Wednesday, September 16, 2015

12 Years a Slave

Year 7, Day 259 - 9/16/15 - Movie #2,151

BEFORE: It's almost time for the McConnaissance - but I'm bookending that chain with TWO recent Oscar winners for Best Picture.   Benedict Cumberbatch carries over from "The Imitation Game", and I get to stay on my schedule. 

THE PLOT: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. 

AFTER:  I've got a big problem with the opening sequence - we see Northup as a slave, then we go back in time to see him as a free man in Saratoga, before he was kidnapped.  As with yesterday's film, I can't see any justifiable reason for this time-jumping - the opening sequence not only telegraphs what's going to happen (why, why would you tip your hand like this?) but also could easily confuse viewers who are more familiar with purely linear narratives.  (So, he's a slave, then he's not, then he's a slave again?)   Call me crazy, but I think his capture would have had more narrative impact if the audience didn't know it was coming.  (Same goes for the flashback to the shop, where Solomon and his family encountered a traveling slave and his master.  The film would have been stronger if this had been earlier in the film, and not shown out of sequence - it could have acted as a foreshadowing of Solomon's fate.)

While I realize the historical importance of this subject matter, it didn't really resonate with me on a personal level.  It's tough for me to separate the issue of slavery from the apparent use of the topic as "Oscar bait".  Was slavery terrible, abominable, deeply regrettable and very, very unfortunate?  Of course it was, but we've already got countless films on the same topic.  Did we need another one?  The fact that the filmmakers went and searched out the story of Solomon Northup, a man who wasn't even supposed to BE in that situation, that suggests to me that someone did some story workshopping - "Like, slavery is terrible, but can we find a way to make it MORE terrible?  What if it were also pointless, and thanks to a case of mistaken identity, not even culturally acceptable for 1861?"

Like, we've had "Sophie's Choice" and "Schindler's List" and "Life Is Beautiful" - if someone were to do another Holocaust film, which they would have every right to do, they'd be setting themselves up for some criticism, especially if someone were to accuse them of making another Holocaust film JUST because they were trying to increase their chances of winning an Oscar.  And the main character was in a concentration camp, and they weren't even Jewish!  (Womp-womp...)  That's the vibe I get off of "12 Years a Slave" - we've already had "Roots" and "The Color Purple" and "Gone With the Wind" and we freakin' GET IT already.  

I find it quite ironic that there was a scene in the film where there was a woman who had been enslaved and separated from her children, and Solomon, having endured plenty of hardship of his own, goes over to her and pushes her around, to try and get her to stop wailing pointlessly, because her wallowing in misery just wasn't very productive at all.  Yeah, that's sort of how I feel about the whole topic.  This whole film was just like that woman, complaining loudly about this situation of American slavery (which, again, nearly everyone agrees was beyond horrible...) but moaning about it now just doesn't seem productive to me at all.  Unless you want to line your shelf with awards, that is. 

This is not a racial thing, I'm asking "Do we need another slavery film?" with the same tone that I might ask "Do we need another Jack Ryan reboot?" or "Do we need another Transformers film?".  I mean, there are plenty of terrible situations throughout history, what about the Black Hole of Calcutta, or the Irish potato famine?  When do they get their big Hollywood blockbusters?  Look, I have to get up every day and go to work and maintain some semblance of a positive outlook, and if I sit around and dwell on slavery and the Holocaust and global warming and the plight of non-free-range chickens, I'm just not going to be able to get through the day.  I'm going to treat this film the way I treat the people from Planned Parenthood or gay rights causes or anyone who stands outside of Whole Foods with a clipboard.  Don't make eye contact, keep walking, because I just want to get some lunch, man.  Can I please just do that and enjoy myself for five minutes?  I promise, I'll get started on trying to care about this issue - right after this sandwich.

I'm just saying "12 Years a Slave" was a bit heavy-handed in its message, that's all.

Was this REALLY the best picture of 2013?  There were 9 nominees, and as of tonight, I've only seen 6 of them, with two coming up ("Dallas Buyers Club" and "The Wolf of Wall Street").  Here were my ratings on the other nominees I've seen: "American Hustle" 7, "Nebraska" 5, "Captain Phillips" 5, "Gravity" 6, and "Her" 4.  So, based on my unscientific system, I guess my vote for Best Picture of 2013 would have gone to "American Hustle" - but Hollywood didn't go my way, and maybe I'm a tougher critic than most.  And nobody asks me what the marketplace needs these days, not like they used to.

Also starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (last seen in "Melinda and Melinda"), Michael Fassbender (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Brad Pitt (last seen in "World War Z"), Lupita Nyong'o (last seen in "Non-Stop"), Paul Dano (last seen in "Prisoners"), Sarah Paulson (last seen in "Down With Love"), Alfre Woodard (last seen in "Primal Fear"), Garret Dillahunt (last seen in "Killing Them Softly"), Kelsey Scott, Scoot McNairy (also last seen in "Non-Stop"), Taran Killam (last seen in "Grown Ups 2"), Tom Proctor (last seen in "Guardians of the Galaxy"), Bill Camp (last seen in "Birdman"), Paul Giamatti (last seen in "My Best Friend's Wedding"), Quvenzhané Wallis, J.D. Evermore, Dwight Henry, Bryan Batt, Chris Chalk, Michael K. Williams.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Bible passages

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