31 January 2014

Cinema

Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years A Slave" 
Yesterday morning, Sheffield's "Showroom" Screen 4 cinema was once again packed. This time our film treat was the much vaunted "12 Years A Slave" - based upon an original 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup. Though Northup was a "free man", he was kidnapped in Washington DC and sold into slavery - working on a Louisiana cotton plantation for twelve long years before reclaiming his freedom. The neglected text was accidentally re-discovered by Bianca Stigter - wife of the film's English born director - Steve McQueen.

Would "12 Years A Slave" live up to its glowing reviews and all the positive hype that has surrounded it? In short, yes. I sat there by the aisle on the front row totally transfixed. Though the subject matter was ugly, the cinematography was often beautiful. Steve McQueen frequently let the camera linger, allowing the film audience to fully absorb particular moments. This contributed to a sense of the slowness of passing time and to the continuous tension of life on the plantation under the possessive gaze of the excellent Michael Fassbender who played the part of vile plantation owner Edwin Epps.
You may see whippings in other films but surely none have ever been as a graphic or as convincing as the lashings shown in this film. You share the pain and the cruelty. The worst lashing is reserved for Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey who despite being the best cotton picker and Epps's unwilling sex slave is whipped mercilessly and without reason. Her back is left looking like raw meat in an abattoir.

Director - Steve McQueen
Thinking of butchers, Steve McQueen once explained why he doesn't mingle socially with other film-makers - "That's like if you're a butcher, hanging out with other butchers. You chop meat this way, and I chop meat that way. What's there to talk about?" Perhaps that quote partly explains the originality of McQueen's style. He comes at the task with an independent creative  vision that isn't over-twisted by the influence of others.

There have been many portrayals of slavery in film and television but in comparison with others I recall, this film surely  provides the most convincing portrait ever made. Maybe because the director is himself a black man whose own ancestors were brought in chains from Africa to the West Indies, the black characters are treated sympathetically and painted as individual people in their own right. They have dignity amidst the cruelty and injustice of plantation life.

Northup is played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor who after twelve long years manages to get a message back to influential friends in New York State. They come to rescue him and the film finishes with a touching family reunion, made more poignant by further lingering camera work.

It is a triumphant film that without preaching spells out the wrongness of slavery and the hatefulness of cruelty towards other human beings. How strange though that such a tale was largely down to a black British director with a cast led by British actors - telling a story that was especially American. The shadows of those times have not yet gone away.

11 comments:

  1. It sounds a good film but not one I could watch. I get frightened watching Indiana Jones.

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    1. I bet you have nightmares about that big stone ball rolling down an underground cavern towards you. I guess you are more a "Love Actually" kind of guy.

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  2. My sister saw it the other day and told me about it. It left her very impressed and upset at the same time (since you've seen it, too, I guess this apparent contradiction will make sense to you). I don't think I'll watch it. Some of what my sister has told me and what you describe makes me be afraid of watching it, the pictures would haunt me for a long time, and I am a bit of a coward in that respect.

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    1. May I suggest "Bambi" instead?

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    2. Oh no! Bambi's mother dies - that bit had me in tears the only time I ever watched it as a kid.

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  3. I have not seen the film, Mr. Pudding, but did about a week ago, finish the book written by Solomon Northup. Wonderful. At the end of the book, all the legal documents were shown including the ones signed by Mr. Epps and the lawsuit brought in Washington by Mr. Northup and his council against those who sold him originally. He did not win that suit, by the way.

    One of the saddest things is that nobody really knows what happened to Mr. Northup. His last known whereabouts was in Canada where he was to give a speech about abolition. Some say he was resold into slavery and others say he was killed because of his speaking out but nobody really knows for sure.

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    1. I must get that book Mountain Oregano. I read the first page in a bookshop after watching the film but I was too mean to buy it. I don't like spending too much money in a single day. At least Solomon left us his story. How proud he would have been to know that it has now been revealed to the entire world.

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    2. I read it on my Kindle, Mr. Pudding. Amazon had it for free a few weeks ago.

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  4. I have found the south to be a scarey place if you're an outsider...even a white one. There is a wonderful graciousness if you're an insider, but once they see your California license plates, you become fair game. Didn't Frances go to school there? What was her impression?

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    1. I guess Frances was a little cocooned from the real Alabama, living as she did in a well-heeled campus environment. Her very first weekend was in Selma where she stayed in an old plantation house but met with several black people who had been actively involved in the civil rights movement of the mid-sixties. This has left a lasting impression upon her.

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  5. And those long shadows will most likely linger much longer; and never fade away completely.

    Great review, Yorkie. The movies is receiving much acclaim from all quarters.

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