I did not want to see this film. I have a low threshold for sad stories these days. Movies that feature models shooting zombies is what I crave, but it’s SAG awards season, and zombies are generally not nominated for awards. Pity.
So first, the parts, I can talk about. This film is a magnificent piece of art. There is mad skill all around this project – the director Steve McQueen, the writer, the actors, the use of music, the research. They all do a remarkable job. The lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, always compelling (see Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots for completely different performances, but with those same amazing eyes) is English, as is most of the featured actors, who all perform in believable American southern accents. Sometimes, there are parts that have anguish or rage that seem fun to play. None of the parts of this film seems fun. To make the powerlessness and the toll of physical/emotional/psychological torture of being slave real, ack. To play any of the hateful, white racists, ugh.
I don’t whether the structure is from the script or the shrewd director, but there are a lot of clever moments/scenes near the beginning that foreshadow what is to become of our hero (both good and bad….though mostly bad). There are a lot of moments of stillness – breathing spots of stunning landscapes, thankfully, so you can catch your breath. There are amazing wordless scenes where you get to see characters experience realization or self-loathing sadistic-psyhchotic-alcoholic slave owner Fassbender plays feels after raping his favorite slave or this one funeral scene where Chiwetel is surrounded by fellow slaves where he almost gives into despair but then pours all of his anguish into singing along.
You need those moments, b/c damn, there are tough scenes. You see the heartbreak of families being broken up, rape as common place, and whipping – the director unflinchingly portrays the brutality in a way that your stomach roils. You see one young girl nearly lose her mind from the pain and fear, and later when her wounds are getting tended to, the camera stays on her devastated young back, every crevice of her wounds look quite real. You do not get to look away.
The European heritage of the lead actors and directors is a deliberate business decision – African-American stories do not tend to translate to the global market, and that’s where movies make their money these days. (I guess us Americans like to stay home and play WII and watch movies on Netflix.) I hope that works! Brad Pitt, the lead producer, appears as an aging hippie in the film, expressing what we 21st century people (should) think, but still freaks when the Chiwetel asks for help. That seemed real!
So that’s all. No more commentary on the tragic subject matter. There is a happy ending (see the title! I promise I’m not giving anything away!) but it’s not really that happy, because how can you be after all that?
Anyway, Husband and I give it a thumbs up.