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Overstatement plagues excessive ‘12 Years a Slave’

“12 Years a Slave” (2013). Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o, Garret Dillahunt, Adapero Oduye, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Zeigler, Liza J. Bennett, J.D. Evermore, Bryan Batt. Director: Steve McQueen. Screenplay: John Ridley. Book: Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave. Web site. Trailer.

Tales of overcoming adversity have long been the stuff of storytellers, from the days of the ancients to the present. Their stories have enlightened legions of listeners and, more recently, in the age of cinema, viewers. Such sagas have profoundly moved audiences, filling them with inspiration, hope and the courage to carry forth under trying conditions. When well told, those stories prove incredibly effective. But, when their recounting doesn’t live up to their subject matter, the result is disappointment, as is the case with the new historical biography, “12 Years a Slave,” based on the memoir of the same name.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was living a good life. As an accomplished violinist, this successful African-American free man enjoyed many of the same privileges as his Caucasian counterparts. He was happily married to his beloved Anne (Kelsey Scott) and the proud father of two bright children (Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Zeigler). His reputation as a musician preceded him, so he never longed for work, and he was paid well for his performances. Indeed, he had become so accustomed to his good fortune and to the public’s acceptance of his status as a free man that he never questioned his circumstances – nor envisioned what was coming next.

One fateful day, Solomon had a chance meeting with a pair of circus promoters, Mr. Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Mr. Hamilton (Taran Killam), who proposed hiring him as a musician for their touring company. Overwhelmed at their generous offer, Solomon jumped at the chance. The tour would take him from his home in Saratoga Springs, NY, to Washington, DC, a prospect that excited him and an experience he relished when it came to pass. There was just one problem – Messrs. Brown and Hamilton were not who they said they were.

At dinner in Washington one evening, the alleged impresarios drugged Solomon, causing him to pass out. When he regained consciousness, he was shocked to discover where he was: Instead of the comfort of his guest house, he found himself shackled in a dark basement. Solomon had been kidnapped by the front men for an unscrupulous slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who sold free blacks into chattel servitude.

Thus began a long, horrendous nightmare, one that Solomon couldn’t believe was happening. And, even though he desperately wanted to prove his status, he knew that, without his papers, he didn’t stand a chance. Until he could figure out how to confirm his identity, to stay alive, he chose to quietly accept his circumstances, saying as little as possible and keeping his education and background a secret to avoid incurring the wrath of white slave owners who feared – and wouldn’t hesitate to punish – an intelligent black man.

Not long after his capture, Solomon was transported to New Orleans, where he was purchased by Master William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). The Louisiana plantation owner quickly came to recognize his new slave’s intelligence, giving him work assignments that put his talents to use. Comparatively speaking, Master Ford treated Solomon well, but, by doing so, he frequently angered Mr. Tibeats (Paul Dano), one of his overseers, who believed his authority was being undermined. Tibeats took out his frustration on Solomon, resorting to levels of abuse that even Master Ford couldn’t condone.

Realizing that he could no longer protect Solomon, Master Ford sold him to another plantation owner, Master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). But whatever modest benevolence Solomon may have enjoyed under his initial owner vanished in the servitude of his new master, an experience that pushed him to the brink in more ways than he ever could have imagined. With his very survival on the line, Solomon struggled to stay alive, his dream of regaining his freedom seeming to fade with each passing day. Were it not for his personal fortitude and resilience, he never would have been able to get by.

One would think that a movie with a story line like this would salute the triumph of the human spirit and, in conscious creation terms, the underlying faith and beliefs that drive it. However, when it comes to “12 Years a Slave,” nothing could be further from the truth. What should have been the central focus of this film is treated largely as an afterthought. The picture instead focuses on the horrors of enslavement, almost to the point of becoming obscenely exploitative. What a missed opportunity for inspiration.

In essence, this film is little more than a series of gratuitously brutal beatings and incidents of sexual abuse strung together with a combination of protracted close-ups of Solomon quietly emoting and beautiful but pointless landscape shots. Depictions of the protagonist’s will to survive under such trying conditions are, sadly, greatly overshadowed by the relentless on-screen atrocities.

While the film is obviously intentionally uncompromising in its portrayal of the horrors of slavery, it goes overboard in doing so. Viewers get that point clearly in the picture’s first half-hour, but this assault on the senses goes on for over two hours. To be sure, there’s something to be said for cinematic candor, but there’s a definite difference between graphic honesty and visual overkill, and this film, regrettably, falls prey to the latter.

When I see a picture like this, I can’t help but wonder what beliefs drove its creation. What are the filmmaker’s true intents? What kind of message are its producers trying to send? If it’s truly attempting to convey the message that would seem most applicable to a story like this – an uplifting account of one person’s struggle to overcome insurmountable odds – it fails terribly in making its point. Instead, the film lapses into what some observers have sadly but aptly labeled “misery porn.” That’s unfortunate, too, because Solomon Northup’s inspiring story genuinely deserves better than that.

I’ll admit I’m out on a limb about this, but, in my view, there’s so precious little to like about this film that it’s difficult to understand why it is garnering such acclaim (including clout as a heavy favorite in this year’s awards competitions). In addition to its predictable, episodic, poorly constructed narrative, it leaves much to be desired technically and artistically. It often seems like several different directorial styles have been thrown together, creating a hodgepodge of visual styles and pacing. Much of the cinematography is shot far too up close, and the editing is frequently handled awkwardly. As for the acting, several performers (Ejiofor, Dano, Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the perennially jealous Mistress Epps) seriously overact, while others (Cumberbatch, Giamatti, Alfre Woodard as the mistress of a neighboring plantation and Brad Pitt as a sympathetic abolitionist) are severely underutilized.

Those familiar with my writing know that I seldom critique films I seriously dislike. Even though my reviews may include criticisms of a picture’s attributes, the primary intent of my writing is to inform readers about movies that provide excellent examples of conscious creation principles or that enlighten in inspiring ways. As a general rule, I simply don’t believe it’s worth focusing on films that don’t meet these standards. But, when a movie claims to aspire to such ideals and fails, I believe it’s my responsibility to let potential viewers know about it, and that’s very much the case here.

As any avid movie lover knows, there are many fine pictures that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. “12 Years a Slave” is not one of them. If you’re looking for examples of films that inspire without becoming unduly grotesque, consider offerings like “Hotel Rwanda” (2004), “Schindler’s List” (1993) or any of the fine releases chronicling the civil rights movement (such as “The Butler” (2013), “The Help” (2011) or “The Long Walk Home” (1990)) instead. They make their cases without unnecessary overstatement, a far more effective approach than resorting to wanton sensationalism. Heroic figures, especially those lifted from the pages of history, deserve to have their stories told in a frank but honorable way. To that end, it’s indeed a shame that the film has not given Solomon Northup his due.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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