News Column

McQueen's serious tale of slavery wins Toronto prize

September 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 17--TORONTO -- Solomon Northrop was a U.S. citizen. A resident of New York State in the 1840s, he was a gifted violinist. While performing in Washington, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery because he was thought to resemble a man named Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia. His captors transported him south, where a plantation owner bought him. For some 12 years Northrop labored as a field hand, occasionally performing music for his masters.

While being ferried south, in the company of several other African-Americans who had been reduced to slavery, Northrop is presented with two options concerning how to proceed.

One fellow insists the captured men ought to fight their captors. Another, who had known relatively benign ownership, recommends that, if he wanted to survive, Northrop ought to keep his mouth shut and do what he's told.

Before they arrive at the New Orleans slave market, the first man is killed while trying to prevent the rape of one of his fellow detainees and his body is thrown unceremoniously overboard. While disembarking from the steamer in New Orleans, Northrop's more cautious companion is spotted by his owner, who demands his property be returned to him. Alongside his master, the man immediately falls into the simpering gait of a subservient.

Northrop chose to follow the second of these two bleak choices. At first his choice yielded dividends. His first owner, William Ford, is a relatively kind-hearted plantation owner. He's far too weak willed to challenge the slave economy, but he recognizes Northrop's talent as a musician and gives him a violin.

The protagonist's fortunes decline precipitously when he's handed over to Edwin Epps, a cotton plantation owner who's fond of quoting scripture to justify soul-destroying acts of arbitrary violence against his laborers.

The planter routinely flogs any field worker who doesn't pick 200 pounds of cotton a day, and this is his least offensive characteristic. Framed within the petty tyranny of the plantation household, one hard-working slave, Patsey, is first sexualized and abused by the master of the house. Then, when he refuses to sell her, as his humiliated wife demands, Patsey must also endure the wife's vicious discrimination.

Northrop survived his ordeal to pen a memoir of his travails called "12 Years a Slave." The film adaptation of this account had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week, where it walked away with the Blackberry People's Choice Award -- the nonjuried prize that is TIFF's highest honor.

Based on John Ridley's screen adaptation of Northrop's memoir, "12 Years a Slave" is the third feature of Turner Prize-winning visual-artist-cum-filmmaker Steve McQueen.

"Hunger" (2008), McQueen's feature film premiere, depicts the final weeks in the life of IRA militant Bobby Sands, who led a series of hunger strikes against the British occupation regime. His second feature, "Shame," relates the story of a sex-addicted junior corporate executive in the U.S.

"Slave" was a good candidate for TIFF's audience award. The buzz accompanying its premiere quickly rose to a roar, with tickets for festival screenings evaporating from the box office.

The new film does not match the uncanny visual lyricism and relentless power of "Hunger." It is a very strong work, nevertheless, one that deploys many of the same formal elements as the first film -- strikingly beautiful visuals (by "Hunger" director of photography Sean Bobbitt) juxtaposed with moments of excruciating cruelty, both accentuated by Hans Zimmer's (only occasionally obtrusive) score.

Like "Hunger," "Slave" is buoyed by strong performances.

Leading the excellent ensemble cast is Chiwetel Ejiofor (Northrop), who depicts his character's radically changing fortunes with reserved, dignified intensity. In counterpoint, Michael Fassbender's deliciously villainous portrayal of Epps' savage sense of entitlement is nuanced enough to keep the character believably human.

"Slave" has shortcomings, of course. Scholars of the subject of American slavery may be irritated by the perpetual summer that seems to characterize Northrup's 12-year captivity. Others will snort when they find producer Brad Pitt playing the most sympathetic white character in the story -- and a Canadian one at that. You cannot help but wonder whether his role was a proviso of lending his name to the production roll.

As an aesthetic and narrative object, however, "12 Years a Slave" is a fine accomplishment. Its subject matter makes it the most emotional of McQueen's three feature films, and it is enlightening to compare its rhetorical tone with those of his fist two films.

The story of Sands has as much latent sentiment as Northrop's, yet in its execution, "Hunger" retains the quiet reserve of an art piece. "Shame," by contrast, works with a fully fictional protagonist and -- at least until the cathartic end of the film -- remains as emotionally removed from the proceedings as its hero is detached from his emotions.

McQueen speaks to slavery as a facet of the American condition with a blend of rare intellectual seriousness and emotional strength.

His film will resonate loudly through the back rooms of Hollywood, come Oscar time.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

Visit The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) at www.dailystar.com.lb/

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