Before I'd Be a Slave
A Film Comments Magazine Presents special with “director and cast in person” at the New York Film Festival, 12 Years a Slave arrives to exaggerated awards and box-office expectations and PC praise. Like that of this same African-British director/co-producer Steve McQueen’s 2008 Festival selection Hunger, the story of dignified endurance confronting oppression is hard to say no to without sounding reactionary, prejudiced or heartless.
Another print-announced “based on a true story,” the two-and-a-quarter hours takes off from the same homonymic 1853 personal account as 1984 made-for-TV American Playhouse Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. By a self-righteous lady who had not seen slavery in the flesh and subsequently went on to defend some very scurrilous people, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel” according to no less an expert on writing and racism than James Baldwin. For the same caricatures-as-characters reasons, 12YS is, not bad, but not that all-fired good, either.
Apart from those characters, the cinematography itself is over-prettified and distracting. Composition and framing admire themselves in incessant dark sequences, nighttime, belowdecks, in lockups and slave cabins, in which strategic limited lighting reflects off facial contours. In others, flooded with light, the subject is sharp foreground, while, lest we forget, the nasty cracks a whip in depth-of-field-unfocused back. Or paddle wheels make nice regular wave patterns into the lost past and sick sunsets peek through spindly trees draped in Spanish moss.
This is not a judgment on the rightness of the film’s outrage, but to insist that art not be untrammeled ire or emotion and that neither it nor life is literally or metaphorically pure black and white. While no one would argue that this nation’s peculiar institution was not evil abomination, most real people then and now are not categorizable as absolutes. The film’s only true “grey,” in that he has inner conflicts, is not an American at all but liberal Canadian Bass or Boss (co-producer Brad Pitt), who along with the audience questions why he has stayed in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, these twenty years.
A free man who happens to be black, a carpenter by trade and talented left-handed amateur fiddler -- no background provided or needed -- Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives comfortably in 1841 Saratoga, New York, and briefly eyes but does not react to black house slaves there, too. Tricked into leaving wife Anne and their young Margaret and Alonzo (Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Zeigler) for a promised two-weeks’ gig in D.C., he is drugged, sold, chained, taunted, beaten and shipped into Deep South slavery.
Deciding that he will not rock the figurative boat by rebelling or giving the least indication of his education and literacy, Solomon (now called Platt) witnesses -- and at times is subjected to or forced to administer -- the physical, emotional and sexual abuses that Sean Bobbitt’s camera dwells on in living color. The once or twice he does respond to mistreatment lands him in hotter water.
Amidst frequent brief time shifts, for the most part Ejiofor looks down at his chest hair in a pose to suggest suppressed emotion. For only seconds he lets it loose in a graveside spiritual “Roll, Jordan,” a group scene of soul power or ironically an unintended implication of stereotyped racial proclivities. The white males are duplicitous Bible thumpers, cruel, venal, convinced of the sinlessness of treating blacks as property, and screwed up; their females (Liza J. Bennett, Sarah Paulson) are overtly powerless but vicious, steely and sexually jealous.
A dozen years seems eternity. Screen redemption, on the other hand, gets almost no time and then an awkward teary coda preceding a non-dramatic printed summary of people’s afterwards. In their different directions, Bobby Sands and Solomon Northup found freedom through self-control. Cinema, too, needs control, in artistic distance, over its own indignation.
(Released by Fox Searchlight and rated "R' by MPAA.)