullies is an everlasting concept that is still being dealt with 170 years later.

Every shot is a beauty unto itself. Platt (Ejiofor) works in the cotton field, above.
The spectacular cinematography kept me entranced as any quality film would and should. The colors contrast beautifully in every scene while the camera not only moves, but captures innovatively. Even the transitions are crafted to startle and yank the viewers' eyes and soul from one scene to the next, a subtle reminder that the slaves had no such break to delight in. The rippling, receding waves of the steamboat paddlewheel (a surprisingly unsettling sequence of shots) are a constant reminder that only looking to your past gets you thrown overboard, no matter the circumstances. The long takes are (as always) exceptionally gratifying.  Semi-spoiler: Seeing Platt tiptoe for his life while hanging by a noose for minutes on end during multiple long takes (in story time this lasts for almost a whole day's work) keeps the viewer breathless and mystified. Notice the house he was building stands in the background as a blinding reminder of why he suffers (end spoiler). Then one of the final shots follows Platt's distressed eyes before they finally fix on the screen/viewer forcing each of us to contemplate the ideals of living and surviving as a slave. Did he survive favorably in the eyes of God? Should he have followed through with Patsey's offer? His growing rage and determination were secured during the extreme long take and moving scene where a group of slaves sings "Roll, Jordan, Roll," reminiscent of the earlier paddle wheel and rolling tide. Be ready to hear this powerful tune again at the Oscars: it will definitely be up for Best Original Song.

The kind master (Cumberpatch) gifts his most worthy slave with a home away from home.
Music plays an important role throughout the film and at multiple times deliberately challenges diegesis vs. non-diegesis. Hans Zimmer's sometimes provocative, rarely uplifting, and mostly impending and Inception-reminiscent score perfectly parallels Solomon's fiddle-playing abilities. His talent which ironically gets him kidnapped via a circus scheme is his only resting place during capture. A wave of his bow silences screams and soothes souls, a literal reminder (he scratches the names of his family left behind into the violin) of the transcendent power of music (and sound mixing & editing in film). Zimmer has long been, for me, the most famous composer of this generation and he will continue to rise (Get it? Because he scored The Dark Knight Rises, too...) in popularity after he nabs an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. Here is just a pre-preview of the soundtrack since it won't be officially released until November 5th (1:50 is a good place to start):

The gripping story of Soloman Northup, a free man who is kidnapped and turned into a slave fights for his survival for 12 terrifying years and captures the audience for 133 minutes. While the film deals slightly with the issue of white supremacy, the overall message has nothing to do with black power. There are some white slave owners that understand the cruelty forced upon The messages are more centered around the power of strength, soul, and family keeping a man determined to one day be reunited with his family. Patsey is by far the most profound woman he meets along his journey. She makes the viewer step into her shoes to realize that while she may have major skills picking cotton in the fields, she is living in a constant hell between Edwin Epps and his Mistress (Fassbender & Paulson). In the end, Solomon and her relationship are reduced to a few words: "But what about Patsey?"
This harrowing tale is based on a memoir of the same title published by Solomon Northup in 1853. As Bass suggests during his heroic monologue, the laws continue to change even though some people are stuck in their own ways. Slavery has since been outlawed but it is a memory never forgotten. Yet, kidnapping, sex trafficking, civil rights, and a countless other inequalities are still profoundly relevant today. A world where people don't have to live in such fear is still miles away, but it is a future that should not be thought of as impossible. It is a goal that Solomon fought for years after he was enslaved, and his heart lives on today in those that carry this similar drive.

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