Saturday, January 25, 2014


These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

Chiwetel Ejiofor masters restraint as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave.”

By Dominique Paul Noth

No movie can be as good as the commercials and gushing interviews that surround it at awards time. Sometimes the insistence that this is the best film, the best performance, the best supporting performance, the best ensemble can artificially inflate expectations and do disservice to work better served creeping over us.

This is happening to a major contender in the Oscars sweepstakes, “12 Years a Slave.”  The movie is a compelling journey, a revealing artistic reminder of a historic episode (I would argue an ongoing episode) of the horrors that the ruling class inflicts on fellow humans in the name of property rights and racial domination. But some viewers take that call to conscience as a turnoff, labeling “Slave” as one of those Politically Correct shout-outs to sell a topic they expect to be heavy-handed.  You can hear that reaction on social media. 

But for now it is more essential to validate the film-makers.

Despite the gushy publicity, this is a forward-moving chapter in film literature.  It allows actors and cinema artistry to carry the bulk of a persuasive story that,   whether you are PC-overburdened or not, adds to our understanding of what America was and is.  Best of all at its center is an indelible restrained performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.

There has also been too much emphasis in the discussions around the film over its raw depiction of violence.  The casualness of the beatings and killings of slaves are upsetting – but factual. The cavalier speed with which a white mistress insults and maims a black rival is a pointed demonstration of jealousy unchallenged and a stomach-turning choice in storytelling.

But there’s more than brutal reality here. The elongated scenes of common whippings and demeaning field work are matched by elongated periods of introspection as the characters grab moments of eating, sleeping and dreaming  in the woods – or stealing a gesture of defiance where possible. The plotting reinforces the crushing weights upon the slave, that sense of inescapability that a modern public cannot grasp and certainly can’t accept (because these days we think we can escape anything). 

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey
The best actors have also seized this insight -- that the pain for these slaves didn’t stop when the director yelled “Cut!” Director Steve McQueen (no, not that McQueen, this one is British, black and a considerable artist) provides a screen equivalent of how Mark Twain as novelist suggested psychological flight in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” There the Mississippi River became an interlude of flowing mental refuge until the cruelty and foibles on land crashed back in.

Similarly, the placid swamps,  the  cane and cotton fields, the antebellum mystique  provide brief respite from overseer brutality – and then  plantation  children romp  around a black man hung up for punishment.

It is this contrasting tone set by the director and the best of the acting that allows such contradictions and images to convey the internal turmoil, rather than descending into false nobility or romanticism. McQueen is fascinated by the sexual politics at play in this era, but he most frequently resists the temptation to impose our modern sensibilities and sense of superiority on the characters.  

Viewers may long for more redemptive revenge action a la Bourne legacies, rather than perpetrators and victims trapped in their own times and circumstances.  There is an amusing recognition of how those well-mannered Southern whites can pout in sympathy for displaced blacks before demanding their next beating.  Occasionally you catch screenwriter John Ridley pointing too hard in his choices of episodes and dialog and even toying with pamphleteering.

But mostly the film is full of largely subtle indications not of white cruelty but their misapplication of religious fervor, their dominant insistence on human property as economic chattel, their incapability to question their own sense of privilege. 

A needed historic note: Northup was a free man drugged into slavery in 1841 and then sold to a series of plantation owners in Louisiana until rescued by friends. His memoirs were a pamphleteering best seller among abolitionists in the 1850s and then virtually disappeared from prominence in black literature with the news that it had been co-authored by a white man.   In recent times, its verisimilitude and Northup’s untarnished remembrances have gained immense stature. While the dialog and some incidents are imagined, most of what takes place in the film is unbelievably true, since Northup fought  a white man attacking him and for years disguised his own sophistication, both usually causes for instant lynching in the South. 

Ejiofor captures a beaten captive reluctant to fully identify with the subservient blacks around him yet clearly sympathetic to their suffering.  Determined to survive, fearful of revealing his education and intellect, he still can’t hide his capabilities. So he is constantly on edge between the whites looking for him to slip and the blacks looking to him for solace.

With the funeral singing of “Roll Jordan Roll” we recognize the powerful line Northup has walked – never accepting being a slave yet never fully accepting the fate of the blacks around him. The awards may not notice that staggering acting revelation within a simple spiritual, but those are the moments the set the film apart. 

A similarly intense actor’s motor drives Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, born a slave and riddled with melancholy, awareness of her sexuality yet fearful of the white interest. The performance is drawing huzzahs about a new ingénue to light the screen, particularly because of her impact during a bloody beating, but her honest approach is sometimes tested by the film’s desire to show her off.

Adeporo Oduye as Eliza in a scene with
 Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”
There are equally powerful performances going unrecognized, notably Adeporo Oduye as Eliza, the slave who can’t forget the children taken from her. Alfre Woodard supplies a wickedly shrewd vignette as Mistress Shaw, the black matron who has used her appeal to secure her fortune.

There are too many cameos by established actors to call this a triumph of ensemble acting.  But there are winning impacts by Benedict Cumberbatch as a well-meaning but cowardly landowner and Paul Giamatti as a ruthless slave trader.  Well acted but overdemonstrative in incidents chosen for explosiveness are Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the slave-owning couple from hell (or someplace even south of that).

In history, there was a deus ex machina of Northup’s salvation, a white worker named Bass who risked his own life to send word north of Northup’s plight. As Bass, Brad Pitt (also a producer) falls into an abolitionist call to arms far more than the plot device the film required.

But Ejiofor is a triumph and given room to plummet depth, from survivor’s triumph to survivor’s guilt.  Yes there are faults and too much hype, but your heart and mind will overcome that.  “12 Years a Slave”  certainly does.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”   Check them out and add your comments.