Twelve Years a Slave: Movie Review by Andy McKinney

No movie of 2013 blasted us with such compelling and emotionally engaging images as “Twelve Years a Slave,” not by a long shot.  I can readily understand the reason that the Academy gave it the Oscar for Best Picture.  It does have some flaws, however.  The bulk of the action happens in the deep deep South, but none of the actors speak with the slow cadences and inflections of that time and place.  Further, very nearly every Black character speaks with the vocabulary and sensibilities of an educated middle class or higher person.  This includes characters who are illiterate and who have never traveled further than 10 miles from their birth place.  Even lower class white people speak in the language of the upper crust.  It is somewhat off putting to have slaves and their cruel overseers speak like academics at a seminar, but I do not claim this as a fatal flaw.  The brutal truth of the story bulldozes through all conventional methods of evaluating movies.  I have an idea that the language comes from the original 19th century book, written by a well-educated and erudite free Black northerner.

High quality acting embellishes any film, including this one.  The acting and the outstanding cast reminded me of “Lincoln” in that many people came to work on the film because it was of such historical importance.  And because they knew that the film would be widely scrutinized, every one of the actors brought his best game.  That always pleases an audience.

Only in America can a Mexican born actress of Kenyan parentage win the Academy Award for best supporting actress in portraying a quintessential American character.  Lupita Nyong’o did just that.  The terribly thin young actress beat out other actresses whose names are household words.  Hers is not the only worthy effort, but it is the only one rewarded with the tinsel trinket.

In the title role as the title character, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor carries the film.  We could not reasonably invent his character, he had to be a real man in 1841 caught in a genuine tragedy.  Audiences might remember Ejiofor from his smaller–and less important–historical roles in “Children of Men,” “American Gangster,” and “2012.”  He hasn’t always been a big star, but he surely is now.

All the other roles are much smaller, including the small role of child actress Quvenzhane’ Wallis.  She plays the younger version of the title character’s daughter.  She became the youngest actress ever nominated for Best Actress for her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  She is off to a tremendous professional career.

 Michael K. Williams, one of my favorite actors from one of my favorite HBO TV series “The Wire,” plays another kidnap victim.  He is brave and refuses to accept his fate.  He is murdered quickly by the kidnap ring before he can even be brought to market.  He also plays a continuing character on “Boardwalk Empire” as a bootleg era gangster.

Michael Fassbender turns in a bravo effort as the drunken, half mad plantation owner where the kidnapped freeman spends most of his captivity.  Fassbender very nearly makes the slave owner a sympathetic character.  He plays the plantation owner in a way that opened my eyes a little.  He made me see that the institution of slavery was so horrid that even those who benefited by the institution could only cope with the horror with alcohol and insanity.  Only the most subtle actor could pull that off.  It is a cliché in sophomore philosophy class that slavery diminishes both the slave and the slave holder, and Fassbender shows us that.  

Garret Dillahunt is known for his comic role on the TV show “Raising Hope,” but he commands such respect as a dramatic actor that the producers of “Deadwood” brought him in to serve as two utterly different characters.  He shows his dramatic side here as a broken drunk whose folly has driven him to work alongside the slaves in the cotton fields.

Other nicely drawn characters are given to us by Paul Giamatti as a callous slave broker.  Giamatti played the other side of that equation once as John Adams, a man who defended slaves.  He maintained that they were men, not property. 

Paul Dano plays a weak man who preys on the even weaker slaves.  Finally, in this long recitation of truly excellent acting, we have Brad Pitt, almost un-recognizably ordinary in long hair and beard as the ultimate instrument of Solomon Northup’s salvation.   Pitt is only on screen for a few minutes, but each one of them are worthwhile.  

Who is Solomon Northrup?

The film is based on the autobiographical book by Solomon Northup, a resident of upstate New York who suffered betrayal, kidnapping, and enslavement from 1841 to 1853.  John Ridley took that original work and turned it into a screenplay.  He penned the script for “Three Kings,” a film of the first Gulf War.  Of note to Arizonans, he also wrote the novel “Stray Dogs,” and the later movie based on it “U Turn.”  The film stared Jennifer Lopez, Sean Penn, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Booth, and Jon Voight.  It is a film about bad people doing bad things that did not appeal to many ticket buyers, but it was filmed in and set in our very own Superior, Arizona, just down the highway from Payson.  You would not know it from his work, but Ridley is Black.

Both British and a Black guy is director Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor who was American).  McQueen is known for his plethora of short films rather than his full length films which include “Shame” and “Hunger,” neither of which became popular hits.

Fox Searchlight films brought this FOUR SAW BLADES,* two hours and 14 minutes film to the theaters.  The producers allowed a modest $20 million for the budget of this movie which has brought in almost $160 million in worldwide box office.  This relentless, horrifying drama is very properly rated with a hard “R” rating for nudity and vast brutality.

In a shocking and disgusting bit of historical trivia, there is a short scene in the film where two runaway slaves are hanged for their trouble.  The tree used in the film is the site of an actual event where actual people, runaway slaves as it happens, were murdered.  This is a very serious film.

*Saw Blades are the equivalent to Stars.  Payson was once the home of a thriving lumber industry.  But thanks to the Endangered Species Act, the Spotted Owl was saved.  Many livelihoods were lost.