I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.
FILM REVIEW Director Kasi Lemmons | Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa | Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine | Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017
A few years ago I went to see The Counselor and I hated it so much I called it my least favourite film of the year. Which means I haven’t exactly been seeking out the work of Ridley Scott since then. But some friends said hey this new film of his was pretty good and so finding myself with an empty day and having exhausted everything else I needed to see, I steeled myself for 141 minutes of more of his noxious worldview (whyyyyy?) and… well… it was actually pretty enjoyable stuff. But I suspect that’s partly Scott’s directorial vision being paired with a more sympathetic screenwriter in Drew Goddard — most of the battle in making a good film, after all, is starting with a good script. It’s a science-fiction film, but fairly easy on the distancing techy BS that distracts in other efforts. Sure there are actors who pop up just to be savant geniuses (like Donald Glover), but for the most part this is just about determined people trying to do their best with (apparently) very little regard to budget — I guess we should assume the future has solved all its financial problems. Therefore, amongst these driven players — including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent, the mission director, Jessica Chastain as Melissa, commanding the actual expedition, and Jeff Daniels as the NASA director Teddy — astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is just the most notable, for he’s the one stuck on Mars. Most of the extended running time just lingers on him solving problems, and Scott’s work is to build tension through emphasising his very isolation, and the impossibility of those back on Earth helping him in any meaningful way. In that sense, it has a bit of Apollo 13 to it, and it’s immensely likeable in the way that there are no villains in the piece, and everyone gets their time. Sure, our Everyman character is still a white guy (and Damon’s run into a bit of criticism for his views on that this year), but this is a well-crafted film which fits in easily alongside Gravity as a solid bit of space-based entertainment. I suspect we’ll be getting more of that as 2015 draws to a close.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Ridley Scott | Writer Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir) | Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski | Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara | Length 141 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015
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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW 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