Solomon Northup tries to maintain his footing on the muddy ground. Around his neck, the noose threatens to break his neck if he so much as slips. Surely some kind soul will stop and get him down from this tree where he has been abandoned. Lynchus interruptus.
But no one comes to his aid. The bulk of this scene, halfway through 12 Years a Slave, unfolds as an extended long shot, one of several stunning tableaux in which director Steve McQueen (no relation to the iconic Hollywood star) recreates the antebellum South with unblinking immediacy. Solomon, brought to life by the ubiquitous Chiwetel Ejiofor, stands on the precipice between this world and the next, and all around him, the help go about their day, desensitized as they have become to the sight of another slave about to meet his Maker below a sturdy tree branch.
McQueen captures the beauty and the horrors of his Louisiana setting, and he understands that, in portraying the bristling subject of slavery, it’s best to tackle the atrocities head on. Anchored by a stirring central performance and a top-drawer supporting cast, the end result is a harrowing first-person portrait of mid-19th Century plantation life that defiantly refuses to look away. But I’ve left you hanging, haven’t I? Back to Solomon’s predicament. Hours go by until his master, Baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) runs to Solomon’s rescue and cuts him down from the tree. How he wound up in this life-and-death dilemma involves John M. Tibaut (Paul Dano, playing yet another creep), a carpenter working for Ford, and an uppity Solomon having had enough of his cruelty.
And this is one of the more tolerable plantations where Solomon labored. More on that later.
Solomon, you see, was actually a Yankee, a well-regarded freeborn violinist living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and his 1853 nonfiction account of his time in the Deep South, Twelve Years a Slave, has been vividly adapted for the screen by screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails, U-Turn). In 1841, Solomon was approached by two circus promoters proposing a profitable gig in the Nation’s Capital. The enterprising businessmen take him to dinner and encourage him to drink some more wine. Solomon wakes up to the rattle of chains, his freedom snuffed out in the blink of an eye. “Your name is Platt,” says slave trader James H. Burch (Christopher Berry), “and you’re a [n-word] from Georgia.” Solomon refuses to go along. Out comes the paddle.
Solomon screams out as despair overpowers him, and longtime McQueen cinematographer Sean Bobbitt pulls out from his prison cell to show the Capitol dome, mere blocks away. If this makes 12 Years a Slave comes across as a heavy-handed history lesson, rest assured McQueen and Ridley have no intentions to hit you over the head with outrage. They limit the film’s scope to Solomon’s point of view, and what could have easily been depicted as a tale of good versus evil becomes a nuanced, deeply affecting chronicle that’s painfully aware this subject matter is far from black and white. The shades of gray are everywhere, from Ford’s guarded compassion, to the sassy, world-weary insight of Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), who has sage words of advice about women in slavery.
So what happens to Solomon after he defies death? He winds up under the tyrannical care of cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps (McQueen muse Michael Fassbender). A real piece of work, Mr. Epps, who makes sure to remind underperforming slaves reminded where they stand, the scars on their backs bringing to mind the tree trunks Toni Morrison talked about in “Beloved.” Mr. Epps, who invites his slaves inside his home and coaxes them to dance, while his devoted wife (Sarah Paulson, aka hatred incarnate) stares daggers at Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a pint-sized dynamo who’s often the object of Epps’ lust. The Epps remind me of the advice Sidney Lumet gave Faye Dunaway when they were shooting Network. Whe she asks him if her character has a semblance of compassion, Lumet replied, “No, and if you try to imbue some I’ll cut it out in the editing room.” Fassbender and Paulson’s roles are bottomless pits of evil, and both actors rise to the Herculean challenge with hiss-worthy panache.
Kudos to McQueen, for retaining some of the stylistic flourishes that pepper his earlier work (Hunger, Shame), such as the way he lingers on the ripples a riverboat’s wheel cause as it takes its human cargo due south. 12 Years a Slave is a film about the shapes of slavery, how field workers look when they’re sleeping side by side in a small cabin, how sugar cane leaves remind Solomon of violin strings, how his haunted eyes stare out into the bayou, his silence speaking volumes. And through it all, McQueen stares right back, his gaze an indefatigable witness to a dark chapter in American history that has rarely been captured so richly.
McQueen’s stellar period piece isn’t the only new movie dealing with oppression at the multiplex. Oscar winner Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) has taken on the unenviable task of making “Ender’s Game,” Orson Scott Card’s 1985 militaristic sci-fi novel, palatable for a 21st Century audience. Card endured some bad press earlier this year when he expressed, a) his opposition to same-sex marriage, and b) his acknowledgment that he had lost this particular culture war. The topic is largely irrelevant to the futuristic tale of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield), a gifted young man tapped by Col. Graff (Harrison Ford) to lead an army of child soldiers to defend Earth from the Formics, an insectoid alien species that attempted to invade Earth and is expected to try again. (To give you a sense of Card’s nasty worldview, the aliens’ name in the novel is “Buggers.”)
Nevertheless, the film contains some scenes in which the lead character is victimized, once in an empty classroom by a group of disgruntled bullies, and in a scene right out of a prison drama, in a shower stall by Bonzo (The Kings of Summer‘s Moises Arias, wasted here), an officer who’s not too keen on the saucer-eyed boy’s leadership traits and questioning of authority figures. Any trace of sexuality is absent in this drop-the-soap scenario, but what lingers is the brutality, the threat of invasive physical violence that turns this ostensibly kid-friendly parable into a distasteful morality play. Hood, who also wrote the screenplay, deserves some credit for exploring weighty questions of ethics during wartime, but the humorless film he has made remains regrettably earthbound.
Want to see multiplex fodder that flies off the coop? Look no further than the inspired silliness of Free Birds, the daffy animated tail of Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson), a pardoned turkey who joins beaks with fellow clucker Jake (Woody Harrelson) as they infiltrate into a secret government facility inside Camp David to travel back to 1621 to ensure the main dish in the first Thanksgiving is something other than turkey. What ensues is a serviceable farce – The New World gone Looney Tunes – elevated by director Jimmy Hayward’s crack comic timing and the insertion of immature grown-up gags that kept this reviewer in stitches. You know Hayward’s doing something right when dueling male turkeys join feathers and start waltzing, well, just because. Give it up for Free Birds, a 3D yarn that doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does what so many of this year’s studio animated features have seemed to forget how to pull off: It makes you laugh. Often.
Free Birds and Ender’s Game transport multiplex viewers to another time and place in wide release starting Friday, Nov 1. The phenomenal 12 Years a Slave opens the same day at area theaters, but the best seat in town is at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com). Don’t miss it.