This post is the unedited copy of the review published in my column Animadversion on 24th November 2013. The edited copy and the links are at the end of the post.
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
Many scenes compel you to squinch in “12 Years a Slave”, the adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography about the most common of global racial injustices: slavery.
One eye-flinching moment in particular is when Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is hung by the neck for briefly standing-up to – and whipping – a tyrannical “master” (Paul Dano, a regular young-boy baddie in films these days). Northup’s toes are centimeters into the ground, the noose stiffens around his neck, and while the people who hung him up are run-off by the plantation owner’s chief overseer, no one comes to help. The bustle around him increases a few frames later (though it may have been hours) as other slaves – or as they were called by their owners, “properties” – start passing by, their heads down, scared of sharing Northup’s fate; the most he gets is a drink of water.
Though Northup is later brought down by his kind, if socially scared owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) later that night, we know that given the circumstances, and the traditions of pre-Civil War America, he needed to be taught a lesson. “12 Years a Slave”, thus openly – at times too vividly – talks about a bigger picture; the few options available to colored people of the times: submit and survive – or else.
For the lesser privileged these were compulsory choices. In Northup’s case – who was born as a freeman, was educated, had a wife and kids, a home of his own, and was a professional violinist (he played in several well-known establishments in Saratoga Springs, New York) – the unavailability of options leads to a twelve year-long handicap. In 1841, Northup was cajoled with a work offer by two men, drugged and sold to slavery, where he was transferred from master to master, until he regained his freedom in 1853.
Northup’s tale, which I confess to have never heard about, is considered an important piece of the American history as it led to laws that helped rescue African-Americans kidnapped and sold as slaves.
The screenplay by John Ridley (produced by Brad Pitt, who has a good-guy cameo in the last 20 minutes), drives the emotional and physical confinements of slavery into the psyche with the subtlety of a sledgehammer; this treatment, distant and yet firsthand, was at times necessary. The images British director Steve McQueen (“Hunger”, “Shame”) frames are unsociable and intermittently antagonistic by purpose, right down to the unsympathetically displayed racial contrast (some of Northup’s solo scenes are filmed in deep black backgrounds, while his owners, who I don’t need to remind are fair-skinned, live in white-washed homes).
We are obviously tied to a condensed version of Northup’s life (the film runs to about 134 minutes) that has Ejiofor locked in almost every frame; however an emotional connection is never instituted. The lack – which includes Northup playing both the physical narrator and the personification of ethnic injustice to generations – is hardhearted against rousing the viewer’s feeling with usual cinematic clichés, specifically because it chooses to do so by intention (this includes a shortfall – and seldom, if ill-fittingly used bombast – of background score by Hans Zimmer).
Ejiofor an actor of soft intensity is spectacular and subtle. As in any case, he risks being browbeaten and overawed by the actors who play his maleficent proprietors. This lot includes a tidbit by the always engaging Paul Giamatti (his agent should try getting him roles that are less repulsive), Cumberbatch (reserved) and Michael Fassbender’s drunk, abusive sadist Edwin Epps, who is so fined tuned to the barest of his character’s whims that he at least deserves the Best Supporting Actor nod this year (Sarah Paulson is Edwin’s equally sadistic wife).
In all honesty “12 Years a Slave” is manufactured for the Oscar season (there are high chances of it being the top contender along with “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips” (published here and here)), right down to the conspicuousness of its take on Northup’s already drastic story, and the necessity of telling this story.
Distributed by Fox Searchlight, “12 Years a Slave” is rated R for nudity, graphic violence and human turmoil.
The Published version is here: http://www.dawn.com/news/1058160/animadversion-fight-for-freedom
And it looks like this in the paper: