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12 Years A Slave (Best Picture, 2013)

So, as a middle-class white girl, this is a tricky movie to review. If I criticize it too much, I come across as a racist jerk, and if I gush about it I’m just saying what everyone else has already said. Just thought I’d put that out there. Food for thought.

In spite of the fact that this film won the Academy Award for Best Picture while it was still showing in theaters, I waited until it was out on DVD to watch it. I expected, rightly, that I would want to pause and walk away for breaks sometimes. That said, I’ve had the DVD in my hands for over a week and have been experiencing severe approach avoidance. I think it is fair to say that if I had not embarked on this project to watch all Best Picture winners, I would never have watched this film. I admire its tackling of difficult subject material, and I applaud the Academy for recognizing its merit, but I don’t like it. As a friend of mine, the blogger over at Cinematic Excrement, remarked, “It’s the best movie I never need to see again.”

We all learn about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in high school history class.  That law, enacted as a part of the Compromise of 1850, allowed Southern slaveholders to track escaped slaves even into the Northern states.  It seems that the effect of the law was many more cases like that of Solomon Northrup, the protagonist of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, in which a free black person could be “identified” as a fugitive and taken back to the South as a captive. Instead of bringing North and South together, it pushed them farther apart as abolitionists, fired by publications like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, protested the law in word and deed.

12 YEARS A SLAVE, however, begins in 1841, nearly a full decade before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

The outstanding performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o have garnered much deserved praise, and I cannot say more of them than has already been said in many other far more prestigious places. The only word for both, especially Ejiofor, is “astonishing.”

I also find the performances of certain of the white characters particularly interesting. Somehow it’s easier to see them as representing archetypes of this kind of story than as unique individuals. There’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who is currently appearing in Every Film Project Made, as a kind, sympathetic, but financially strapped slaveowner. His polar opposite is Michael Fassbender’s depiction of the more stereotypical harsh-to-the-point-of-bloodthirsty master, who is more than matched by his harsh, bitter, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). And of course the abolitionist Bass (Canadian, but somehow has a Southern drawl), played by Brad Pitt.

Speaking of which, what is it with Fassbender and characters who are devoid of morals? Who are, for lack of a better word, evil? There’s evil slaveowner who amuses himself by waking up the slaves in the middle of the night to dance for him (does that sound like a 19th-century CRIMINAL MINDS episode to anyone else?), there’s the incapable-of-feeling sex addict of SHAME, and of course Magneto in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Admittedly, Magneto’s merely reflecting his life experiences, but still.  Hes capable of going to dark places and inhabiting such levels of anger that I’m a little afraid of him, to be honest.

In spite of the fact that this film was dark and difficult and it is unlikely to be one that I seek out for subsequent viewings, it was not quite as difficult to watch as I had anticipated.

As a final note, I’d like to add something I noticed in the credits. The names of the cast and the director (Steve McQueen) are well known by now.  What I had not seen in any of the reviews, summaries, or lists of vital statistics is the fact that the film had the eminent historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as its history consultant. That, to me, is quite the stamp of approval.

Next Up: Birdman, Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Best Picture, 2014