Tag Archives: “Lincoln”

‘12 Years a Slave’ is a grueling antidote to the comparatively toothless ‘Lincoln’

Film review

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is “counseled” at knife point by cotton-plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in director Steve McQueen’s grueling film “12 Years a Slave.”

I finally got around to watching “12 Years a Slave,” and while it perhaps has been a little over-hyped — I hate it when a good film is diminished because it can’t possibly be as great as so many claim that it is — it’s going to win a bunch of Oscars, and I consider it to be an antidote to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” of which I noted at the time that it came out (a year ago) that “the evil of slavery itself is barely portrayed in ‘Lincoln’ … and blacks are only supporting (and mostly subservient) characters in ‘Lincoln,’ which gives the viewer … the unfortunate impression that perhaps the film is asserting that slavery was more of a burden for liberal whites than it was for the actual slaves.”

Indeed, in “12 Years a Slave” the “saviors” still are white men, but, given the fact that at the time white men held virtually all of the political power, what other “savior” could a black person have had at that time? The best that most black Americans, especially enslaved black Americans, could hope for at that time, it seems to me, was to have the fortune to have the mercy of white men who had power to make their lives less miserable.*

Indeed, in “12 Years a Slave” we see at least two grown black men run to their white-male protectors and embrace them as a child would embrace his parent. But, given the circumstances, one could hardly blame them.

I wrote of “Lincoln” that “The Southerners (and their sympathizers) in ‘Lincoln’ aren’t portrayed flatteringly, which probably will mean that the film won’t appeal to the ‘tea-party’ dipshits, since the slavery- and treason-loving Southerners depicted in ‘Lincoln’ are their true founding fathers.”

Ditto for “12 Years a Slave” (and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django,” too, of course).

Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano couldn’t have done a much better job of portraying what probably was the typical Southern white male of the era, and Brad Pitt, perhaps because he was one of the producers, got what to me is the plum role of the liberal, abolitionist Canadian whose action finally frees our hero.

Our hero, of course, is the real-life historical figure Solomon Northup, who in 1841 was a free man (well, “free” as in “not a slave,” “not someone’s property”) who was lured from his home in New York state to Washington, D.C., where he was promised well-paying work but instead was kidnapped and forced into slavery in Louisiana for a dozen years.

And the star of “12 Years a Slave” is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who no doubt will be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his harrowing portrayal of Solomon Northup.

The other star of “12 Years” is Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the slave Patsey, and who also very most likely will be nominated for an acting Oscar.

“12 Years a Slave,” based upon Northup’s autobiography of the same name and penned by American screenwriter John Ridley, is, first and foremost, the story of the slaves, and its portrayal of their trials and tribulations by comparison makes “Lincoln” look like it portrays slavery as a mere inconvenience to black Americans.

“12 Years,” among other things, portrays free blacks in the North being abducted and sold into slavery, slaves stripped nude and bathed for auction like livestock, a mother being separated permanently from her two children at auction, and the character of Patsey being serially raped by the cotton-plantation owner Edwin Epps (played by Fassbender) and, to add injury to injury, being hated by and thus violently attacked by the plantation owner’s wife (Sarah Paulson) because her husband is sexually predating upon her. We also witness one of our protagonists being quasi-lynched and the other one being brutally whipped.

“12 Years a Slave” does as probably a good job as a film could do to bring us into Solomon Northup’s world. You’re supposed to feel Northup’s struggle and large degree of helplessness, given how utterly disempowered he is. His spirit not only is violated repeatedly by the wrongs that are done to him, but also by the multitude of wrongs that he has to witness done to others, probably especially to Patsey.

“12 Years a Slave” is directed by Steve McQueen, a writer-director who, I surmise, because he is black and British, wasn’t overly worried about not offending white Americans in his portrayal of Southern slavery. (Of course, Quentin Tarantino wasn’t worried about that, either, with “Django,” but bad boy Tarantino can make just about any film that he wishes. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” by contrast, suffers because the “upright” and apparently uptight Spielberg apparently didn’t want to offend white Americans too much.)

I wasn’t impressed with McQueen’s over-hyped 2011 “Shame,” which also starred Michael Fassbender, but after “12 Years,” which draws you into Solomon Northup’s grueling world so well that when he finally is reunited with his family you will, if you have any empathy at all, have tears in your eyes, I look forward to more projects by McQueen, and after having watched “12 Years” I’ll probably catch McQueen’s other project starring Fassbender, 2008’s “Hunger.”

My grade: A

*Indeed, we are told at the end of “12 Years a Slave,” as Wikipedia puts it:

Northup sued the slave traders in Washington, D.C., [who had kidnapped him and sold him into slavery], but [Northup] lost in the local court. District of Columbia law prohibited him, as a black man, from testifying against whites, and, without his testimony, he was unable to sue for civil damages. The two men were charged with the crime of kidnapping and remanded into custody on $5,000 bail, but without Northup’s testimony, a conviction could not be secured and [so] the men were released.

So, even in the North, which in Northup’s day was quite progressive compared to the South, Northup, as a “free” man, because he was a black man, did not have equal rights, and white men still could commit grievous crimes against black Americans with impunity.

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Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’: Flawed but worthwhile Oscar bait

Film review

FILE - This undated publicity photo released by DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox shows, Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from the film, "Lincoln."  Day-Lewis, who plays the 16th president in Steven Spielberg's epic film biography “Lincoln,” settled on a higher, softer voice, saying it's more true to descriptions of how the man actually spoke. “Lincoln” opened in limited release Nov. 9, 2012, and expands nationwide Friday, Nov. 16. (AP Photo/DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, David James, File)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln talks strategy in regards to passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in Steven Spielberg’s fairly wonky and occasionally sappy but worthwhile “Lincoln.”

Steven Spielberg’s grand, sweeping, gimme-some-Oscars-already epic “Lincoln” starts with a schmaltzy scene and ends with a rather yawn-inducing, anti-climactic one, but between these two disappointing bookends is a film that’s worth watching despite its flaws.

Even though history no doubt has sainted him, or at least sanitized him, Abraham Lincoln probably was our most important president, and Spielberg’s and playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s Lincoln steps off of the pedestal now and then to get his hands dirty in the business of politics, and even utters the word “shit.”

Mostly, though, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln delivers biblical-sounding language that, I surmise, your typical American moviegoer (who has some degree of poverty of language) often won’t even bother to try to comprehend.

Still, the anecdotes and parables that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln frequently tells, even during times of high crisis, are spellbinding, and Day-Lewis (whose win for Best Actor virtually is assured) nails it perhaps especially in these scenes.

Sally Field does a competent enough if not wholly convincing job as Mary Todd Lincoln, whose speech, strangely, sounds like today’s modern American English while her husband’s speech sounds literary.

I didn’t find the back-and-forth, woe-is-me dynamic of a misery competition between Mary Todd and her husband to be very interesting or insightful, but to be mostly repetitive, but the scene in which Field’s Mary Todd lets some congressmen who are visiting her home (the White House, of course) know who’s boss is one the film’s best and most memorable scenes.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt — who, as I have noted, I love — is a bit dull and therefore wasted as Robert Todd Lincoln, Mary Todd’s and Abraham’s eldest son, who comes off as a one-trick pony, primarily only whining about how much he wants to join the army and fight for the North.

Tommy Lee Jones steals the show as U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, portrayed as a “radical,” fervent abolitionist. (The last, pleasantly surprising scene with Jones in the privacy of his home probably should have been the last scene of the film.)

The floor fights in the U.S. House of Representatives over the proposed passage of the Thirteen Amendment (prohibiting slavery everywhere in the nation) provide most of the film’s drama, and if they are at all historically accurate, they make one long for the days when there was a lot more passion (and a lot less money to both parties from the same donors) in the House.

The Southerners (and their sympathizers) in “Lincoln” aren’t portrayed flatteringly, which probably will mean that the film won’t appeal to the “tea-party” dipshits, since the slavery- and treason-loving Southerners depicted in “Lincoln” are their true founding fathers, but perhaps “Lincoln’s” No. 1 flaw is the creepy feeling that one gets while watching it that the overriding spirit of the film is a bunch of whites repeatedly patting themselves on the back, repeatedly reminding us, “See!?!? We ended slavery!”

Indeed, the evil of slavery itself is barely portrayed in “Lincoln” — sure, Spielberg portrayed it in his 1997 film “Amistad,” but that’s a different film — and blacks are only supporting (and mostly subservient) characters in “Lincoln,” which gives the viewer of “Lincoln” the unfortunate impression that perhaps the film is asserting that slavery was more of a burden for liberal whites than it was for the actual slaves.

Unless Spielberg and Kushner meant that to be a commentary on today’s Democratic Party and its relationship to the suffering masses of today — and I don’t think that they did — that is, in my book, enough of a flaw in “Lincoln” (coupled with its dismal opening and closing scenes) to knock it outside of the realm of an “A.”

I had hoped that Spielberg’s “Lincoln” would be “War Horse” meets Abraham Lincoln — I thought (and still think) that Spielberg’s 2011 film “War Horse” got screwed at the Oscars — but alas, it was not to be.

The Academy of  Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which is chock full o’ guilty white liberals), however, most likely handsomely will reward “Lincoln” nonetheless.

My grade: B+

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