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12 Years A Slave

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    lawless

    Anyone else seen this film? My opinion seems to be out of step with everyone else’s, but it’s not fruitful discussing it here if no one else has seen it. FWIW, there’s a tie-in to Red Beard.

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    Vili Maunula

    I don’t know if it counts, but I have seen the first third, at which point I gave up.

    Not because I thought that it was a bad film, as it actually seemed very well made, even if I’m not a particular fan of the style. But I felt that I have already experienced the story so many times through other works, and I think that I have also sometime in the distant past read the book that the film is based on, and so as the first third didn’t really seem to catch my interest and/or I wasn’t in the mood for it that day, I moved onto other things.

    My wife watched it to the end and liked it.

    Anyway, you made me curious. What’s the Red Beard connection?

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    lawless

    The Red Beard connection is the passivity of the protagonist/POV character. The cause is a little different; in Yasumoto’s case, it’s because he’s used as the lens through which we get to know the clinic. In Northrup’s case, it’s because of his powerlessness due to his status as a slave.

    Anyway, Twelve Years a Slave really frustrated me because it was so much less gripping a movie than the story deserved or than it could have been. I lay particular blame for this on John Ridley’s screenplay. It was more like a history lesson than a movie. A lot of this is due to the fact that the POV character is powerless and his resigned suffering after he’s whipped into submission by the slave trader saps his story of most of its conflict. Whatever explicit conflict exists is mostly embodied through supporting characters like the brutal slaveowner Epps, his wife, and Patsey, the slave he both showed favor to and raped. (BTW, I’m rooting for Michael Fassbender to win a best supporting actor Oscar and Lupita N’yongo to win a best supporting actress Oscar for their performances as Epps and Patsey. I don’t see Chiwetel Ejiafor as deserving of an Oscar because his role is so passive that it doesn’t test his acting skills.)

    There’s a PBS version of this story starring Avery Brooks of Spenser For Hire and Deep Space Nine that was broadcast in the 80s and is available through Netflix. I haven’t seen it, but it shows how Northrup’s absence affects his family, and possibly also what steps they took to look for him. I think that’s a smart choice, but Ridley might have avoided it for fear of appearing to copy the previous version. At any rate, more active resistance from Northrup during his captivity would have been a better choice dramatically even if it veered from the historical record.

    Instead of showing the brutality of slavery, the movie showed the tedium of it. While the scene where Northrup was forced to whip Patsey was hard to watch, it didn’t affect me emotionally the way the sudden and thus shocking scenes of arbitrary and random brutality in Django Unchained did. As non-PC as it may be for me to say this, I thought Django Unchained not only has a more artistically satisfying narrative and is more entertaining but is also a more effective indictment of slavery than 12 Years a Slave. This is true even though a white savior is a central character in Django; while Django derives all his agency from his white savior in the first two-thirds of the film, in the end the white savior is killed and it’s Django who rescues his wife and leads a slave rebellion. Northrup needed the intervention of two white men in order to return home: the Brad Pitt character who mailed the letter for him and the man to whom the letter was written. He wasn’t able to save himself, and there’s no getting around that.

    Furthermore, for all of the historical accuracy of the main narrative, the end title cards, which were the most moving part of the movie for me, leave out an very important fact: after a few years of freedom, Northrup disappeared and was never heard from again. We don’t know if he wound up back in captivity or was the subject of random violence (it seems unlikely that he just took off), but closing his story with his disappearance would give the movie a sense of how random the fate of an upstanding black man could be. It would be a useful antidote to the lack of conflict in the narrative of Northrup’s slave days, and without it the movie ends on an false note of triumphalism.

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    Ugetsu

    I saw the film two weeks ago, and I found it very impressive.

    I was a bit reluctant to go to a film like this, as I’m generally fairly immune to the charms and attractions of ‘issue’ films. When dealing with something like slavery, I think anyone who needs to be told of the horrors of it by a Hollywood film are lacking a lot of imagination. I tend to feel the same about Holocaust films, I usually dislike them a lot. I also find focusing on victims a little tedious – of course you feel sorry for people at the wrong end of historic evils, but I find the question of why people inflict such horrors on others to be much more interesting, and much more fruitful for artists to explore. This is one reason why the film I think is the best in the last year is the stunning documentary The Act of Killing, which is simply a staggering piece of work which I’ve been unable to remove from my head since watching it. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it follows a group of thugs who were involved in mass murder in Indonesia in the 1960’s making a film of their own experiences. It really is jaw-dropping stuff and I would consider it absolutely essential viewing for anyone.

    Having said all this, I found 12 Years a Slave to be very admirable. I think the faults (and there are many faults) stem from the decision to quite faithfully follow the source book, flaws and all. I admire McQueens decision to film it in quite a formal manner, avoiding the obvious emotional manipulation of a more conventional Hollywood film. I think the manner in which the film realistically recreated the deeply perverse society which inevitably grows up around slavery to be very convincing. But while the portrayal of the society was far more realistic than, say in Django Unchained, I share Lawless’s view that this is not necessarily a better approach in cinema.

    I thought the performances were very good, although I think Ejiofor had a somewhat thankless task in bringing to life someone as self contained as the lead character. As its very much a first person viewpoint, we never really see him objectively. The script is also a little uneven in presenting his character, as sometimes he appears as a conventional hero, other times he seems quite easily subdued by those around him. Again, this comes I think from the source material.

    The white characters were also I think a little weak, in that it seemed too simplistic to have a range of clearly psychotic and psychopathic characters, along with the somewhat cliched ‘decent but weak’ slave owner. Again, although I haven’t read the book, this is exactly what Northup described, and may well be what he encountered, but I found it a bit of a cop-out to have the slave owners to be so obviously brutish. I suspect that there would (and should) have been a lot more nuance there. But again, this comes down to me being more interested in perpetrators than in victims. I also think that it reflects a view that films like this are less about indicating white guilt for past crimes, than in fingering southern whites as being a unique and objectionable sub-culture.

    Personally, if I was making a film about the period – and I would love to, I think it would be much more interesting to focus on the forgotten fringes of the early days of the US – for example, the alliances between slaves, some Native Americans and Hispanics. I think there is also a fascinating film to be made about how the formation of Texas came from a desire to stop the Mexicans from banning slavery in those territories. In short, there are some truly fascinating stories in the formation of the US and how much it was grounded in racism, genocide and simple theft – the simple narrative of evil southerners whipping poor African Americans is one of the less interesting ones.

    Having said all that, I found the film far more affecting than I expected, and it is a very fine film which I hope does well at the Oscars in what has been a very good year (and how American Hustle has received so many more nominations than other much superior films baffles me, but thats a topic for another day). I think its a story that needs to be told on the screen, and McQueen did an outstanding job with it. It really is shocking to realise how few films have been made about slavery, and how most that have been made have focused on how ‘good’ those white people were who fought against it (e.g. Lincoln). But I certainly don’t consider it to be the ‘definitive’ film about American slavery and I’m not sure that it was necessarily the best historical source that could have been chosen.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I think you’re right that an examination of the perpetrators of such injustices is more dramatically interesting; the problem is that such an approach is another example of foregrounding whites over the people who suffered from their actions.

    I think Ejiofor had a somewhat thankless task in bringing to life someone as self contained as the lead character.

    That’s exactly what I was getting at. I have no doubt that he’s an actor worthy of an Oscar, but this is not an Oscar-worthy role, and I kind of resent the idea that he should get an Oscar to make Hollywood feel better about itself.

    While this movie as a whole was more realistic than the cartoonish Django Unchained, I think Django had a better handle on the emotional truths of slavery as an institution. The scenes of brutality in particular affected me quite differently. In Django, they were raw, arbitrary, and unpredictable, and that very surprise and sense of disproportion effectively conveyed the worst of what it means to be considered someone’s chattel with whom they can do as the please. In 12 Years a Slave, while the actions were brutal, they occurred because rules had been broken or a white man had been shown up. That very predictability worked against them.

    I’ve also gotten the sense that it’s hard to figure out why American Hustle is receiving such buzz. The one person I know who saw it thought the performances were good, but was otherwise underwhelmed.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I’ve also gotten the sense that it’s hard to figure out why American Hustle is receiving such buzz. The one person I know who saw it thought the performances were good, but was otherwise underwhelmed.

    Unusually for me, this year I’ve seen the majority of the Oscar contenders. I think its been a great year for mainstream US film, but the critical popularity of American Hustle baffles me. I found it amusing and moderately entertaining, but nothing else (the muted reaction of the audience when I watched it made me think I wasn’t alone) – I thought the ‘twist’ at the end was almost laughably inept. Everyone raves about the acting, but I found myself watching it thinking of those student drama society performances of Oscar Wilde where a lot of cool kids have lots of fun hamming up some good lines – more for their own fun than the audiences.

    Last night I went to see Inside Llewyn Davis, and I loved it, I’m baffled as to why it was overlooked. It is superior in every respect – costumes, acting, set design, cinematography, directing, script to American Hustle. All Is Lost is another film which I think was superb and was unfairly overlooked. I suppose I’m rooting for 12 Years a Slave and/or Gravity and/or The Wolf of Wall Street to win big because I feel it would be a travesty for American Hustle to beat out so many clearly superior films.

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    Vili Maunula

    lawless: While the scene where Northrup was forced to whip Patsey was hard to watch, it didn’t affect me emotionally the way the sudden and thus shocking scenes of arbitrary and random brutality in Django Unchained did.

    That’s interesting. My own response to Django Unchained‘s violence was usually a giggle. I couldn’t really take it that seriously. 12 Years A Slave was (as far as I saw it) more thought provoking watching, although also quite tedious going.

    Ugetsu: I also find focusing on victims a little tedious – of course you feel sorry for people at the wrong end of historic evils, but I find the question of why people inflict such horrors on others to be much more interesting, and much more fruitful for artists to explore.

    I do agree here. There of course also are interesting questions to be asked about victims — why someone submits into the role of a victim and stops fighting back and so on — but films which are purely descriptive of a victim’s experiences don’t really tend to interest me. Lawless is right about the problem of passivity.

    Ugetsu: This is one reason why the film I think is the best in the last year is the stunning documentary The Act of Killing, which is simply a staggering piece of work which I’ve been unable to remove from my head since watching it.

    My wife actually translated it for a film festival about a year ago and couldn’t stop talking about it. She really hated it and loved it at the same time. I confess that I still haven’t seen it.

    Ugetsu: the critical popularity of American Hustle baffles me

    I guess it reminds many of the intelligent thrillers of the 1970s, not that it was actually that intelligent, and personally I felt it had more of a 90s indie film making vibe to it. I also didn’t find it as funny as many apparently do, and while the performances are competent, I too felt that it was perhaps more fun for the actors than for me as a viewer. It was an ok film but I too feel that I didn’t quite get what all the fuss has been about.

    Speaking of films where the makers are having more fun than me, I thought that The Wolf of Wall Street wasn’t particularly brilliant, either. Better, I think, than American Hustle, but not by a great margin.

    On the other hand, All Is Lost was indeed pretty good and I would have been happy to see it or Redford nominated for an Oscar.

    I haven’t seen all of the Oscar nominated films but so far Gravity seems the strongest in my view. I actually went to see it twice in the cinema. It wasn’t as good the second time around, but the visuals were still great. I’m looking forward to Cuarón’s upcoming science fiction tv series Believe.

    I also enjoyed Captain Phillips and was surprised not to see Hanks nominated.

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