Night & Day — 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.