I finally saw 12 Years a Slave, and...you know what? It isn't even necessarily a movie about slavery. How about that? It's more about a person who endured a terrible experience, about anyone who has suffered indignity, repression. And you know what? There are three elements to the movie you will need to keep in mind in order to understand it.
The first is that, as I said in the title, the music is the foremost key to understanding it. Solomon Northrup played the violin. This fact alone certainly caught my imagination, since I played it myself. It becomes astonishing, then, that this skill means absolutely nothing to the white men who keep him in slavery, that it doesn't appear to be any indication that he or anyone else of his color may be worth more than their estimation. There's Paul Dano singing, too. Dano used to be on the verge of becoming a pretty big deal. He was one of several breakout stars in Little Miss Sunshine. He was the other notable star in There Will Be Blood. And now, if you haven't seen 12 Years, you probably had no idea he was in it until I just mentioned him. Listening to him sing (if you've seen it you know exactly what I'm talking about), it's a perfect encapsulation of the extreme nature of the cognitive dissonance that certainly Solomon had to endure for the span of his experience, that any of the white men who made it happen had to have, that even Dano's character had to have. The ability to hold two disparate beliefs together. That he could sing that song and expect the very people it denigrated to clap along. As if it meant nothing at all.
Of course, there's also the beginning of the blues as the slaves sing in the fields. Everyone knows that about slavery. But it's important to have that as an element, too, especially in a film where you don't truly understand it without hearing how important music is to it, encapsulating the contradictions without beating the audience over the head with it. There are other elements, elements that don't work as well. But this understated one, it elevates everything. It defines everything.
Another element is the extended sequence of Solomon's near-hanging. Like the music, it is astonishing, the signature image for anyone who has seen the movie. I have no idea how anything else could be. He attempts to find footing in the mud. This lasts for him for hours. For the viewer, several minutes. I can't think of another movie moment that's anything like it. Life goes on around him. Slave children play in the background, even. Another slave runs up to give him some water. The whole thing happens after Dano has finally had enough of this contradiction of a slave, and attempts, of course, to hang him all the way. Another white man stops him. But doesn't cut Solomon down. He leaves him there. This happens in clear daylight. It's dusk by the time Solomon is finally cut down. His feet barely touching the mud the whole time, barely able to keep himself from suffocating.
Finally, there are the three crucial white men. The first is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. In my experience, it's a rare performance where Cumberbatch does not entirely rely on his famous baritone. This has a way of softening him so that his voice matches his face for a change. Yet he's the master who gives Solomon his violin back. Saying it'll do them both good. Does it? Later, we see Solomon finally smash it. I'd expected Dano to do it. The second master is Michael Fassbender. This character is a fool. He's supposed to be notorious for breaking slaves. And yet he's completely pathetic. At one point he and Solomon come so close to fighting, it's ridiculous. Fassbender has it in his power to do whatever he likes to Solomon. He already has him whipped regularly because Solomon doesn't pick cotton to the day's average. He certainly has his way with the slave portrayed by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o. Yet it's hard to take him seriously. That's two masters who are pathetic. The third white man is Brad Pitt. He uses a voice very similar to the one his character from Inglourious Basterds speaks with, and I think this is a deliberate choice. Pitt in the other movie was another Southerner who was up to mischief. He at some point gained the unexplained slash across the throat that leaves a visible scar. Sort of like what he would later do to the Nazis. There's material that explains why he got it, just not in the movie. It's immaterial. I choose to believe that it was a reminder of his own prior activities in some positive way. And so the Pitt in 12 Years relates to the Pitt in Basterds very handily. That's as much sense as I can make out of that.
There are two other white men worth mentioning. The first is Paul Giamatti. Here he's dismissively part of the problem. In his other role from 2013, he's certainly part of the solution (Saving Mr. Banks). I just wanted to make note of him. The one that matters a little more is Garret Dillahunt. This is an actor I know best from the sitcom Raising Hope, where he plays the father, or I guess the grandfather. In other words, I know him as a comedic actor. His character in 12 Years sounds just this side of comedic, and in fact is one of the things that goes horribly wrong for Solomon that comes closest to seeming like a real farce. (Dillahunt, it might be mentioned, also appeared in No Country For Old Men, another Best Picture winner.)
Why am I writing about the movie here, at my writers blog? Because it's a unique kind of achievement in storytelling. I think it's an imperfect movie. But, it actually benefits from its imperfections. The three elements I've just listed are about as much as you could need to consider it about as good as anyone said it is. And yes, it won Best Picture at this year's Oscars, so there are plenty of people who think it's pretty good.
I haven't mentioned the actor who plays Solomon yet. That would be Chiwetel Ejiofor. I was excited about this movie initially because I thought it would finally give Ejiofor a chance to claim an undivided spotlight. Having seen 12 Years, I wonder if he seized the opportunity. I also wonder if I'm wrong in questioning that. Like Nyong'o, his best moments aren't really in spoken word. I like actors who can be expressive outside of dialogue. The moments where Solomon is processing his experience, those are the ones where Ejiofor truly shines, and I think that was a deliberate choice. There are scenes where the movie attempts to explain how Solomon could possibly endure becoming a slave, but it's more how he conducts himself, not so much in his attempts to rise above, but when he realizes the depths to which he has been cast.
He becomes a universal figure. And so I say a movie that everyone has called difficult to watch, a movie about slavery, is also a vicarious experience. Vicarious because Solomon's experience is more translatable than it might seem. He is not merely a slave. He's not really a slave at all. He endures by cognitive dissonance, keeping his true self hidden, as much as possible, from the perception of those around him. The music, the near-hanging, the white men who hardly present themselves in their best light, all reflect how Solomon has become an object. Has become less than human. An element. It's one thing to be told from history books how slavery was justified. How black people were considered, needed to be considered just another piece of property. When Pitt explains to Fassbender the ludicrous intellectual fallacy he's been living by, it's another understated moment in the movie. Something that isn't stated in bold letters. But is clear all the same. All these things that happen to Solomon happen because like so many black people, he was no longer considered capable of understanding his own circumstances, of existing at the same level as the rest of American society.
As a writer, as someone who writes his thoughts on the craft to other writers, a movie like 12 Years becomes something more than what it seems, too. For some people, it is a powerful experience. Something that should have happened years ago. Or maybe just something that needs to exist but is just too hard to watch. But watching it, 12 Years becomes a portrait of humanity, flaws and all. And because of those flaws, it becomes more than what it is, more than it seems. I don't see a perfect movie. But I see one that's the better for it. Its best features are better, and its message more bold because of it.
What kind of lesson is there in that? As writers, we are constantly told we must strive for perfection. It seems to me, though, that some writers don't really try. I don't mean that in a judgmental sense. It's just not what's important to them. James Patterson, for example, famously decided he'd rather make money than critical admirers. I wouldn't describe 12 Years as a movie that was only interested in making money, because it hasn't made a huge amount of that, but in Hollywood terms, critical praise can sometimes be the same as money. There are movies that are described as Oscar bait. Critics typically sneer at them. And in some respects, 12 Years was classic Oscar bait. And yet, the critics never even stopped to consider that. They saw it as the slave movie, the one that they'd been waiting years to see happen. And so they patted themselves on the back to acknowledge it.
When you're told something is supposed to be good, you expect it to be good. And when you find that it isn't quite as good as suggested, you feel cheated. But maybe that's not the only way to view it. Often, when I feel cheated I try to look for redeeming elements. Those elements don't usually actually redeem what disappointed me. In this instance, they did. And they led to these thoughts, all of which will probably leave the impression that I am after all giving 12 Years a glowing endorsement. In a way I am. In the only way it means for a writer, I guess I am. In the sum of its parts, 12 Years is perhaps even more impressive than it was made out to be. It creates, for me, a whole new dynamic by which to judge things. As a writer, I can only hope to be capable of something like this. As a viewer, I've been humbled. I can only wish I were as strong as Solomon Northrup, to be as brave as the filmmakers who put this movie together, warts and all.
Sometimes we mistake our snap judgments for whatever we ultimately think of something. When something isn't perfect, that's all we ultimately end up thinking about it. We stop thinking critically. I'd much rather, as a writer, be able to find something like 12 Years a Slave, that contradicts my expectations, transcends them. It inspires me. And that's what every writer should be looking for.