Looking into the cruelty of men - and women

Looking into the cruelty of men - and women

12 years a slave English (A)  ****Director: Steve McQueenCast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o

Films on slavery and injustice can arguably serve as a touchstone to gauge an audience’s sophistication.

In 1971, when two Italian filmmakers Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti released their controversial documentary, Goodbye Uncle Tom, using a large cast of actors and a cinematic time-machine to explore slavery in the antebellum south, their work was deemed as too incendiary for audiences and castigated as “cruel, exploitative,” and a “rabid incitement to race war.”

That film has been all but forgotten, near impossible to purchase and consigned to the rubbish bin of celluloid discards. Yet, 41 years later, Quintin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), which offered a harsher glimpse of escaped-slave retribution, was nominated for five academy awards and celebrated across the broad. No doubt, Django wedged open a unexpected window of audience acceptance — through which British director Steve McQueen has sent 12 Years a Slave — an ambitious film which celebrates the resilience of the human spirit even when besieged by its darkest alter-ego.  

But did such a film need to be made? In a quarter-page ad taken in the New York Times on Friday, the movie grandly touts its nine Academy award nominations to a single bold-font tagline: “It’s time.” 

Perhaps, the ad simply meant that it is time for people to watch a movie on slavery. A more cynical interpretation could be that it’s time that such a film was made — and recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

But whether audiences will be eager to see a film about slavery, especially one which reinforces the phenomenon of white guilt nearly 150 years after the death of the old south, is debatable. Like Schindler’s List, McQueen’s film is often hard to watch, and if audiences go to see it, it is because the movie is well-made and because it offers the glimmer of a happy ending.

Based on the published memoires of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man from New York state, who was decoyed, transported and sold as a slave in the south in 1841, a full score before the American civil war, 12 Years a Slave charts Northrup’s journey from Washington DC to a slaver’s mansion in New Orleans, to his deliverance into the benevolent hands of a local plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). 

The story falls into gear after Northrup’s violent altercation with a racist local carpenter, Tibeats (Paul Dano, who has increasingly taken to weasel-like roles), and his subsequent sale to the sadistic plantation-owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). 

12 Years is propelled by the immersing force of its acting. It leaves you spellbound, stuck to your seat. That Northrup, an educated man, capable of playing the violin is turned into cattle — and brought to life, full of subtle, restrained passions by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor — speaks of the fine, controlling hand employed by McQueen to accomplish his work as a director. 

Ejiofor, who has played space-faring villains, drug-dealers and politicians in the past, gives the finest performance of his career here. No less impressive are Michael Fassbender and Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o as the slave-girl, Patsey.  McQueen’s picture may be a picnic when compared to its philosophical predecessor, Goodbye Uncle Tom, but it is no less potent.  

This is a film which smashes all the comfortable half-truths on slavery. It is also a film which may give perspective to our continuing, abhorrent tendency to dehumanize using such trivialities as race, colour and creed.  

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