Born free and yet a slave – the harsh reality of harsh times.
Annually, by this time, many things change – including perceptions and voting tendencies, at times bypassing people’s first impressions when the movie came out; thankfully, in Pakistan, we are safe from the Oscar marketing hubbub and voting biases. Does a re-watch and the award season hype change one’s opinion? Yes sometimes, but not today.
“12 Years a Slave” is the big-screen adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, when he was hoodwinked by slave-traders and sold into slavery. Solomon was born a freeman, but for people not born fair-skinned, that’s not always a free-pass. Northup was sold from master-to-master, and had his resistance brutally hammered until he learns to keep his words about freedom to himself. It took Solomon twelve years to find freedom, and that too from the kindness of a Canadian carpenter named Bass and his old friend from Saratoga, where Soloman was a skilled fiddle-player by profession.
Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Bass is Brad Pitt, who also produced the movie. The others in the cast include: Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson. With the exception of Mr Cumberbatch and Mr Pitt everyone else is a narrow-minded villain from the pre-Civil War days.
In re-watching British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation, many things remain the same: the frames are still unsociable, agnostic, unsympathetically racially biased and John Ridley’s screenplay’s stance on emotional and physical confinements of slavery are still driven into the psyche “with the subtlety of a sledgehammer”. Mr Ejiofor remains an actor of powerful, intense emotion, which for Northup’s role he delivers with the spectacular subtlety. Although Mr Ejiofor doesn’t deliver as many lines as any other biographed hero, his reactions tell a very vocal tale of injustice.
Of the others set in pivotal circumstances, Mr Cumberbatch, who plays his first owner, has a reserved, but well placed presence in the narrative, which helps us sustain the feeling that not everyone is cruel towards the colored people of the era. Mr Dano and Mr Giamatti – both outstanding actors in their limited spaces – should try pushing their agents to find roles that do not typecast them as heartless cads. Mr Fassbender, who worked with Mr McQueen earlier in “Shame”, is fantabulous as the drunk, abusive sadist Edwin Epps, Solomon’s second master engulfed in his “version” (read: misinterpretation) of the bible that sanctions him the right to physically abuse his “properties” (read: slaves, bought or traded).
In one particular scene out of many, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) a fellow slave with Solomon, is mercilessly stripped, tied to a post and whipped, initially by Solomon and then by Epps himself, until “meat and blood flow equally”. Just prior to the scene, Patsey who has been repeatedly raped by Epps in the movie, was missing from a plantation, but that wasn’t her only crime; it was her attractiveness, and the jealousy it prompted in Epp’s wife Mary played by Sarah Paulson.
Yes, it was a hard, unjust, time for the less privileged, but this isn’t the first movie to tell a story like this. However, it is one of the most visually expressive accounts of a tale really lived by an actual individual.
In my previous review, I maintained that Mr Fassbender is “so fined tuned to the barest of his character’s whims that he at least deserves the Best Supporting Actor nod (at the Oscars) this year”. Well, Mr Fassbender, has a nomination, amongst the eight others. Even today, I still maintain that “12 Years a Slave”, no matter the necessity or conspicuousness of its take on Northup’s already drastic story, is still “manufactured for the Oscar season”. Its honesty, or the severity, which Mr McQueen masters at regular intervals, may now seem like an after-thought, but in reality, it’s what would help keep the movie’s identity intact in the long-run.
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and HKC Entertainment in Pakistan, “12 Years a Slave” is rated A for Adults. It is very harsh and gut-wrenching at times.
Directed by Steve McQueen; Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Mr. McQueen, Arnon Milchan and Anthony Katagas; Written by John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup; Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt; Edited by Joe Walker; Music by Hans Zimmer.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard, amongst others.