The Best Picture Project — 12 Years A Slave (2013)

Directed by Steve McQueen

Written by John Ridley, based upon the memoir by Solomon Northup

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofer, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt

When Argo won Best Picture of 2012, I had the distinct thought that AMPAS finally got it right.  That after all the years of giving the Oscar to the wrong film – anybody want to talk about Crash? – and despite the slight backlash against Argo for its changes to the story to make it more cinematic, AMPAS stood strong and did the right thing.

Curiously, a year on, I have the feeling they might actually have got it wrong and instead of picking the true Best Picture succumbed to the whole ‘Ben Affleck’ is getting screwed vibe of not having been nominated for Best Director and revising that by giving him Best Picture.  A year on, I’ve come to think it should have been Silver Linings Playbook for the top prize because, even as shaggy as parts of it might have been, it has left the longer impression on me and speaks more to me than Argo did.  That being said, going into Argo knowing how it would end and still finding it an exciting film – there’s something to be said for that.

Anyhow, for the 2013 Oscars my initial reaction to 12 Years A Slave taking the big prize was that AMPAS got it right again.  While Gravity was the more technically proficient, and probably deserved all the wins in the less-sexy categories, it was not the Best Picture – simply, it was boring and left me cold.  What’s interesting about this is that when you compare it to All Is Lost – a movie that essentially has the same plot as Gravity – how is it that All Is Lost moved me while Gravity made me wish Sandra Bullock’s character died? Perhaps if Gravity spent slightly less time on perfecting the special effects and paid attention to story development and making sure I connected with the characters, it might’ve been different.  But as it is, Gravity is like a paint-by-numbers film – I’m amazed at how perfectly Alfonso Cuaron managed to paint within the lines, but in the end, it’s still just a paint-by-numbers move.

Given how quickly I re-evaluated 2012 – Silver Linings Playbook for Argo – I suspect this time next year I’ll be talking about how Her should have been Best Picture of 2013.  Of all the films out there, that’s the one that truly spoke to me, exactly in the same way Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind spoke to me.  (As an aside, my daughter and a couple of blogs I listen to always thought Amy Adam’s character in Her was having a lesbian relationship with her OS, but I didn’t.  At first I wondered what that says about me, but the truth is I know exactly what it says about me.  It says that despite being liberal that doesn’t change I was raised in a less-than-liberal world and, like Pavlov’s dogs, have a tendency to drool when I hear a bell – metaphorically speaking.)

Anyway, this is all just distraction from the film that did win Best Picture – 12 Years A Slave.  So, on with it…

Unless you were hiding under a rock lately, you already know the plot of 12 Years  A Slave – although, given it’s based on a true story, isn’t ‘plot’ the wrong word for the story?  Anyway, the story, such as it is, details the circumstances of a free black man northerner in the early half of the 1800’s being kidnapped into slavery and finally getting out of it.  Confused on how long he spent as a slave?  Check the title, doofus.

It is no great stretch to argue 12 Years A Slave might be, above all others, the most unnerving Best Picture winner in the past 25 years – if not in the history of the Academy.  As is usually the case, when the Academy has the chance to laud a really challenging film – let’s think about Raging Bull, for example – they usually go soft.  The one real exception to that as of late was Silence of the Lambs, but anybody who wants to argue that movie is more unnerving than this will be in for a struggle.

Nevertheless, everything about the style or impact of 12 Years A Slave can really be viewed through what is easily it’s most intense scene – the near-hanging of Northup.  While another director might have cut away and pulled his punches, McQueen goes the other way, letting the scene play out beyond all expectation, so the audience can see that this event wasn’t over as soon as he cuts away – no, it kept going, and going and going.  In a way, by giving us no release from it, this scene teaches us about the way the movie should be viewed.  It teaches us that this movie is not going to look away, even as we watch such brutality.  Still, the real tour-de-force element of this moment, for me, is not how long it goes, but how much restraint it shows.  While McQueen easily could have fetishized the rope and Northup’s face and his hands and the like, he instead steps back and forces us to see the activity going on around Northup, and see just how desperate he was to stand on his tip-toes.  By making us understand the duration and context of the moment, we get the true sense of it’s inhumanity.

And it is curious how for a film so brutal, it does show a lot of restraint.  Where other filmmakers might’ve rubbed our noses in the violence, in the voyeuristic sense, McQueen has the nerve to pull the camera away so you see more than just the victim, so you can see the world about them.

Take for instance what is surely the most violent scene in the film – the whipping.  Yes, McQueen has us look right in Patsy’s face as she takes her beating, but even as he does he frames the shot in such a way that he forces us to look away from her and look at the other things going on in the frame.  He forces us to notice the mist of blood every time Patsy is struck.  He forces us to see Northup struggling not to do this.  He forces us to see the whites all standing around and watching as if they have seen this type of thing before.  Their nonchalance about it is what makes it brutal.

The most haunting aspect of the film, though, is naturally the lingering shot of Solomon driving off the plantation at the end.  Yes, there is the happiness he’s got his freedom, but even in the happiness is the devastation of knowing that Patsy goes nowhere – that she’ll be there crying on the ground for the rest of her life.  Even while one gets away, the other will never taste freedom.

If there is any place to complain about the film, if there is any weak link, it is in Brad Pitt.  Of all the actors in the film – which is filled to the brim with magnificent performances – his is the one that feels miscast.  Pitt is too much the ‘traditional’ hero and when he shows up you know that, yes, everything will be fine.  Yes, I know the reason he plays who he does probably has to do with the fact that he produced the film, but a braver Brad Pitt would have cast himself as one of the villains and let a guy like Paul Giamatti play the hero.

Still, even if Brad Pitt as the hero is a bit predictable, he’s still good – it’s just his part could have been better.  And maybe the reason I think it could have been better is everybody around him is really bringing their A-game.  Obviously, Ejiofer and Nyongo are fantastic, and Michael Fassbender is beyond magnificent – and this is in what could easily be a one-note performance.  Paul Dano is his douchiest best and Benedict Cumberbatch – is there anymore despicable character than Cumberbatch when he basically admits that Ejiofer’s life and freedom are not worth the debt Cumberbatch owes on that life?

To me, the most amazing performance is also the most unsung – Sarah Paulson.  Yes, there is brutality in the way she plays the role – after all, who among us didn’t jump when she belts Patsy with that bottle?  More electrifying, though, is the moment when she urges Patsy’s beating.  Yes, Fassbender has to carry the conflict of the film, but it is from Paulson the conflict emerges.

More exciting about Paulson’s performance, though, isn’t that she drives the conflict, but rather what the conflict is.  Part of it is surely jealousy – her husband fornicating with the slaves.  But the bigger part of it is that she is the only character who really knows that the whole institution of slavery rests on a knife edge – that the different between revolt and peace is razor thing.

As An Aside

Does Gravity and Life of Pi winning Best Picture in back-to-back years foretell a terrible trend from the Academy – treating the best ‘technician’ as the Best Director?  I hope not, but its food for thought.

Another Aside

This film makes an interesting pairing with Gone With The Wind – one shows the romantic view of the slavery era, the other shows the realistic view.  Incidentally, it’s interesting how, just as GWTW was heavily British in nature, so too is 12 Years A Slave.  I wonder what that says about America when our two biggest slave movies – sorry, Django Unchained isn’t really a slave movie to me – were so very British?

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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