12 Years a Slave (2013)

There have of course been American films that deal with its slave-owning legacy before, but this film directed by black British artist Steve McQueen feels somehow different. Perhaps it’s because previous films have more blatantly pandered to liberal white guilt, with their narratives focusing on those opposed to its practice amongst the nation’s (white) lawmakers — a route taken on several occasions by Steven Spielberg in particular, such as with the long-winded Amistad (1997) or Lincoln (2012). Then there’s Tarantino’s recent (and, shall we say, morally dubious) Django Unchained which pushes its story of slave and master into hyperbolic fantasia. 12 Years is still a story of slavery as a system from which escape is possible — it’s based on a true story and I hope, given the title, you won’t be surprised if I reveal the title character gains his freedom after 12 years — but in its telling illuminates plenty of appalling detail to this once most pervasive of practices.

The title character is one Solomon Northup, a musician living as a free man in New York state, who on a visit to Washington DC is abducted and sent to the south to be sold as a slave by Paul Giamatti’s trader, who off-handedly gives him a new name. Solomon’s first master is the relatively benign William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who works in the logging trade, and gives him a violin to play his music on. When Solomon provokes the ire of one of Cumberbatch’s (white) overseers, he is sold on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a far more cruel man running a cotton plantation. There’s a brief season where Solomon goes off to a sugar cane plantation, before finally he is able to convince Canadian labourer Bass (played by a positively beatific Brad Pitt) that he is free and to get word to his friends in the north, thereby setting in motion the events that see Solomon released. The outcome of this story, though, is not really the key to the film (not least because the title reveals it), as it was hardly a turning point for the institution of slavery, and it’s that institution the reality of which the film is most at pains to get across.

It does this through the close focus on Solomon and those he works with, particularly the young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), another slave owned by Epps, for whom, being born into slavery, there is little succour on offer. She does fairly well by her own wits at first, but the limitations of her severely curtailed position soon become clear — Epps’s fondness for Patsey is a source of discontent for his wife (Sarah Paulson), who ensures that Patsey is first in line for Epps’s rage. The film mounts up a series of disturbing punishments — whether the whipping of Patsey, or the attempted lynching of Solomon, who is left uncomfortably hanging by his neck in the mud, a scene which is drawn out to an almost excruciatingly degree.

I think it’s this scene that best shows off McQueen’s style, such as it is. It’s not a self-consciously show-offy directorial style (like that of Tarantino, say), but given the kind of story being told, that’s probably most appropriate. McQueen makes his point in this scene through a subtly shifting point of view over the course of just two sustained and carefully-composed shots. The first is a long take from in front of Solomon as he is cut down from the hanging tree, but only enough for his toes to be able to touch the muddy ground below. Slowly the other slaves start to come out from their huts and resume their work, all the time Solomon in the foreground is struggling to stay alive. It seems unconscionable, even within the context of their situation, but when at length (after a few minutes), McQueen cuts to a reverse view from behind Solomon, it becomes clear that the overseer is pacing watchfully about on the verandah. There are plenty of other scenes like this that make clear the slaves’ powerlessness; none of it is surprising of course, but the film’s tone doesn’t seem hectoring or angry — there’s scarcely any need to manipulate the audience’s feelings beyond merely depicting the circumstances of Solomon’s life. In this respect, the Hans Zimmer score is unusually underplayed, recalling some of the musical textures he explored in The Thin Red Line (1998).

It’s a serious film and, in its way, a beautiful one, though one wonders just what one should take away from it. The obvious fact of slavery’s reprehensibility as an institution is made here, and made well. Solomon may escape, but it’s as painfully clear to him as to us that most others in the situation do not share his circumstances or education, and have no hope for escape, just strategies for mitigating their suffering. Solomon is seen to draw on these during his ordeal, as his initially confident and headstrong demeanour is slowly ground down. However, it’s that very escape promised in the title that makes the film bearable to watch, though no less heartbreaking.

12 Years a Slave film posterCREDITS
Director Steve McQueen; Writer John Ridley (based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup); Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 12 January 2014.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

When growing up, I was always more of a fan of Star Trek than the other popular sci-fi franchises available. Specifically I watched a lot of The Next Generation television series, which was airing just at the right age for me, really. A lot of the vague ethical issues bandied about in this newest film (the twelfth overall, and the second since its ‘reboot’ in 2009) are familiar from that show in particular, though perhaps the 40-minute small-screen format was better able to handle such complexities. Added for the film is a lot more action and a lot more explosions, but a whole lot less sense.

What’s good about Into Darkness remains the key players, particularly Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Zoë Saldana’s Uhura, whose at times prickly relationship is a lot better drawn than any of the other pairings (the Spock/Kirk antagonism which provided the heart of the previous film is less prominent here). Unfortunately, it’s only glimpsed on occasion, but the time given it is among the film’s better minutes. Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk, too, who (as one might expect) is more indebted to Shatner than Stewart, has an engaging derring-do spirit. I had a passing sense that the other actors (particularly Karl Urban’s McCoy) were largely underutilised, though Simon Pegg’s Scotty was given more to do as the broad comic relief and did pretty well at it (aside from the accent of course), so maybe the problem is more that the screenwriters don’t seem to know what to do with them aside from putting some of their characters’ more familiar quotes in their mouths (if McCoy hits only one note, at least it’s a fairly amusing one).

The way that these minor ensemble cast members are deployed is a reminder of the difficulty inherent in trying to accommodate kitschy caricature in a big budget setting. The clunky one-liners, the 60s-style utopianism of the uniforms (not to mention the entire ineffective Starfleet organisation) and the perfunctoriness of the antagonists’ character motivations might have worked if this were, say, Austin Powers, but nestled amongst so much po-faced sobriety, it comes across as really quite jarring.

Sombrely leading the way into the title’s darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison, a villain who appears to have sprung from nowhere, his character having no apparent past (though hiding a strained over-abundance of it). Certainly, he looks and acts the part well, clad in leather and carefully enunciating. All. His. Words. For he is, after all, evil. There’s also an evil starship in the film, and it too is all in black. There are even Klingons, but they aren’t really evil, just a bit stupid. However, I welcome them as it handed the excellent Saldana another scene.

I suppose the screenwriters may have had some reasoning behind all their decisions, but in the frantic cut-and-thrust of the action film genre, it all blends into so much noise and confusion. Just taking the opening scene set on a vibrantly-coloured alien planet populated by primitives in face-paint, it’s unclear why any of it is really happening, why the Enterprise is hiding underwater (rather than in, say, space), or why Spock needs to go into the volcano himself. There’s a bit of to-do about needing to be able to see someone to teleport them, but that’s the kind of detail which is conveniently dropped when it suits the writers. There’s just so much stupefying plot detail throughout the film which even a moment’s thought would render incoherent, that the film ends up relying too much on director J.J. Abrams’s admittedly deft touch with propulsive narrative momentum. There’s no moral quandary, ethical decision or life-saving action that isn’t heavy-handedly foreshadowed by exposition so clunky as to show contempt for the audience.

But all of that is probably to overthink the whole enterprise. As a series of setpieces interspersed by the vamping of a number of talented actors, it all comes across as perfectly entertaining, provided you just don’t think too much about what’s going on, and why. And if they can give a movie to just Saldana and Quinto, that would be a move in the right direction.

Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof (based on the television series by Gene Roddenberry); Cinematographer Daniel Mindel; Starring Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue (2D), London, Wednesday 15 May 2013.