Twelve Years A Slave is a landmark book for what it helped to overthrow. Adapting it to the big screen is a new challenge. Did the attempt from British director Steve McQueen work?
The movie begins with Solomon Northup in captivity. However it flashes back to when he lived as a free man in a town in New York. New York was a free state during the days of slavery and blacks were free even to the point where they could be businessmen. However he was tricked during a trip one day by slavetraders into touring with the circus. He was drunk that night and the following morning he finds himself chained to a floor and beaten. He was forced through brutal punishment to accept the name Platt and was sold in New Orleans to plantation owner William Ford.
His first experiences as a slave were not bad under Ford. Ford actually treats him with enough respect for Northup to give him a violin in gratitude. However things change when his boss becomes carpenter John Tibeats. Tibeats is terrible as he mocks all his slaves but takes a special dislike to Northup. Tensions go from Tibeats harassing Northup to the two fighting to Tibeats getting his men to hang Northup. Ford notices this and sells Northup away from Tibeats to cotton planter Edwin Epps.
Both Ford and Northup know Epps is cruel to his slaves and believes his right to be cruel to them is in the Bible. Northup insists to Ford that he’s a free man but Ford believes it’s not for him to say because he has a debt to pay. Epps places a demand on all his slaves they pick 200 pounds of cotton a day or be whipped. Throughout his stay, he is subject to brutal treatment from the Eppses and even a plague of the cotton worm where he and the other slaves are sent away to a temporary field. He is even betrayed in his attempts to freedom and has his letter to New York burned by Epps.
Meanwhile Epps is observant to the other brutality going on. Most notably to the female slave Patsey. She is excellent at picking cotton but has caught the jealous of Edwin Epps’ wife who repeatedly beats her. Edwin himself rapes her repeatedly and worsens over time. Patsey’s mental condition worsens to the point where she wants a suicide and even welcomes a whipping from Solomon ordered by Mistress Epps.
There is a ray of hope as Northup works construction along with a Canadian named Bass. Northup knows of Bass’ opposition to slavery by how much it disgusts Edwin Epps. Northup confides to Bass of his experiences. Northup again attempts a letter to pass on but Bass agrees to do so despite that being a risk to his life. The movie ends on a bittersweet positive note and provides information on what happened after the novel was published.
I’ll admit I’ve never read the actual book ‘Twelve Years A Slave.’ Nevertheless I consider it an accomplishment to bring it to the big screen for the first time. It gave an excellent depiction of the horrors and brutalities the slaves went through during the times of slavery. Those who don’t know all the details of what was all involved with slavery other than simply owning black people don’t know all the details. The movie in itself was a recreation of the slave life Northup experienced. This is a life that Northup experienced and witnessed and was a life with thousands or even millions of slaves experienced in the United States. It will shed quite a light and will give all the reason why slavery had to be ended. It will also surprise you with the fact that Solomon was one of the few slaves to escape to freedom. It will even cause you to think of the slaves that weren’t lucky enough to be free.
One thing that made me question was the state of slavery laws at the time. I may be Canadian but I knew of the Dred Scott Decision that had a bearing to the Civil War and the eventual end of slavery. What surprised me is that Northup was a free man living in New York State when he was kidnapped and sold off to Southern slave owners. That had me thinking there must have been some laws against kidnappings and even selling of African Americans from free states. I’m actually surprised to see that kidnappings of free black people by Southern slave traders happened back then. Makes me wonder if there were those that unlike Northup never got their freedom back.
Another thing that caught my attention was the scene where Edwin Epps whips Solomon mercilessly. A white man tries to stop him but he rejects, saying; “he’s my property.” It’s a reminder of the reason why African-American slaves were treated so abhorrently. The white owners looked at them as property that they can do whatever they wanted to them. They could whip them all they wanted or even kill them. They could even be raped in the case of Patsey. None of it would matter because they weren’t considered people. They were considered ‘property.’ And one thing that will strike you once you leave the theatre was how much the Southern states treasured slavery. This was something they valued to the point that when it became clear slavery would end in the United States, they declared their own nation: The Confederate States of America. They would even fight a brutal Civil War over four years with hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed for the sake of keeping their slavery, in which they’d eventually lose. Really makes you think.
The biggest accolade for the efforts given to the film have to be given to director Steve McQueen. Steve is actually a mostly unknown director in the past who had previously directed two previous feature-length films and 23 shorts. Watching Twelve Years A Slave will cause many including myself not to believe this is only his third feature-length. This is excellent and impressive. He did an excellent job of recreating the story and also bringing out excellent performances of actors famous, well-accomplished and those short on experience. What’s also surprising is that Steve McQueen is not African-American but British of Grenadian descent. I too find it surprising that it’s a black British director that has best depicted American slavery to the big screen. He already looks poised to become the third black director to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Not even Spike Lee was nominated in that category. The big buzz is will he win? If he does, he’ll be the first black director to do so.
The acting was also excellent. Chiwetel Ejiofor was excellent as Solomon Northup. It was not only of what he said and what he did but also what he witnessed that made his performance of Solomon. Supporting performances were also excellent too. Lupita Nyong’o was the one that stood the most out as Patsey: a slave that’s as tortured inside as outside. This is actually Lupita’s feature-length film debut. Excellent work. Michael Fassbender was also excellent as Edwin Epps. His jerk attitude made him that hateable. Sarah Paulson was also excellent as Mistress Epps. Even though her role didn’t have as much dimension as Edwin, she was just as hateable. Both made it look like the Eppses had a lust for blood and abuse. Even the performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Paul Dano added to the film.
John Ridley did an excellent job of adapting Northup’s biography to the big screen. This is surprising as Ridley has more of a reputation for writing for television comedy. However he did write the story for 1999’s Three Kings. This was an excellent job for him. Sean Bobbitt did an excellent job of cinematography and Hans Zimmer did a great job for composing original music.
Twelve Years A Slave is an accomplishment of a film. An accomplishment in both acting and directing. The story may be too unwatchable for some but its brutal honesty is its best quality and help make it one of the best films of 2013.
If you’ve seen Lincoln already, you’ve already seen one man’s approach to slavery. Now Django Unchained is another man’s approach to slavery that’s more what Quentin Tarantino had in mind and not what you’d expect.
The film starts with the Speck brothers walking a group of male slaves down across Texas in 1858, three years before the Civil War. Their journey is interrupted by Dr. King Schultz who appears to be a traveling dentist. He offers to buy one of the slaves, Django Freemen. Before the Specks can refuse Schultz shoots one of the Speck brothers to death, shoots the other leaving him in pain and frees the other slaves to let them kill the wounded Speck.
Schultz confesses to Django he’s no longer a dentist but a bounty hunter who kills fugitives for reward money whenever the opportunity arises. He especially chose Django because he can help identify his next targets, the three ruthless Brittle brothers. Schultz admits he hates slavery and offers Django to help with freedom, $75 and a horse as a reward. Django assists successfully in helping Schultz shoot down the Brittles.
Not only does Django get his promised rewards but Schultz hires him as his bounty hunting associate. This comes as Schultz learns that Django has a wife: Broomhilda ‘Hildy’ von Shaft who is also a slave now owned by a separate owner. Schultz is hoping making Django his associate will reunite him with Hildy. Schultz does a good job in training him and Django is fully ready with the shooting skills and the desire for blood. His first operation on Smitty Bacall is a success from hundreds of feet above off a cliff. Django and Schultz are successful in other bounty shootings too and soon learn Hildy is owned by plantation owner Calvin Candie. Once arriving as his plantation, Candyland, we learn Calvin is a charming but brutal man who has his male ‘mandingo’ slaves fight to the death for his entertainment pleasure.
The two try to pose as ‘mandingo’ purchasers to Candie however the purchase turns real when they witness a slave mauled to death by angry dogs. They then ask for Hildy as an addition. Candie agrees to the sale but it raises the suspicion of Candie’s staunch slave Stephen who suspects Django knows Hildy and is up to something with this sale. Upon the advise of Stephen, a drunken ruthless Candie gives Schultz a deal: Hildy for $12,000 or death. Schultz agrees and shoots Candie after the offer. A shootout occurs with Schultz shot and Django shooting many of and many of Candie’s men dead only to end when Stephen threatens to kill Hildy is he doesn’t surrender.
Django is sent to punishment by Stephen and Candie’s sister working as a coal miner worked to his death. That’s what Stephen thinks as Django is able to outsmart the slave drivers, kill them and take their dynamite. This comes for the set up at the end for Django’s revenge on Stephen and all those at the plantation. Even though most people know what the ending will be, it’s the style that it’s done in that’s the treat of the movie.
One thing about this movie is that it’s not supposed to be the answer to slavery. It’s not supposed to be even a version of how slavery should have been solved all along. What this movie is basically is Quentin doing what he does best: a revenge movie done in his style. I’ve been an admirer of him since Pulp Fiction. I remember when I first saw it near the end of 1994. I was a college student of the time and Pulp Fiction was a movie that impressed people of my generation. I came from a generation that was strongly anti-censorship and looked at commercialism in movies as a downgrade in creativity and an attempt to soften the authentic. When Pulp Fiction came out, we were impressed. Finally a movie where the director/writer has complete creative control and it excels. Finally a movie that takes filmmaking to new levels as filmmaking should. Finally a film that pushes envelopes as us Generation Xers in college felt all art should. Finally a movie that makes original pay off at the box office. Finally an independent movie that could make the Hollywood fare at the time look like a laughing stock. Finally a film that doesn’t censor itself and doesn’t bow down to pressures of ratings boards or family values groups and it excels. In the end, Pulp Fiction has been hailed by most as the best film of the 1990’s.
Eighteen years have passed since Pulp Fiction has been released. While most directors have had a flare last for a number of years only to flare out over time, Tarantino never did. He still delivers movies that know how to charm and even enchant. Also while it appears that there’s a lack of taking film in new directions right now and more interest in creating a box office winner, Tarantino is still one who dares to stand out, take risks and do things his way. One thing I’ve come to know of Quentin Tarantino’s movies over the years is that he aims to deliver a film in style. It’s seen very clear in the films he shows that he attempts to tell a story via film noir or blaxploitation or spaghetti western style. He wants to deliver a stylized story as he’s done in his past movies and he does it again here.
Another thing Quentin does in his films that he does again here is deliver a movie with stylized characters with eerily charming personalities and deliver their acting with style. We see it with the characters of Django Freeman, Dr. Schultz, Calvin Candie, Hildy and Stephen. All of them have their personalities in their likeable traits and their hateable traits. All also deliver in their stylized acting without coming off as ridiculous. Few times can an actor get away with doing such a showy stylized character in movie performances without looking ridiculous or over-the-top. It’s here in Quentin Tarantino movies where it works the best. It’s funny because when I learned Django was about a slave getting revenge, I was expecting the actors to play characters with mannerisms from the 1850’s. Not in a Tarantino movie.
Also noticeable is how Quentin works to avoid the sentimental and touching in his films and it’s seen again here. The two where I got the biggest sense of this was firstly the scene where Django shot Smitty Bacall from a cliff and we see Smitty’s son coming to him on the ground. There’s no scene of the son’s reaction. The second was the scene where Hildy saw Django after being away from him for so long. I was expecting Hildy to be in tears and embrace him. Instead she faints at the sight of him. Not what I expected but should’ve in a Tarantino movie.
If there’s one glitch to comment about the movie, it’s that it’s yet another revenge flick from Tarantino. Back in the 90’s his films had the focus of the criminal mind. I was good with that. In the 21st Century, his movies have been focused on the theme of revenge, from the Kill Bill series to the Death Proof part of the Grindhouse movie to Inglourious Basterds. I didn’t have a problem with that because it was done entertainingly and even enchantingly at times in some scenes. Here it was a case where I went with the feel “Not another revenge story from Quentin Tarantino.” I’ll admit that it was a very stylishly done movie that delivers in entertainment value but seeing Tarantino toy around with the theme of revenge once again gives me the impression he’s masturbating to that theme a little too gratuitously.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say in my review that this is the movie that is the turning point for my respect for Tarantino. In fact I still consider him one of the best filmmakers out right now. I would however like to see him work with other themes too. Like many people, I feel one trait that makes for a great director is one that can do many genres well. Steven Spielberg is an example of a director that can do a multitude of film genres. Martin Scorsese may be famous for gangster films but he showed he can do other styles of film well too, even family movies. Ang Lee is another filmmaker that has demonstrated versatility. I would like to see Tarantino become more versatile in the films he delivers. This may sound odd coming from a fan of his movies but I’d like to see him try it.
Okay, enough of me both praising and sacking Quentin. The film’s acting consists of character acting that knows how to be stylish without coming across as ridiculously showy. Jamie Foxx was impressive as Django Freeman. The only problem is that he was constantly upstaged by the supporting players. Christoph Waltz delivered excellently as King Schultz with all of his charming arrogance who somehow had a heart. Leonardo DiCaprio also was phenomenal as the charmingly hateable Calvin Candie. Samuel L. Jackson was excellent as the hateable Stephen: the former slave who now owns and beats his own. He makes you want his payback in the end. Kerry Washington was also good as Hildy but her character lacked the depth and style the leading male characters had. The sets were perfect in fitting the time. Even the springy tooth on Dr. Schultz’s coach looked less ridiculous over time. The music mix was also excellent. Another trait of Tarantino’s movies is the inclusion of music that enhances, stylizes and even enchants in the movie’s story and Quentin delivered again. It was a mix of original music and of songs from decades past that blend like magic into the film.
One would assume a movie like this would be one to cause controversy. And they’re right. This movie has had people speaking out against it on the subject of either the violence or the subject of slavery or the use of racial slurs. The most outspoken critic has been director Spike Lee. Spike has been critical of Quentin Tarantino in the past for the use of a certain racial slur in Pulp Fiction. Spike hasn’t really spoken about the use of that slur in Django but he has spoken about the movie itself and has declared it: “an insult to my ancestors.” This is particularly questionable since there are African American actors in leading roles. If they felt it was an insult to their ancestors, they would have refused to be in the movie. Besides I’ve always gotten the impression Spike Lee wants the world to think he’s the voice of all of black America simply because of Do The Right Thing. Fortunately the controversy hasn’t generated too much news overload.
It’s interesting while Lincoln showcased justice given to slavery, Django Unchained is about one slave’s revenge. Ironic how both are released in the same year and both have expectations to win the Best Picture Oscar. As for Django, it’s starting to feel redundant to see another Tarantino revenge flick but his stylized filmmaking compensates for that and delivers a winner of a movie for the most part. Not for all to see but it will entertain those that do see it.
I’m sure almost all of us are familiar with Abraham Lincoln. Even if you don’t live in the United States, you must have learned about him and his presidency somehow. Steven Spielberg has directed the epic biographic movie of Lincoln. Will it show the Lincoln we know or the Lincoln we don’t know?
It’s January 1865. Lincoln has been re-elected President back in November. However the Civil War is entering its fifth year. It has been the most brutal war on American soil in terms of destruction and fatalities. The Emancipation Proclamation, the law completely abolishing slavery, is being debated in the US House of Representatives. Politicians from both the American states and the Confederate states debate it. Both sided stand firm in their beliefs. Meanwhile Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens–a strongly anti-slavery Republican who demanded total war on the Confederate States– are waiting and debating as the Proclamation is nearing its vote into law as the Thirteenth Amendment. However the Republicans want the vote delayed because they fear the outcome and want the War to end. Lincoln doesn’t want to wait. He wants slavery over before the Confederate States can be reintegrated.
This takes an impact on how people view Lincoln. Lincoln is one president who’s willing to meet with Civil war soldiers on the ‘Yankee’ side and hear the stories they have to tell. Many politicians view him as a wise communicator who always has an interesting tale of past history that will make one think about the present. However Lincoln loses some appeal as he’s unable to convince Republican Party founder Francis Blair in his method of dealing with the Confederates instead of peace negotiations. He even senses possible political tension in Stevens desire for racial equality included with ending slavery, fearing the Thirteenth Amendment won’t pass. He a meets up with Secretary of State William Seward with a plan to convince the Democrats to support the amendment with offers of federal jobs.
His family life is also impacted by this all too. Lincoln is adored by his youngest son Tad. His wife Mary is known for her outlandish mouth and is frequently involved with spats with Abraham and even breaks down whenever their late son Willie comes up in conversation, especially since it’s possible their oldest son Robert might have to fight. Meanwhile Robert returns home from his law studies as he had just been named Union Captain to General Ulysses Grant. He’s studying to be a lawyer like his father but is willing to fight in the war if he has to. That leaves Abraham very uncomfortable and even coming to some confrontations with Robert.
Then the day comes for the Emancipation proclamation to be voted upon. Lincoln has gone far to get this voted upon fast to the point of even instructing Confederate envoys to be kept out of Washington. This was a moment of focus for all the nation. In the end, the Emancipation proclamation was voted into law by a margin of just two votes and the abolition of slavery was sealed as the Thirteenth Amendment of the American Constitution. People outside the White House, both black and white, celebrated. Lincoln finally meets with the Confederate envoys after the vote but they were willing to rejoin the Union if they could prevent the amendment from becoming law. Lincoln sent the message: “Slavery’s done.”
It would take time for the Civil War to end: April of 1865 to be exact. Then on April 14, 1865 Lincoln is in a meeting discussing measures to give suffrage to blacks when he is reminded Mary is waiting for him at Ford’s Theatre. That night…the rest is infamy. Nevertheless we’re reminded of the man who is an integral part of history with a flashback to his Second Inaugural Address.
The best thing about the film is that it does not just focus on Lincoln the maverick politician but Abraham Lincoln the person. He was a friendly talker and did his best to be a good father and a loyal husband but he was also stern in what he believed. It was not perfect because he wanted the Emancipation Proclamation to pass but knew that mention of equality for blacks would deter many Representatives from giving it a ‘Yay’ vote. He was as much a strategist as he was an idealist. He knew any chances of equality would be a step-by-step procedure and emancipation was the first step. He knew of the bloody war happening and of the Confederate’s rebellion but he knew it had to be done.
Another excellent quality of this film is that it shows the political climate of the time. We should remember that the United States of America wasn’t even a century old at the time and slavery had existed in the South long before the United States of America was formed. There were many laws and disputes debating free states and slave states over the years to the point that slavery was going to reach its end but the South refused it to the point they would form their own nation: The Confederate States of America. The North, the United States, wanted to see slavery end throughout the whole United States and were even willing to have this war to make it happen even in the South. The South, the Confederates, knew that they would lose but they valued slavery to the point that they were willing to fight for it in such a brutal war. Even though they knew they were losing, they were willing to fight for it over these four long years and despite the huge losses they suffered.
The debates in the House Of Representative from the various states’ Representatives showcased the ideologies both the United States and the Confederate States felt. Nowadays we all can’t imagine slavery from happening but back then the South valued slavery to the point they would try to start their own independent nation and fight a long bloody war to keep it alive. And even the politicians in the American offices upheld their convictions in debates. The film also reminds us that the Emancipation Proclamation may have been written by Thaddeus Stevens and introduced to the House Of Representatives by Lincoln but it required the House to vote it into law. It almost didn’t happened and if it didn’t, Lincoln may have gone down in history as one of the lesser Presidents of the United States. We’re reminded in the film what kind of gamble Lincoln was making.
Another thing to notice in the film is Spielberg’s infatuation with war. We have seen it before with World War II with Saving Private Ryan and Empire Of The Sun, World War I with War Horse and we see now see Spielberg’s depiction of the Civil War and it has a lot of details. It details the artillery that was used at the time. It details the gruesome destruction and bloodshed that occurred. It even depicted the communication between officers and of relaying news to soldiers via Morse Code. Spielberg does it again.
Spielberg gives another directing effort under his belt. Already we know Spielberg to master sci-fi thrillers, sci-fi family adventures, and war dramas. Now he creates an ideological drama that focuses less on the war and more on the focus of the historic individual and the times he was facing. The film did an excellent job in focusing on the political climate of the times as much as the main politicians involved. The film however couldn’t have been done without the excellent acting. Daniel Day-Lewis gave an excellent performance as Abraham. The may have focused mostly on a single month of Lincoln’s presidency but his performance spoke volumes of the President we thought we knew. The movie however was stolen frequently by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Tommy Lee did a great job in showing Stevens in his mannerisms, beliefs and how fierce of a man of conviction he was. Sally Field was also excellent as the troubled Mary Lincoln. History has documented her as a woman with mental illness. Field’s performances showcase her outlandish personality but also shows her as a woman both troubled by her losses and fearing for her future. Joseph Gordon Levitt was not so good at undoing his body and talking from modern mannerisms but he was better at conveying Robert the person in his ambitions and fears.
The screenplay by Tony Kushner is an excellent adaptation which is able to make that one month in 1865 to be the defining month in the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. It was as much focused on political details as it was on the people involved. John Williams delivers another fitting score to his list of movie scores. Janusz Kaminski gave good cinematography but there were many times I felt the use of zoom-ups were excessive. The depictions of war in the movie were mostly graphic only at the very beginning but were very well-detailed in not just the battles taking place on screen.
Lincoln is a surprising outlook on a president we’ve all come to know and celebrate but didn’t completely know. It’s also an excellent presentation of the political climate of the times. This reminds us of his celebrated greatness and how much of a gamble he made not just with his life but his political status to achieve it. Definitely worth seeing.