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Peter T Chattaway

12 Years a Slave (2013)

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Links to our threads on Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011).

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Fassbender, McQueen re-team for 'Slave'
After Michael Fassbender buzzed up fall fests with his perf in Steve McQueen's "Shame," the thesp is again joining the helmer on his next project, "Twelve Years a Slave."
McQueen will direct from a script he co-wrote with John Ridley. Pic also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a New York citizen who was kidnapped in Washington in 1841 and rescued from a cotton plantation in Louisiana in 1853.
Plan B's Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner are set to produce the film, which is expected to start production early next year. CAA is arranging financing for the pic and representing U.S. rights. . . .
Variety, October 11

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The cast for this has gotten mighty impressive. In addition to Pitt and Ejiofor:

Benedict Cumberbatch

Michael Fassbender

Paul Dano

Garret Dillahunt

Paul Giamatti

Dwight Henry

Michael Kenneth Williams

Quvenzhané Wallis

Alfre Woodard

Edited by Tyler

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It's official: Cumberbatch will now be in every movie made from now on.

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Critics are going crazy after the TIFF screening of 12 Years a Slave today.

 

Sasha Stone posted this on August 31 at Telluride. But today, the raves are pouring in.

 

David Ehrlich, for example, posted this review. Brace yourselves.

 

And beyond that:

Erik Davis:

Michael Fassbender is completely out of his f**king mind in 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Gonesville. I don't even know how someone goes there. #TIFF

 

Calum Marsh (with my edits):

12 YEARS A SLAVE (McQueen, TIFF): *deep breath* ...f--- f--- f--- f--- f--- f--- f--- f--- f--- f--- #masterpiece

Tim Robey:

If a film as searing, brilliant and important as 12 YEARS A SLAVE can't win Best Pic, Oscars have no purpose. It is unbelievable. #TIFF13

Chris Vognar:

Some "12 Years a Slave" irony: 2 Brits - Ejiofor and McQueen - are at the core of the greatest film ever made about American slavery. #TIFF

Noel Murray:

12 YEARS A SLAVE: American history as epic, episodic nightmare. Assured, intense, and magnificently enacted. #TIFF13

Adam Chitwood of Collider:

12 YEARS A SLAVE: Kind of speechless. Unbelievably powerful. Moving. Chiwetel astounds. Fassbender repulsive. #TIFF13

Adam B. Vary of Buzzfeed:

OK. I am composed enough to say 12 Years A Slave is the best, most emotionally powerful movie I have seen in a decade, at least. (1/2)

...

(2/2) I would be afraid about overselling 12 Years a Slave, but if you love cinema and storytelling and are human, you will understand.

Hysteria like this makes me feel extremely wary of the film itself. Films that cause such emotional reactions at first glance rarely hold up well under scrutiny. I have no doubt about the talents of Ejiofor and Fassbender. But I find myself worrying that it's not going to be a thoughtful work of art on the subject of slavery, and that it's just going to be POWERFUL by shouting "LOOK AT THE EVIL! JUST... LOOK AT IT! HUMAN BEINGS CAN BE HORRIBLE!" I hope I'm wrong.

Edited by Overstreet

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And now, Scott Tobias:

12 YEARS A SLAVE (McQueen) Very rare for a film about a subject this grave to be this artful. Scrupulous, tonally right, just about perfect.

Lou Leminick:

Yes, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the SCHINDLER'S LIST of slavery movies. And much, much more.

David Ehrlich (again):

12 YEARS A SLAVE is a masterpiece in part cause it achieves a vital & complex inclusiveness by refusing to betray its specificity.

...

12 YEARS A SLAVE: a staggering portrait of compassion & how evil is the sum of a million small apathies. historic in all respects. #TIFF13

Sam Adams:

12 YEARS A SLAVE: History written with lightning.

Edited by Overstreet

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Personally, I'm wondering how many critics who went after McQueen's earlier films (especially Shame) for style over substance will have flipped around for this one. The Schindler's List comparison may be apt here, considering how a lot of people who disliked (or bracketed off) Spielberg's earlier films fell for that one.

Actually, the Schindler comparison is also interesting in that Spielberg's first non-sequel after Schindler, i.e. Amistad, was basically Spielberg trying to do with slavery what he had already done with the Holocaust, and not exactly succeeding. (And, like 12 Years a Slave, Amistad centres on someone who was *illegally* enslaved, and not on someone who was born into that system and spent their whole lives within that system.)

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My review:

 

In many ways, Northrup, an educated free man, is the ideal avatar for the modern audience. He, like us, does not come to slavery naturally or easily. Also like us, he tries and fails to understand slavery, master its internal logic, and use his intelligence to do the right things in order to survive. Solomon frequently replies with some form of "just as instructed" when confronted by power, as though perfectly following instructions gives some modicum of protection in a world where nobody forces the rich and powerful to be fair and reasonable.

 

 

Peter says:
 

Personally, I'm wondering how many critics who went after McQueen's earlier films (especially Shame) for style over substance will have flipped around for this one.

 

 

I'm not in that category having not written bout Hunger and only getting 1/2 way through Shame. I found the former film tactically loud...assaultingly loud. There were one or two places in 12 Years, particularly early, where I felt that way too. (Though overall I thought Hans Zimmer's score was quite effective in helping to provide a spectrum of tones rather than the monotone we might get.) Not so much by the end. Of course in such observations one rarely knows whether it's the film or the theater/set up. But I expect the former. McQueen seems very interested to me in sound, and I find his use of it, both in individual scenes and in a work overall to be crucial in creating the film experience. If these were the same images with a different director who made different sound choices, I'm not sure I'd feel the same way about the film.

 

Jeff said:

 

But I find myself worrying that it's not going to be a thoughtful work of art on the subject of slavery, and that it's just going to be POWERFUL by shouting "LOOK AT THE EVIL! JUST... LOOK AT IT! HUMAN BEINGS CAN BE HORRIBLE!" I hope I'm wrong.

 

 

 
I don't think you'll find it that way. Don't conflate the film for the way people talk about it.
Edited by kenmorefield

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This is clearly the film to see right now. I don't know when I'll get to see it myself.

 

Since this thread is overwhelmed with critical enthusiasm, I thought I might share Angelo Murreda's more measured response:

 

On the basis of all the speeches, which I hear are more or less faithful to the source, the text feels like an inversion of the traditional captivity narrative, where the kidnappers and jailers are uncivilized whites with inexplicable power while the wronged hero is a dignified black man with a hand in the arts. (The moment where the men return to Fassbender's plantation to find him bare-footed in divine white robes, holding a young black girl like a doll, is tops for me, a vision of white slaver irrationality taken to its sublime conclusion.) At the same time, so much of the dialogue reads like it's out of the abolitionist slave narrative playbook, not necessarily for the worse -- grandiloquent speeches about dignity and sorrow tossed off in repose, godless screeds from god-fearing masters, sentimental apostrophes like "Such is the pity!" It's all very Literary and all very conventional, immersed in a world of nineteenth century romance and performative selfhood -- I am because I can write, down to all your genre tropes -- in a way that savvy readers of the time would surely recognize.
 
What baffles me about this movie is how little McQueen seems to care about any of the generic properties of his own material, even as he reproduces them in an off-kilter register: this is, in its own way, as mercenary an adaptation as Andrea Arnold's take on Wuthering Heights, which offers an interesting sensory, phenomenological take on a cherished novel and expunges it of its gothic resonance in the process, leaving all the hook-hanged animals and depressed maids as indecipherable relics from the source, kicking around in spectral traces. The result in this case is frequently uncanny: the melodrama of Far From Heaven played at times as sun-kissed almost realism (what in God's name is Kelsey Scott supposed to do with contraction-less high-falutin lines like "Children, come and see what your father has purchased for me"?), at times as rigorous formalism, which gets at its emotional touchstones through elaborate compositions and camera movement. In other words, this is a genre text by a modernist who seems to have little interest in genre.

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Watching this movie made me wonder: How many dramas have depicted slavery from the slaves' point of view? How often do we see movies like this that attempt to depict slavery realistically, that aren't about white saviors?

 

"Roots" comes to mind. Amistad might be half and half: It's been awhile since I've seen it, but in my memory at least Hopkins and Hounsou have almost equal weight.

 

What else?

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Charles Burnett's Nightjohn.

 

Huh. Charles Burnett does a movie about slavery ... for the Disney Channel. And it looks really good.

 

Anyone got anything else?

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It's certainly not realism, but the Planet of the Apes movies are allegorically about slavery, usually from the enslaved point of view.

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SDG wrote:
: Amistad might be half and half: It's been awhile since I've seen it, but in my memory at least Hopkins and Hounsou have almost equal weight.

 

Amistad begins and (I believe) ends with Hounsou's character, for whatever that's worth. Among the American characters, the key person -- the one who maneuvers between all the other characters and keeps them co-ordinated -- is actually the fictitious abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman, who is a *freed* slave. (But he was freed long before the movie begins, so he might not count for your purposes.)

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An Escape From Slavery, Now a Movie, Has Long Intrigued Historians

LOS ANGELES — In the age of “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” questions about the accuracy of nonfiction films have become routine. With “12 Years a Slave,” based on a memoir published 160 years ago, the answers are anything but routine. . . .

The real Solomon Northup — and years of scholarly research attest to his reality — fought an unsuccessful legal battle against his abductors. But he enjoyed a lasting triumph that began with the sale of some 30,000 copies of his book when it first appeared, and continued with its republication in 1968 by the historian Sue Eakin.

Speaking on Friday, Mr. Ridley said he decided simply to “stick with the facts” in adapting Northup’s book for the film, which is set for release on Oct. 18 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Mr. Ridley said he was helped by voluminous footnotes and documentation that were included with Ms. Eakin’s edition of the book.

For decades, however, scholars have been trying to untangle the literal truth of Mr. Northup’s account from the conventions of the antislavery literary genre.

The difficulties are detailed in “The Slave’s Narrative,” a compilation of essays that was published by the Oxford University Press in 1985, and edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Mr. Gates is now credited as a consultant to the film, and he edited a recent edition of “Twelve Years a Slave.”)

“When the abolitionists invited an ex-slave to tell his story of experience in slavery to an antislavery convention, and when they subsequently sponsored the appearance of that story in print, they had certain clear expectations, well understood by themselves and well understood by the ex-slave, too,” wrote one scholar, James Olney.

Mr. Olney was explaining pressures that created a certain uniformity of content in the popular slave narratives, with recurring themes that involved insistence on sometimes questioned personal identity, harrowing descriptions of oppression, and open advocacy for the abolitionist cause.

In his essay, called “I Was Born: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” Mr. Olney contended that Solomon Northup’s real voice was usurped by David Wilson, the white “amanuensis” to whom he dictated his tale, and who gave the book a preface in the same florid style that informs the memoir.

“We may think it pretty fine writing and awfully literary, but the fine writer is clearly David Wilson rather than Solomon Northup,” Mr. Olney wrote. . . .

New York Times, September 22

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So I saw Nightjohn. It's a mixed bag, parts of it very strong, but also stretching credulity at times. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has high praise for it, also calls it hokey and contrived, and that seems right to me. 

 

And, of course, it's based on a novel, which leaves me wondering: Is 12 Years a Slave the first major fact-based film about slavery in America to actually focus on the slave experience, i.e., the first major film from the point of view of actual, historical slaves? ("Roots," given the complications around Haley's plagiarism and such, is not a convincing counter-example.) 

 

By the way, one of the oddest bits in Nightjohn involves a Baptist church service (whites in the pews, blacks in a balcony loft) in which the Exodus motif of the "horse and rider thrown into the sea" appears in triplicate: The congregation sings a hymn based on the line, while the preacher, standing under a stained-glass window commemorating the event and with the verse inscribed upon it, proceeds to preach that very text — only to bizarrely reverse the significance of the story by claiming that it was the escaping slaves that God overthrew! (Later in the film the heroine, having learned to read, steals a Bible and discovers the truth.) 

 

Granted that this misrepresentation would have obvious propaganda value in a slave-based economy, I find it hard to believe that such a blatant subversion of scripture would be tolerated by churchgoing Southern Baptists of the mid-eighteenth century. However different they might feel the circumstances were, and however awkward the real story might be, still and all the Bible is God's Word, and Holy Writ is, well, holy. And I can't believe that the community depicted in the film would be ignorant of a major Old Testament point like that. 

 

Would an entire church community complacently tolerate blasphemy against God's Word because it might help keep the slaves in line? Would a pastor really have the effrontery to assume that this would be the case? Is this an unconvincing invention of the novelist, or is there actually some basis for it? 

Edited by SDG

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Would an entire church community complacently tolerate blasphemy against God's Word because it might help keep the slaves in line? Would a pastor really have the effrontery to assume that this would be the case? Is this an unconvincing invention of the novelist, or is there actually some basis for it? 

 

Maybe not. But would an entire church community complacently tolerate blasphemy against God's Word because they did not think it was blasphemy? Because they had been raised to believe that this was the correct interpretation and others were distorting it for their own (political) ends? I think so. Also, as we also see in our own age, it's not like people who disagree have to or always do stay in the church. Some may NOT tolerate it but express their non-tolerance by seeking like minded believers elsewhere, leaving no one in the church except those who believe. (This is probably easier in a Protestant context than a Roman Catholic one.) Also, might there be some that didn't totally believe but are scared to speak out in the midst of a community that can be both punitive and violent? [Edit: Ever try to make a pro-Choice argument in a group or rabid anti-abortion people or a pro-Life argument in a group of rabid pro-Abortion on demand people? The results can be truly frightening, even if it is just on Facebook.] Again, I think so. Even Brad Pitt's character in 12 Years is (or claims to be) scared of challenging the status quo. The church in all its forms doesn't have a great track record in treating decently those that question it. 

But really, my answer is, sure. Because we are sinful, fallen, corrupt(ed) human beings. And while the easiest thing in the world to do is to look back 100 years or more and say "how could they possibly believe that is consistent with the Bible?"it is not like that helps our own ability to look around us and say "What will people be shocked/scandalized/incredulous about us and the things we held in contradiction or tolerated while claiming to be Christian?" (Insert your favorite answer here: my list includes abortion, sexual assault, patriarchy, racism, economic inequality in the name of 'freedom'--when was the last time we had a jubilee; lets cut food stampls; treatment of LBGTQ including forced sexual reassignment program; war, pollution, pornography...)

Edited by kenmorefield

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Good thoughts, Ken.

 

Perhaps I wasn't clear, though -- or, conversely, perhaps I'm just naive. At issue in Nightjohn is not what I would ordinarily think of as a question of interpretation (although of course when you get down to it there is interpretation in everything), but a very basic matter of fact on which all readers, even the most jaundiced or ideologically biased, ought to agree: The "horse and rider thrown into the sea" were the Egyptian masters, not the Hebrew slaves. God delivered the slaves from the Egyptians; he didn't deliver the slaves back into the hands of their masters.

 

This seems to me so utterly basic to the biblical narrative, and so unarguably manifest in the text, that I have a hard time even imagining any remotely Christian preacher in any remotely Christian community anywhere in the world would not be able to get away with claiming the opposite, at least if there was any kind of literacy and education and if the Bible were taken seriously as God's Word.

 

I could possibly see a corrupt preacher spouting this lie that God "overthrew the runaway slaves" specifically to an assembly of slaves only, reasoning to himself that they're inferior beings anyway and it's less important that they know the truth than that they know their place.

 

But to preach it openly to a congregation of whites with slaves present, knowing that many of the whites in attendance would know it was a lie (I just can't imagine any other construal that an educated, literate Christian could possibly put on the text) -- it just seems so odd I don't know what to make of it.

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Thanks, Steven. They are good questions.

I don't think you are naive (or, if you are, to the extent that you are I think that is an honorable kind of naiveness reflecting your own personal integrity and projecting it to the rest of the world).

I do think you undersell Christians' inherent ability to ignore or explain away what is "unarguably manifest" since what becomes "unarguably manifest" to most Christians is not what they have independently reasoned and determined is so but that which they have been told by those who trust. I personally think those things are much more culturally influenced than we sometimes care to think.

Two cite one example from a slightly earlier period in American history, John Winthrop calls Anne Hutchinson's claim that the Holy Spirit dwells in all believers a "dangerous error." To him, it was unarguably manifest that the Bible said no such thing. In retrospect, if his claim is so stupidly counter to what I think is manifest, I can either interpret him cynically (he is knowingly lying for ulterior motives) or naively (not best word choice) as he really did believe that. I would argue that as modern Christians we are very uncomfortable with the implications of saying someone can be that certain and wrong about so fundamental a thing and so tend to be more cynical. It sounds to me like you are reluctant to give Nightjohn a cynical gloss, but equally reluctant to buy into the naive (for lack of a better word, the "yes, they really believed that") gloss.

One could probably argue that, yes, but I am talking about "interpretations" and you are talking about narrative facts. I.e. not so much how the story is interpreted but what the story is. Again, here, I have little problem believing Christians or Christian audiences would do that or have less problem with it than you might think, since: 1) I'm probably more cynical than you by nature (I think our private correspondence bears that out); 2) I think how well Christians, even educated, would know scripture (and thus know it to be a lie) is a very open question. I'm reminded of the passage in The Muslims are Coming! where one of the contestant who failed the quiz game of guessing whether a quote was from the Koran or the Bible professed to be a pastor; or the passage in The Fish Out of Water where Christians who were adamant about what the Bible said in regards to homosexuality could not cite any particular passage where their belief came from; to what extent the whites would know the context of the passage is an open question to me; whether or not they had similar training in exegesis, even basic exegesis, as we have had, seems equally an open question. I recall coming home from Sunday school earlier this year and posting in frustration that I had just listened to an hour lesson on the three possible meanings of "thus God will save all Israel" and that none of them entailed God saving all of Israel. My point is not that my interpretation was right and the teacher's wrong, but that it was a reminder to me that even in a highly educated church, there were a lot of people who did no exegesis at all but simply thought that studying the Bible was taking notes on what the preacher said about the Bible. I'm not an expert on the 19th century church, but it is hard for me to believe that Christians in the south were encouraged to actively question authority or develop an exegesis that tests what authority says.

But that's a lot of verbiage for those less cynical than I. I guess my main observation is that we swallow all sorts of exegetical whoppers when it is in our best interest to do so. The preachers and politicians tell their base what it wants to hear and we repay them by electing them, paying them, and acting surprised when they stop thinking their job is to find or preach the truth and start thinking it is to construct the best possible argument/sermon that justifies what we want. 

Edited by kenmorefield

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Personally, I'm wondering how many critics who went after McQueen's earlier films (especially Shame) for style over substance will have flipped around for this one.

In that vein, Guess Who:

Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history in 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the 1853 American slave narrative by Solomon Northup, who claims that in 1841, away from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he was kidnapped and taken South where he was sold into hellish servitude and dehumanizing cruelty.

For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events. With Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen chronicles the conscious sufferance of unrelenting physical and psychological pain. A methodically measured narrative slowly advances through Northup’s years of captivity, showcasing various injustices that drive home the terrors Black Africans experienced in the U.S. during what’s been called “the peculiar institution.”

Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend “a conversation about race.” The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.

For commercial distributor Fox Searchlight, 12 Years a Slave appears at an opportune moment when film culture–five years into the Obama administration–indulges stories about Black victimization such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice. (What promoter Harvey Weinstein has called “The Obama Effect.”) This is not part of social or historical enlightenment–the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement.

But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspect of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban “sexual addiction” in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity. This is less a drama than an inhumane analysis–like the cross-sectional cut-up of a horse in Damien Hirst’s infamous 1996 museum installation “Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything,”

Because 12 Years of Slave is such a repugnant experience, a sensible viewer might be reasonably suspicious about many of the atrocities shown–or at least scoff at the one-sided masochism: Northup talks about survival but he has no spiritual resource or political drive–the means typically revealed when slave narratives are usually recounted. From Mandingo and Roots to Sankofa, Amistad, Nightjohn and Beloved, the capacity for spiritual sustenance, inherited from the legacy of slavery and survival, was essential (as with Baby Sugg’s sermon-in-the-wood in Beloved and John Quincy Adams and Cinque’s reference to ancestors in Amistad) in order to verify and make bearable the otherwise dehumanizing tales.

It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience. McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ cast of existential victims won’t do. Northup-renamed-Platt and especially the weeping mother Liza (Adepero Oduye) and multiply-abused Patsey (Lupita Nyong‘o), are human whipping posts–beaten, humiliated, raped for our delectation just like Hirst’s cut-up equine. Hirst knew his culture: Some will no doubt take comfort from McQueen’s inherently warped, dishonest, insensitive fiction. . . .

The very artsiness of 12 Years a Slave is part of its offense. The clear, classical imagery embarrasses Quentin Tarantino’s attempt at visual esthetics in Django Unchained yet this “clarity” (like Hans Zimmer’s effective percussion score) is ultimately depressing. McQueen uses that art staple “duration” to prolong North’s lynching on tiptoe and later, in endless, tearful anticipation; emphasis on a hot furnace and roiling waves adds nature’s discomfort; an ugly close-up of a cotton worm symbolizes drudgery; a slave chant (“Run, Nigger, Run,”) contrasts ineffectual Bible-reading; and a shot of Northup’s handwritten plea burns to embers. But good art doesn’t work this way. Art elates and edifies–one might even prefer Q.T.’s jokey ridiculousness in Django Unchained, a different kind of sadism. . . .

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In that vein, Guess Who:

That review is not good for my soul. It makes me want to punch White in the face, which is not something I feel often, or like feeling.

I was going to post links to my own new pieces on this, but maybe I'll give myself a timeout and come back and try again.

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I hope you don't mind if I link to it for you:

 

In a film full of every kind of ugliness — slaves subjected to brutal beatings, arbitrary violence and rape; men and women displayed for prospective buyers, bereft of clothing and dignity — McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt find images of striking beauty: the paddle wheel of a steamship and the choppy water in its wake; glowing embers of a burning sheet of paper turning, with Northup’s hopes, to ashes. The contrast is analogous to passages in Northup’s memoir in which the very beauty of his surroundings seems oppressive. (“It was a very pleasant morning…The sun shone out warmly; the birds were singing in the trees. The happy birds — I envied them. I wished for wings like them, that I might cleave the air to where my birdlings waited vainly for their father's coming…”)

 

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/sdg-reviews-12-years-a-slave#ixzz2i0DjBC9G

The film does sound very good, but I'm really not sure I'll summon up the courage to see it.

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