It is one of the most devastating movies I have ever seen. Even more so than the holocaust-themed Shindler's List. Titled Twelve Years a Slave, based upon a true story and book published in 1853, it was screened last night for Academy members, hosted by Fox Searchlight, which is distributing the film in mid-October. It was the opening night picture at the Telluride Film Festival last week and received a standing ovation at the end; it is also scheduled to be seen this week at the Toronto festival.
Already there is Oscar talk for the picture, director, and stars...which will be especially interesting, since now we may have two films with black subject matter in contention. "Lee Daniel's The Butler" is doing very well with all audiences and there is much Academy buzz about it, Forest Whitaker, and Oprah. But this new picture is the other side of the coin, a brilliant but brutal movie about the horrors of slavery in pre-Emancipation America. (Not that the post-Civil War Reconstruction period was much better for the freed slaves.) I would give anything to be in the White House's screening room when Obama sees the film. Undoubtedly he will then offer a profound statement about slavery in America. I wonder if he will allow his two teen-age daughters to see the movie. Doubtful. This is not a movie for the faint-of-heart, with its beatings, murders, rapes and whippings. I don't think it is something for the very young or very sensitive viewers, although certainly a youngish audience will see it and be shocked at the true tale it tells.
I won't go into great detail about the plot, but briefly it is about a free black man, Solomon Northup, played by the extraordinary British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, a name you will remember and learn to pronouce in coming months. In 1841 Solomon was living with his wife and two daughters as a prosperous free man in Saratoga Springs, New York, when he is bamboozled into going with two promoters to Washington to play his violin at a concert. He is then drugged and wakes up in chains. Sold into slavery, a common occurrence in those days when the importing of new slaves into the country had been banned, we follow Solomon's cruel journey with fellow slaves to an auction house in New Orleans where Paul Giamatti, the evil dealer, renames him Platt Hamilton sells him to a plantation owner. (The latter is played by Benedict Cummerbatch, Sherlock Holmes in a current TV series.) The evil overseer, Paul Dano, goes after our hero, who finally breaks and beats him badly. It is more than the scripture-spouting plantation owner can handle, so he sells Solomon/Platt to another cotton plantation owner, Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. The years go by in cruel sequences, as Solomon tries to escape or contact his family and is frustrated in every attempt. There are moments of stunning suspense, ie. when Solomon is hanging from a a tree and must keep on his tiptoes to avoid strangling. I noted a scene when a band of slaves encounter a few pathetic Indians deep in the bayou...and they silently relate. For me, I have been having sleepless nights about the brutal Patsey whipping sequence and its aftermath of a bruised, damaged back being lovingly salved by the women slaves.
In a post-screening question-and-answer session with the director, Steve McQueen, and the two stars, the burly British black director said that the film is about "love," Solomon's love for his family and plantation owner Epps' love for his black girl slave, Patsey, played by fine Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o. I don't really think he is serious about this 'love' theme....the film is about the ignorant racial hatred which existed (and still exists) in America. Our country has never fully apologized for the sad, evil, slavery era, not like Germany which is constantly apologizing for their holocaust. Frankly, I don't think this film will appeal to the vast (redneck) middle of this country. It will be applauded by critics and the more intelligent viewers on both coasts and schools everywhere but perhaps in the South. (Yes, North Carolina, I mean you.)
I have produced two 'black' films in my long life. The first was a romantic comedy in 1968 called For Love of Ivy, the first major studio movie to star two black leads....Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln. The second, in 1972, was the much-nominated "Lady Sings The Blues," the Billie Holiday story -- with Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. But I honestly don't think that I have the tough emotional resources to have produced a film like Twelve Years a Slave. Director McQueen told us that he spent some four years on the film but it really got going when Brad Pitt and his Plan B Films came aboard as a producer. Pitt plays a small role in the film as an itinerant Canadian carpenter and abolitionist who finally comes to the rescue of Solomon. (Interestingly, a film editor friend whom I saw the film with said she thought that Pitt was the weakest actor in the picture. Our other companion, a black screenwriter, was so choked up at the end he could not discuss it until today.) There is an all-star cast playing many smaller roles... I spotted Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson and the little girl from "Beasts of the Southern Wild," Quvenzhame Wallis. McQueen told us all that he and screenwriter John Ridley had decided to do 'something' about American slavery even before they found the book and once they read it, ""We never set it down." The original score is by the inimitable Hans Zimmer, along with some religious and gospel songs. Sean Bobbitt did the stunning photography, most of which was shot in Louisiana. Adam Stockhausen was the production designer, Joe Walker was the editor. It has a well-deserved R rating and runs 134 gripping minutes... and I think the last hour is the best. I defy anyone not to shed a tear when he is reunited with his family.
Steve McQueen has directed just three films... the first was Hunger in 2008 starring Fassbender, a well-received prison strike drama., Then came the startling, excellent "Shame" in 2011, again with Fassbender, a story of sexual addiction. He will be much in demand after this film and I am excited about what he will do next. While Quentin Tarantino's humorous "Django Unchained" slave drama was nominated last year in the best picture category, we can look for a more serious discussion of race in America this year. Think about it... this is the150th anniversary of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Miracle of miracles, we have an able black president in the White House... and we are still fighting the racial wars in this wonderful country. It is pictures like this which will make us all ashamed... and as McQueen said after the screening last night, "I hope that this movie will help us wake up, be more aware, and give us all an incentive to do something. Anything, but do it."
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