12 years a slave was the last thing I thought about before I went to sleep last night, and the first thing this morning, and ran intermittently through my dreams too.
The amount of water that leaves your face is not, perhaps, an official measure of the power of a movie, and it’s obvious this is not a Feel-Good flick, but it is beautifully acted, scripted and edited, wholly worthwhile and will stay with me as long as I have a functioning memory.
In a spate of popular recent films that address slavery and the not-too-distant and very real, brutal racial divide in modern US History; Lincoln, the Butler, Django; this is one that tells a hundred stories well. It weaves about 20 different perspectives of both colours, told by brilliant acting; villains that can’t sleep at night, heroes wracked by guilt, somehow everything I love about the power of the characters in ‘The Wire’ (a measuring stick of brilliant drama, dialogue and 360˚ characters and I’m only 2 seasons in) and manages to squeeze it into 2 and a half hours.
A good villain is a human one, fully believable and frighteningly undestandable, and Michael Fassbender’s slave owner is as emotionally charged and flawed as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, as coolly sinister as Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa (a film Fassbender was also in) but effectively frames what incredible newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is put through so beautifully it hurts, very much.
That Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character can carry the whole thing, like a coach loaded with works of art, is what makes him the perfect lead, letting every part shine on its own merits without dimming his own star. That’s a skill on the stage I’ve often seen at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, but to see it coming through on film is always a harder treat to find. His face can say a million things without saying a word.
As with Apocalypto, Saving Private Ryan, Irreversible, and so many of the best films of the last 50 years, 12 Years a Slave deals with the lowest, most brutal points of human nature, our tribal need to justify our place in the pile by brutal force, and the mind games that play with both victim and brute, and how far that can (and does) go.
Now let me ramble. I don’t know where to start on a discussion of slavery. That the same nation I’m proud of being a part of for its part in the Enlightenment, Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, much of Modern Music, the founding of much of what we call Modern Democracy and a society that is in more parts ‘accountable’ or ‘measurable’, but along the way, responsible for so many darker parts of subjugating, trading and debasing other human beings on several continents. Whether money was the motivator, and trade and power the instigators, Michael Fassbender’s role is the face of it, the hand that held the whip, not some Disney Villain with Jeremy Iron’s or Alan Rickman’s thespian sarcasm, but a man who persuaded himself to do this in the name of what he believed in.
Cut to the real world, and the man who brought about an end to slavery, a Brit too, William Wilberforce – and whether it was the Portugese, or the African kings they traded with who sold them their vanquished, whoever started it, 450 years of it, the millions it affected and brutalised are a deserving subject that’s very tough to stare at in the face, but should be.
Cut to a hidden part of real life, and in ‘modern times’, where the new whips are a bottle of acid thrown in the face, and we still have brutality against our own species, now more often on basis of sex, or paid forms of modern slavery, if we know or suspect it’s going on, what do we do about it? Regardless of who started it, and who will end it, it’s great to see a film that addresses the nature of slavery. Films are not truth, but the most brilliant tool for opening minds.
Go see 12 Years a Slave, but don’t expect it to be easy.