‘Twelve Years a Slave’ part history, part horror movie

By Gary Clift

The feel-bad movie of 2013 has arrived in Manhattan, re-issued now that it has been nominated for a number of awards, including eight Oscars. The movie is “Twelve Years a Slave,” made by the British director Steve McQueen and starring the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The film is based on the book of the same title, a tome many Kansas school children read about the same time we did “Black Like Me,” back in the early 1960s. I remember that it prompted some discussion of the motivations of slave-holders, economic discussions that are also going to be concerns for thoughtful moviegoers who see this film now.

McQueen has allowed the movie to doddle in some cases—there is a sixty-second close up in the last reel, inserted in between two unrelated scenes, that can stand as an example of the film’s inefficiency. But there are some interesting nature shots in it, and some things—”Platt” standing on tiptoes in the mud to avoid strangulation by a noose, for example—are well timed.

The film’s best feature, though, is its acting. Ejiofor, who has had successes on the London stage and has starred in the films “Amistad” and the fascinating “Dirty Pretty Things,” gives a solid performance as Solomon Northrupp, a.k.a. “Platt.” His co-stars here include Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, two hot-property actors. Producer Brad Pitts lets himself in as the Duddly Do-right Canadian who figures in the story’s conclusion.

Northrupp, as you may remember, was a free African-American who, in the 1840s, lived in upstate New York. Two Caucasian entertainers hired him to play his violin on dates in Washington D.C. There he was shanghaied, held with a number of others, some of them free Blacks, and transported (on a paddle-steamer?) to New Orleans.

There he learned to keep his learning a secret, as slave-owners were suspicious of slaves who could read and write. Re-named Platt, Northrupp was sold to a relatively enlightened plantation owner named Ford (Cumberbatch) who appreciated Platt’s recommendations for improving logging operations. But his violent confrontation with an insecure White supervisor led to his being sold to Epps (Fassbender).

There is something wrong with Epps. He seems frequently drunk and manic. His imperious wife shuns him, and perhaps for that reason he begins consorting with a slave girl (Adepero Oduye) who is both petted and punished. Epps only seems to recognize the value of his slaves in terms of their purchase price and does nothing to promote their productivity.

After a pest problem with his cotton, Epps still has enough money to hire an outside contractor to come to his farm and construct a free-standing building for him. He is puzzling and might make the subject of a decent movie. As a second-rank figure in “Twelve Years a Slave,” his complexity becomes a problem. Though he owns a plantation and a dozen slaves, he seems worse off than the traveling contractor. What does this tell us about the economics of slavery?

Well, the movie isn’t intended to explain what motivated slave-owners. It seems primarily interested in how hard slaves’ lives were. They were hard. They were horrifying. Slavery was an awful evil. We must remember that there are places where it is still a practice.

But the film doesn’t seem interested in promoting further action. “Twelve Years a Slave” is part history and part horror movie. I was uneasy about the motivations of its audience. This was one of those times when movie-going felt creepy.

Now then, spoiler alert. In the end Northrupp is freed and reunited with his family. But, as the closing text-on-screen tells us, his abductors were never punished. This is the film’s last bit of information for its viewers.

Eijofor certainly deserves recognition for his acting here. Those of my readers who are interested primarily in acting may want to see “Twelve Years a Slave,” as well as “American Hustle” and, ironically, James Franco’s supporting turn in “Homefront.” There was some good acting on screen in films released in 2013. But some of it came in movies that had little to offer but good acting.

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