Night & Day — “12 Years A Slave” is a low-budget independent picture with a grand-scale feel that managed to get made in this era of overblown comic book fantasies. Production costs were reported to be around $20-million. It tells a true story, but it doesn’t tell it as well as it should.
In Saratoga Springs, there is an historical marker celebrating a native son that reads: SOLOMON NORTHUP Born 1808 A Free Man, Lured From Saratoga, Kidnapped & Sold Into Slavery, 1841; Rescued, 1853. Author “Twelve Years A Slave” City Of Saratoga Springs 1999.
Unfortunately, the motion picture version of Northup’s ordeal as a slave feels like a road marker. It’s certainly filled with harrowing moments, and it has two great performances, but the film lacks genuine emotional depth. You do care about what you see, but the caring lacks the passion necessary to allow the movie to be called great.
Yes, this story of a free black man, a popular violinist in New York state, makes you uncomfortable and does rip at your emotions, but that reaction is not the result of strong dialogue or a story that flows freely. It’s the result of the brutality that is displayed on screen.
British director Steve McQueen, a visual pop artist by training, wants you to feel every crack of the slave owner’s whip (skin literally explodes). He wants you to know disgust at the depiction of a hanging as the black victim’s legs shake and shake and shake. He wants you to hate the cruel language that is shouted at slaves. He wants you to loathe Michael Fassbender’s vicious plantation owner as he rapes one of the black women he “owns.”
What McQueen wants is for you to completely, and without equivocation, despise slavery. But what McQueen doesn’t seem to have recognized is that the great majority of people who are going to see his film already think of slavery as one of the worst manifestations of human behavior. What he needed to do was tell a better story, one that was handed to him on a silver platter by Northup’s memoir.
Northup was conned into going from Saratoga to Washington, D.C., where he was seemingly drugged and turned over to men who make a living selling humans to work plantations in the southern United States. Once Northup is in Georgia, the movie settles into a rut. The slaves work the fields, are whipped and beaten, and are occasionally treated as entertainment. We know that Northup is an educated man, but because McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridley want to grind your face into the horrors of slavery, we lose sight of the man and his humanity.
This is especially true once Michael Fassbender’s plantation owner shows up. Suddenly, the black characters (all slaves) play second fiddle to the evilness Fassbender embodies. He dominates the goings-on. This plays into McQueen’s desire to carry on with the bloodlust with which he saturates everything. But, he derails his own movie. Northup’s story gets pushed aside. We also have no idea what his family was thinking in Saratoga. The picture ignores this.
Ridley’s screenplay tells everything in vignettes. It’s like watching a series of tableaus about the Deep South, cotton picking, and white bullies. However, one vignette does standout.
It takes place in the home of slave dealer Paul Giamatti. Black souls, many naked, are paraded about and treated like devils or jesters. Children are wrenched from parental arms. The whites buy and sell as if they are picking up laundry. This sequence alone has more believable emotion and horror in it than the rest of the movie combined. There are no special effects here. It’s raw. It’s cruel. It’s heartbreaking.
The brutality we witness eventually inures us to McQueen’s vision. He is fortunate in having British actor Chiwetel Jiofor play Northup. His face tells us everything we need to know about anguish and loss. He deserves an Oscar nomination. If only he had more, much more to say.
Equally worthy of an Oscar nod is Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the slave girl named Patsey. What McQueen puts her through is harrowing. The problem is that no caring person with an ounce of humanity in their being can sit in a theater and not avert their eyes at some of the terrors she faces. Again the problem is that it’s just too much. It may be unflinchingly ugly, but we do flinch and look away and lose sight of why we are at the movie
We are in the theater to watch a man who has been taken from his beloved wife and children and career; ripped from the comfortable life he lived. Yet McQueen and Ridley keep drifting away from Northup’s sorrow. This approach is a mistake and it cheats their own film.Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.