Blood and tears

Steve mcQueen’s 12yearsaSlave boasts a su­perb cast that knows how to turn the main story into a real-life, painful ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MOVIES - By RogeR MooRe

WE ex­pect the lash­ings, the leg irons, the cru­elty and in­jus­tice of it all. But what Steve McQueen’s bril­liant 12 Years A Slave does for our un­der­stand­ing of that “pe­cu­liar” in­sti­tu­tion is the ut­ter hope­less­ness of those en­slaved.

It lets a GPS/smart­phone-ad­dicted gen­er­a­tion un­der­stand what it was like to not know where you are, to re­alise the help­less-ness of at­tempt­ing to run away or steal pa­per to write a plea for help.

And it forces those who would ra­tio­nalise the era’s mores and re­li­gious “jus­ti­fi­ca­tion” for hu­man be­ings en­slav­ing and tor­tur­ing one another to see that there is no valid ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion for it, that there were many who could tell right from wrong, even back then.

Chi­we­tel Ejio­for con­jures up just the right mea­sure of dig­nity and re­fine­ment as Solomon Northup, a New York mu­si­cian, hus­band and fa­ther who was tricked into tak­ing an en­gage­ment in Wash­ing­ton DC, along the bor­der be­tween free and slave states. Yes, this re­ally hap­pened in 1841: A black Amer­i­can who had never been a slave was kid­napped, smug­gled south and sold into slav­ery. He strug­gled to keep his spir­its up and his hope alive, even as oth­ers around him com­mit­ted sui­cide or fell into in­con­solable weep­ing at hav­ing their chil­dren sold away from them.

The beauty of this movie is in how we iden­tify with Northup and come to un­der­stand the aw­ful ef­fects his loss of lib­erty had not just on him, but on the moral rel­a­tivists and out­right sadists who ran ma­chin­ery of slav­ery.

Even a so-called “good mas­ter” (the ter­rific Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch plays one) had to em­brace an “it’s just busi­ness” my­opia about what he was do­ing to other hu­man be­ings. Even a “le­git­i­mate busi­ness­man” (Paul Gia­matti) had to close his eyes to the un­speak­able cru­elty of break­ing up fam­i­lies, to be­come less hu­man by treat­ing other hu­mans as live­stock.

And then there were the mon­sters. Paul Dano is hate­ful per­fec­tion as the clas­sic low-class over­seer, bru­tal to his charges be­cause he needs some­body to look down on and lord over.

A wild-eyed Michael Fass­ben­der plays an al­co­holic Louisiana landowner who keeps an en­slaved paramour (Lupita Ny­ong’o, a rev­e­la­tion) whom his re­sent­ful wife (Sarah Paul­son) in­sists on forc­ing her hus­band to tor­ture in his sober mo­ments. And Al­fre Woodard plays a one-time slave who has be­come mis­tress of her house, not above keep­ing slaves of her own, but ca­pa­ble of em­pa­thy and kind­ness to­ward those still con­fined.

Ejio­for keeps Northup’s emo­tions close to the vest as he en­dures the un­en­durable – hard labour, from cot­ton pick­ing to cane har­vest­ing – and harder pun­ish­ment. Northup’s mu­sic is one way he clings to his hu­man­ity, but even that isn’t enough.

Ejio­for ( Kinky Boots) never lets us see hate or fear in the man’s eyes, only res­ig­na­tion bro­ken by sliv­ers of hope that he might some­how es­cape this hell.

It’s a chal­leng­ing, se­ri­ous and schol­arly film, not the black­sploita­tion bur­lesque that was Django Un­chained.

McQueen ( Shame, Hunger) and his stellar cast take us on a dif­fi­cult jour­ney, a some­times aw­ful and only faintly in­spir­ing odyssey that will make you want to avert your eyes. It is to their great credit that we never do. — McClatchy-Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

In­de­pen­dent spirit: a mov­ing scene from Steve mcQueen’s 12yearsaSlave.

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