The new movie, "12 Years a Slave," is one of those amazing films that you may not like but should see. Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a stunning performance as Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in New York, who was tricked, kidnapped and sold as a slave. After 12 years, he manages to secure his freedom, returned to his family, wrote the book the film is based on and lectured on his experience, working with the abolitionists to end slavery.
Ejiofor's powerful, moving performance is the heart and soul of the film and when the movie keeps it's focus on him, it manages to capture the horrors of what he endured better than any film about the antebellum south that I can think of. And it is through his eyes we can experience some of the vast cruelty that this "peculiar institution" inflicted on millions of human beings. It is a stunning performance, supported by many others, with Lupitta Nyong'o bringing in a powerful performance as a young slave who became the obsession of the white planter, played by Michael Fassbender.
And there, in Fassbender's performance, is where I kept tripping over The Simon Legree Problem: How do you portray, in film, the slave owners without sliding into a smiley-faced "Gone With The Wind" dishonesty or tipping over into the Grand Guignol of purest melodrama -- whisker-twirling, teeth-gnashing, drooling, eye-rolling, scenery-chewing, sexual sadists-with-a-whip buffoonery?
Fassbender's made a career of playing kinky, edgy, conflicted characters, but in this role, the director kept him stuck in Johnny One Note mode -- a drunken, weak sexually frustrated sadist stuck in a bad marriage who spent far too much screen time thrashing around fuming and grinding his teeth. If that's your opening note, you don't have anyplace to go from there before you have only frothing at the mouth left.
And that's always been the problem with films trying to portray the experience of slavery. It wasn't the Simon Legrees that made this "peculiar institution" so evil; it was the quiet absolute erasure of humaness for a whole group of people -- all justified by Scripture and self-interested economics and the human capacity to live with cognitive dissonance. White southerners didn't see themselves as monsters. Indeed not. They considered themselves good Christians maintaining a social/economic structure they viewed as just and right. (And not just "southerners." The power and riches of America, both north and south, were built on the backs of slaves. And to keep their economic hegemony, the south would start a civil war. ) And, Yes, they would acknowledge, there were some "Legrees" among them, but they were no-accounts. "Decent" slave holders were "good" to their slaves. After all, one should care for one's property like one would care for a fine horse or a brace of oxen.
And that, for me, is where this film kept getting derailed. In spending too much time on Fassbender's psycho-social problems, the director distracted the audience from so many far-more telling scenes that better illustrated the real horrors. For example, Ejiofor is sold to a kindly slaveholder, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. We watch as a female slave's two children are sold off in front of her. Distressed, Cumberbatch also buys her. (She's wonderfully played by Adepero Oduyeone). She is still weeping when the two new purchases are brought to the plantation. Cumberbatch's wife inquires why the new slave is weeping. She is told that her children were sold away from her. Cooly, and not unkindly, his wife says, Give her some food and she'll soon forget them. The line is delivered with the kindly indifference one would use when speaking about a cow bawling for her newly removed calf. Stop fussing. A little hay, and the creature will come right.
You don't need to chew the furniture to portray the utter evil that underlay that calm scene. And so it went throughout the film. As long as the camera stayed with Chiwetel's point of view, the audience could experience his horrifying journey in so many many little ways -- the betrayals, the loss of hope, the banality of indifferent brutality, the daily struggle to simply survive for another day, the utter denial of one's humanity. All of which was, cumulatively, far more horrible than "Simon Legree's" scene-chewing brutalities.
Despite the Simon Legree Problem, the film is in so many ways, extraordinary, powerful, brave, deeply moving. Come Academy Award time, Mr. Ejiofor will be at the top of the list..