Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brian Blatt, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt
In 1853 Solomon Northup published his memoir 12 Years a Slave which told the story of how, as a free man living with his wife and children in upstate New York, he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery, spending the next twelve years of his life working on the cotton plantations of America’s South before finally being reunited with his family. The book was hugely influential in the years leading up to the American Civil War, exposing the inner workings of slavery and opening the public’s eyes to what it really was to be owned by another person. Now, 160 years later, British director Steve McQueen has brought Northup’s story to the screen in a film with the potential to be equally influential.
Despite being one of the defining periods of American history, antebellum slavery has not been widely explored cinematically, particularly from the point of view of the slave. The significance of 12 Years a Slave comes not only from the fact that it is a vivid portrayal of American slavery from the point of view of the slave, but also that it is the product of a the collaboration between a black British director and an African American screenwriter.
With his previous films Hunger and Shame, McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and does not pull his punches. It should therefore be no surprise that his exploration of 19th century slavery is brutal and unrelenting. McQueen uses a number of long takes, holding the image and forcing us to take it all in. A lot of screen time is given to faces, allowing us to watch emotions unfold and develop within characters.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a powerful performance as a man thrust into an intolerable situation. Part of the appeal of 12 Years a Slave as opposed to other slave narratives for McQueen was that the narrative was the inverse of what we usually get, with our protagonist going from freedom to slavery. Having Northup start the film as a free man made him an effective surrogate for the audience. Slavery is as foreign and horrific to him as it is to us. It does, however, make for a less all-encompassing tale as in the confines of this narrative the injustice is that a free man has been kidnapped into slavery, not simply that any human being might find themself in slavery.
Northup’s story has the quality of an odyssey. This story of hope, of overcoming and refusal to surrender to injustice, is the story of Solomon Northup’s journey home to his family. It is a journey which takes place over a long period of time with constantly changing circumstances as he is sold from one owner to another, some seemingly benevolent, others ruthless.
McQueen regular Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, the plantation owner under whom Northup spent the majority of his time. Fassbender is a brave actor unafraid to take on difficult characters, but the violent, hate-filled and insecure Epps might just be his most repulsive character yet.
The significance of this project, along with McQueen’s steadily growing reputation, has helped in assembling a tremendous supporting cast including the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who was also one of the film’s producers.
A harsh but incredibly powerful film, 12 Years a Slave is one of the finest films of the year and could already be the most important film made on this important subject.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Dicaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington
I’m a big fan of the Western genre. After an extended period of time in which it really went out of fashion in recent years we are starting to see a real re-emergence of the Western with quality productions like Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010) and, of course, the brilliant HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006). However, it is probably not since the 1950s that there has been a Western which has been greeted with as much popular anticipation as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Django Unchained again sees Tarantino doing what he does best, genre pastiche: taking past styles and forms of cinema that he loves and giving them the Tarantino twist. The result is kind of a Blaxploitation Spaghetti Western and it is ridiculously entertaining. Our setting is the deep south of the USA, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Our heroes are an unlikely duo, Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a onetime dentist now bounty hunter. The surprisingly conventional plot for a writer who made his name by tinkering with chronology and breaking his screenplays down into individual storylines and chapters, sees the two brought together when Schultz needs Django’s help to recognise a trio of wanted men. They stay together because Schultz feels compelled to help Django rescue his slave wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), from the horrible slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino has been very intentional in his promotional interviews for Django Unchained about labelling the film as a “Southern” rather than a Western, emphasising the difference in the core conflict at the heart of his movie. The Western genre has always been racially charged, but it is usually white men and Indians, or white men and Mexicans. In Django Unchained we are focused on the tension between white and black in the Deep South (which does allow the writer/director to continue his fetishistic relationship with the N-word). We’ve seen movies about slavery before, but not quite like this. Tarantino isn’t looking to make any overt political statements about the plight of the African-American. Rather he does what only he seems to be able to do, taking a seemingly taboo subject from one of the darker periods in modern history and using it as the basis for a ridiculously entertaining and quite funny film. It was the formula which worked so effectively with Inglourious Basterds in 2009. In that case it was Wold War II Europe providing the setting for a revenge tale about a small group of American Jewish soldiers taking vengeance on the Nazis on behalf of a downtrodden people. In Django Unchained Tarantino does for 19th century American slavery what he did for the Holocaust three years ago. Again we have a revenge tale, but this time our avenging angel is one man and the oppressed people are the black slaves.
While Jamie Foxx is the first name billed and plays the title character, the real star of this film is Christoph Waltz. Tarantino is a lover of dialogue. There are few directors working in mainstream cinema who happily allow scenes of dialogue to extend for as long as Tarantino does. As an actor, Waltz manages to combine eloquence and a calm elegance with a genuine sense of menace which makes him the perfect vehicle for the director’s wordy but sharp dialogue. Waltz was a revelation in Inglourious Basterds. As a relative unknown his performance as Col. Hans Landa gave us one of the best screen villains of the decade and won him an Academy Award. His work in Django Unchained is every bit as good, and really blurs the line between a supporting and leading character. He has received an Oscar nomination in the supporting category, but I feel like he is the lead character, or at least the co-lead, for the first three quarters of the film. Either way, it is a tremendous performance, about as endearing as you can imagine a bounty hunter to be, and makes me hope for further collaboration between the Waltz and Tarantino in the future.
There are two other supporting roles which are worthy of comment, both due to the fact that they see highly regarded actors venturing outside of their usual character scope. Firstly we have Leonardo DiCaprio playing the villain, Calvin Candie. DiCaprio has always been known for his intensity of performance, but that intensity has never really been applied to a villainous role before. Outside of the things Candie does and says, there is so much about his character which just pushes your buttons. Whether it is the touch of boyishness in his face which makes you think of him as a spoilt child, the semi-incestuous relationship with his sister, or his rather uncivilised interests in blood sports and phrenology, there is just something that manages to make you uneasy in his presence.
The other is Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson, and it is he who makes the greatest departure. In the same year that we saw him playing Nick Fury in The Avengers, Jackson delivers one of the performances of his career as Candie’s most trusted slave, Stephen. What makes the role so interesting, and challenging for us as viewers, is where Stephen sits in the racial divide that is at the centre of the film. Effectively Stephen is Candie’s chief of staff. He runs the house, is well dressed and treated by Candie with a level of respect not afforded to anyone else but his sister (there is a scene in which Candie and Stephen sit together drinking brandy which is indicative of their relationship). Stephen is a classic Uncle Tom figure, aligning himself with the white characters, seeing the other black characters as subservient and being an agent in their oppression. He believes in the status quo. Add to the fact that Jackson is playing an elderly man, weathered by many years of service, and it is quite an impressive achievement and has garnered some serious critical attention (if not the Oscar nomination he so openly hoped for).
Coming in at 165 minutes, while not excessive by current standards, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s longest film yet. Its main fault, which relates a bit to the runtime, is that at times it gets a little self-indulgent. Self-indulgence is always going to be a part of Tarantino’s cinema. So much of his style openly comes from his desire to engage with and replicate the things that he finds cool, in other words, indulging himself. So self-indulgence is not a problem in itself, but when it gets to the point of interfering with the flow of the picture it does become an issue. One scene in particular is representative of this. Towards the back end of the film there is a scene in which Tarantino makes a cameo appearance as one of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees charged with transporting Django and some other slaves to the mines. For mine it is the worst scene of the film, though I’m sure some will point to the dancing horse at the films finale. Ignoring the fact that Tarantino’s performances in front of the camera have never come close to his prowess behind the camera, it is not his appearance in itself which makes the scene excessively self-indulgent. It is the fact that he is playing an Australian. One of the other workers in the scene is played by Australian actor John Jarratt of Wolf Creek fame. The Australian accents are quite jarring, and really make the scene stick out in a way that it wouldn’t have if they were playing Americans. Tarantino is a great admirer of Australian exploitation cinema (you can see him espousing his love in the wonderful 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!) and it feels like the sole reason for the Australian characters, and much of the dialogue that flows from them, was that he wanted to have John Jarratt in his movie.
Django Unchained is the Western done Tarantino style, complete with a final bloody shootout to rival Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and despite moments of self-indulgence it has the all requisite laughs, violence, cameo appearances and intertextual references to see that his legions of devoted fans will not be disappointed.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean