Saturday, 6 June 2020

Coronacinema - 12 Years a Slave


12 Years a Slave (2014)

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard

Director: Steve McQueen

Available on: Netflix

Hunger director Steve McQueen's Oscar-wining adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of his time in bondage, is a brutal and essential historical drama, the roots of which burrow far beneath the roiling battlefield of racism and violence in the United States. 
It may, given its subject matter, invoke Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained by offering an unvarnished view of the original American sin. That said, with its impressive period detail, 12 Years a Slave is a significantly deeper meditation, a merciless, unyielding look at the swelteringly barbaric ignominy of the plantation.
Yet, while Django – played with swaggering aplomb by Jamie Foxx – was fortunate enough to boast a six-shooter and a beneficent comrade in his pursuit of vengeance, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon is armed with nothing more than a heroic spirit in the face of his cruel subjugation.
An elegant musician and respected member of his community in upstate New York, his life is an idyllic one. He resides in a handsome home, his family learned and genteel. He is a ‘freeborn' black of the northern states, a term used to set him apart in a nation where colour determines status as either man or property.
Tricked by kidnappers into accompanying them to Washington, D.C., Solomon is drugged and sold into serfdom. It is an unremarkable event, it seems, given the colour of his skin. His new masters care little for the protestations that he is not a chattel, cynically informing him that he is in fact a "Georgia runaway". He will be a captive for the next 12 years.
It is a testament to the believability of Ejiofor’s towering central portrayal that the pragmatism Solomon must quickly develop to survive feels so necessary. He is not a rebel but a realist.
Hollywood loves a tale of noble resistance against oppression, its virtue swollen by self-congratulatory stories of the underdog rising up to defeat his tormentors. McQueen has no time for such make believe, of course. This is not the benevolent slavery of the hilariously outdated Gone With the Wind. Nor is it the institution that Django assails with such gusto, mined for laughs before its spectacular demise.
What is presented here instead is an intensely startling depiction of this cultural edifice as it was likely to have existed. Southern society was not alone in its reliance on slaves, but it is in the antebellum South that the trade was distilled into its vilest form. 
McQueen is unsparing in covering the salient and chilling realities. Children are blithely ripped from their mothers' arms. People are commercial property, expensive assets to be mortgaged and haggled over. In this altered universe, happy domesticity lives cheek by jowl with humans hoarded like cattle and brutalised with impunity.
There is a wilful naivety, almost, in the fond reliance on people as possessions. Regular McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender – as the unspeakably depraved "n*gger-breaker" and Louisiana plantation master Edwin Epps – dismisses pleas for mercy with contorted scripture and a frighteningly logical creed: "A man does as he pleases with his property."
That is not to say that the whites of Solomon’s new world see no ill in the system to which they are wedded. Each one of them appears sensitive, in a reluctant sort of way, to the perversity of slavery, no matter how little they care about its unjustness or attempt to rationalise it with baseless philosophy.
The warped structures of their world imbue these ordinary people – carpenters, farmers, landowners – with an apparently boundless facility for cruelty and prejudice. Epps’s vindictive wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), is motivated in her bigotry by the need to corrode the spirits of those beneath her, lest she be butchered in the night. 
Indeed, the seeds of America’s distressed racial discourse are here for all to see, each lash of the whip matched in ferocity by the dehumanising rasp of the N-word, thrown about with abandon, both weapon and tool. 
Against this backdrop, McQueen – a Turner Prize recipient during his former career as a visual artist – contemplates, with unwavering grace, the callousness of Solomon’s fall, even as the richly captured locales, all bucolic farmland and humid refinement, present themselves. 
The omnipresent savagery is often overwhelming. The camera lingers uncomfortably on moments of terror, be it Solomon's near lynching or the demented beating that Epps hand out to diminutive field worker Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), Mary's pecking malice steering his hand. Later on, McQueen even trains his lens directly at Ejiofor's confused, heartbroken expression for what seems like a lifetime. No words are uttered but the sentiment is undeniable.
Alongside Ejiofor, the cast match the moment. Fassbender is, unsurprisingly, a force of nature. He conjures a performance laced with relentless fury and a spittle-flecked sense of superiority that veers between enraged and entitled. His wickedness infests everything around him and a leering obsession with Patsey is afforded no modesty. 
Paulson, too, is superb, an ice-in-the-veins tyrant fuelled by caprice and deep-seated animus. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard flex their muscles throughout in small, though pivotal, supporting roles. 
It is Nyong'o, however, who emerges as the stand-out, rendering Patsey fascinating and tragic in equal measures, and winning an Academy Award for her efforts. Ethereal, aloof and childlike, Patsey is a mass of contradictions. She is a survivor whose destiny is already written and her fate at the hands of the monstrous Epps – his gaze, hands, anger and sexual predation are rarely beyond her vicinity – is arguably the picture's greatest sorrow. 

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