“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So five years later, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE” has gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It is already considered a front-runner for the Academy Awards. Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Blatt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portryal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Lupita Nyong’o and especially Chiwetel Ejiofor. Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire. Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza also struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially one headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats was warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the early 20th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made its debut in the early 20th century, nearly a century after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years. But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 television movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserved its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o.  But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie had garnered, may have been undeserved. As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

 

 

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

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“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

During my recent viewing of the 1965 movie, “SHENANDOAH”, I came to the surprising conclusion that it proved to be entirely different than what I had assumed it would be. But it is not surprising that it would take several years for the movie to be appreciated by today’s audiences than it was back in 1965.

Like I said, “SHENANDOAH” is an unusual film. Set in 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, the movie is about the efforts of a sardonic Virginia farmer and widower named Charlie Anderson to prevent his sons from fighting in the war. Although, he is sympathetic toward the travails his neighbors face from the Union Army’s presence in the Shenandoah Valley, he feels no obligation to fight on behalf of a state he believes had never help him maintain his farm. Nor does he support the Confederacy’s pro-slavery stance. His neighbors seem willing to tolerate his pacifist stance, although a few like Pastor Bjoerling occasionally make barbed comments.

Not long after his only daughter’s wedding to neighbor and Confederate Army officer Sam and the birth of his first grandchild, Charlie’s family fortunes take a turn for the worse. His youngest son, 16 year-old Boy, is captured by Union soldiers, while playing with his close friend Gabriel, a neighbor’s slave. Boy had been wearing a Confederate Army kepi cap he had earlier found. When Gabriel informs the Anderson family of the news; Charlie, most of his sons and daughter Jennie leave to look for Boy. They leave James and his wife Ann at the farm with their young baby.

While watching the first twenty to thirty minutes of “SHENANDOAH”, one gets the impression of watching a warm family comedy-drama with a Civil War setting. I almost felt as if I were watching “THE WALTONS” in a 19th century setting. There are very few characters in uniform. The movie featured the Anderson family at home, at work and a mildly amusing scene of them arriving late at church during the beginning of the sermon. And when the war did infringe upon their lives, the family usually responded in humorous ways – namely their boisterous fight with a state official and soldiers trying to acquire horses for the army, and a stand-off between Anderson’s sons and a group of army recruiters. By the time Charlie and his family set out to find the missing Boy, I felt certain that their adventures would be exciting, topped by a happy ending. Charlie and the rest of the Andersons got their happy ending. . . but at great costs, thanks to the Union Army, the Confederate Army and a group of deserters. The movie’s growing dark tones and anti-war sentiments really took me by surprise, considering its earlier tone. But what really took me by surprise is that the movie’s changing tone had been gradual, thanks to director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett.

There were scenes in “SHENANDOAH” that really impressed me. I enjoyed those scenes with Charlie’s conversations with his future son-in-law, Sam, and his daughter-in-law Ann; due to their heartwarming nature, Charlie’s outlooks on both his family dynamics and dealing with marriage, and fine performances from James Stewart, Doug McClure and Katherine Ross. However, his conversation with Union Army officer Colonel Fairchild really impressed me, thanks to Stewart and George Kennedy’s performances, and the way the two men managed to emotionally connect on the horrors of war and fear of losing their sons. Boy’s escape with a group of Confederate soldiers from a riverboat struck me as rather exciting. In one of the movie’s earlier scene, Jennie Anderson had encouraged Gabriel to run away from his master. Not only did Gabriel run, he eventually joined the Union Army. This is probably why I found Gabriel’s reunion on the battlefield with a wounded Boy emotionally satisfying. The friendship and warmth the two boys felt for each other had not wavered, despite finding themselves within the ranks of the opposite armies. And I was amazed at how both Philip Alford and Eugene Jackson Jr. managed to convey the close friendship of the two characters with hardly any words. However, I feel that the movie’s two best scenes were featured in the Andersons’ local church. The first church scene proved to be a very funny affair, thanks to actor Denver Pyle’s skillful conveyance of Pastor Bjoerling’s irritated reaction to the Andersons’ late arrival in the middle of his sermon. The second church scene, which ended the film, was a beautifully acted and emotional that surprisingly left me in tears. It had the perfect mixture of relief, happiness and a little pathos that followed the emotionally draining aspects of the movie’s second half. Even after nearly five decades, many people still talk about it.

Despite my satisfaction with “SHENANDOAH”, there were some aspects of it that I found troubling. Most of my dissatisfaction came from the movie’s historical portrait of its setting. One of the Union soldiers that captured Boy proved to be black. The Union Army was not integrated in 1864. In fact, I do not believe it was ever integrated during the four years of the Civil War. And for the likes of me, I could not see how all of Charlie’s six sons could have avoided military service during the war’s first three years. His sons, especially Jacob, seemed to have minds of their own. I figured if they really wanted to fight in the war – whether for the Confederacy or the Union – they would have left the farm and join the military. I could not understand how someone as strong-willed as Jacob (who was the oldest) could have allowed his father to prevent him from joining the Confederate Army. And even if all the boys had wanted to remain on the farm, they would have been subjected to the military draft. The Confederacy had enacted the military draft about a year before the Union. And the Andersons were not rich or owned any slaves. I have one last complaint – a minor one at that. Some of the acting by the supporting characters in minor roles sucked. Period. I found their performances rather wooden and could not understand how they managed to get roles in an “A” production like“SHENANDOAH”.

Flaws or not, I can honestly say that “SHENANDOAH” is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Instead of telling the story of the war from one side or the other, it told the story about a family that desperately tried to avoid being dragged into the chaos and tragedy of war . . . and failed. Thanks to a well-written script written by James Lee Bennett and a talented cast led by the even more talented James Stewart, director Andrew V. McLaglen crafted an excellent story about the Civil War that proved to be more emotional and surprising than I could ever imagine.

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) Review

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“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) Review

When the 1995 adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel, “The Journey of August King” hit the theaters, it barely made a flicker in the consciousness of moviegoers. In a way, I could see why.

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” begins with widowed farmer August King traveling through the hills of western North Carolina in the spring of 1815, after selling his produce, making a final payment on his land, and purchasing goods at the local markets. During his journey, he learns about a hunt for an escaped slave. August eventually comes across the slave – a 17 year-old girl named Annalees. Although he is unwilling to expose her to slave catchers and her owner, a brusque farmer named Olaf Singletary; August wants nothing to do with her. But Annalees, sensing a sympathetic soul, literally follows August’s wagon until she literally forces him to help her. For the next several days, August and Annalees engage in a tension-filled journey in an effort to dodge Singletary and his slave hunters . . . and fellow travelers, whose curiosity or friendliness threatened to expose August and his new travel companion.

Earlier, I had stated that I could understand why “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” barely made a flicker in the consciousness of moviegoers. One, the movie was based upon a novel that had been published 24 years earlier. And two, Miramax made little effort to publicize this ninety-minute film. I suspect the reason behind the lack of real publicity has to do with the film’s subject – American slavery. Aside from the recent movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, the topic of U.S. slavery has not been that popular with moviegoers and television viewers in the past twenty years or so. I am not going to claim that “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” is a cinematic classic. But I do wish that Miramax had made a bigger effort to promote this film.

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” had its flaws. There were times when the movie’s pacing threatened to crawl to a halt – especially in its second half hour. At the beginning of the movie, August claimed that it would take him at least three days to reach his farm. Yet, the journey to his farm and a nearby trail for escaped slaves seemed to take him and Annalees to reach. Perhaps this is not surprising. I also got the feeling that most of the characters traveling on that road – including August and Annalees – seemed to be traveling in circles. There were times when the pair seemed to be ahead of Singletary . . . and there were times when he seemed to be ahead of them. Very confusing. I only had one final complaint. Thandie Newton gave an excellent performance as Annalees in this movie. But . . . there were times I found her Southern slave girl accent a little exaggerated. I guess I should not have been surprised, considering that the actress hails from Britain.

Thankfully, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” possessed a lot more virtues than flaws. Despite her occasionally shaky Southern accent, Newton gave a first-rate performance as the extroverted, yet desperate fugitive slave, who took the chance to recruit the reluctant white farmer to help her. And Jason Patric was brilliant as the cautious August King, suffering from loneliness following the death of his wife. The actor did an excellent job in conveying his character’s development from the farmer who allowed his compassion and loneliness to overcome his caution . . . and at the same time, maintain his quiet nature. More importantly, both Patric and Newton produced a sharp, yet slightly sensual screen chemistry. Larry Drake (from “DARKMAN” and NBC’s “L.A. LAW”) gave a subtle, yet frightening performance as Annalees’ relentless owner, who is determined to recapture her. The movie also boasted a solid supporting performance from Sam Waterston as August’s neighbor and a local lawman.

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” had more to offer. One, it featured some solid direction by Andrew Duigan. Also, the movie was filmed in – where else? North Carolina. Not only did it looked beautiful, its beauty was enhanced by Slawomir Idziak’s sharp and colorful photography. Although I would not view the movie’s setting as an excuse to provide eye-catching costumes, I must admit that Patricia Norris did an excellent job in re-creating the styles of Early America Appalachia through her costume designs.

I was surprised to learn that author John Ehle wrote the movie’s screenplay. I am usually wary of novelists writing the screen adaptations of their own novels. They tend to overdo it with over-the-top dialogue or protracted pacing. Granted, a third of the movie did suffer from a slow pacing, but I feel that Ehle did an otherwise excellent job in translating his novel into a movie. I was especially impressed by his portrayal of both August and Annalees. As I had noted earlier, August’s character was very well developed, without the loss of his core nature. Some film critics have complained that Annalees was portrayed as a passive character. I never got that impression. Granted, August had to help her evade Singletary and his slave hunters. But critics seemed to forget that Annalees had more or less forced August to help her. More importantly, she steadfastly maintained her own sense of individuality – even to the point of reacting violently when she believed August was expressing sexual interest in her during the movie’s first half hour. Ehle also provided a good deal of action and tension – surprisingly so for a movie that is basically a character study.

With the success of “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, the Oscar winning movie, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” and the new television series, “UNDERGROUND”, I hope that more film fans would consider taking the time to view “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”. It has its flaws, but I feel that it is a rewarding character study of two people during a period that is considered dark during this country’s history.