On the week of Halloween, it’s only proper to post reviews for two of the most horrifying films to come out this year that are also riveting true stories of captivity: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (B+) and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish (B+).
12 Years a Slave is a true-life American horror story, based on the life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an expert violinist and free man living in Saratoga, New York in the early 1840s. However, two men claiming to be circus managers drug and swindle Solomon into chains and send him off with a new identity: Platt, a “Georgia runaway.” In the film’s opening scene, taken from the middle of his stay on Louisiana plantations, Solomon is tired and weary under the baking sun, although he works diligently. He then tries to use acid from blackberries on his dinner plate as ink for letters that he hopes can reach his family. This is a bleak, sometimes uncompromising glimpse of American slavery and definitely one of the finest accounts of this shameful history ever captured on film.
The film comes from British director and conceptual artist Steve McQueen. Like his feature debut, Hunger, it tells an all-encompassing story of brutality and a limited means for survival through an episodic structure. This film could be challenging for viewers expecting to see an overwrought dramatic arc following Solomon from his first appearance in the antebellum South to his defiance of slave owners (played, both masterfully and cartoonish, by Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson). Instead, McQueen tells Solomon’s story with a collection of moments where the protagonist mostly partakes in cotton picking, observes whippings and other slaves whelping through their days, and searches for the humanity within himself to survive such an ordeal.
As Solomon, British character actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced “Chew-a-tell Edge-ee-oh-for” and best known for his supporting work in Dirty Pretty Things and Inside Man) is devastatingly good. He is already a front-runner for Best Actor at the 2013 Academy Awards, although he rarely gets enough time to make a fierce speech that could amount to an Oscar-reel clip. Like Forest Whitaker’s turn in The Butler, Ejiofor internalizes the pain and lets his face speak volumes. The closest the actor comes to seething anger is when he digs into his wounds during a Negro spiritual and sings about his “soul arising.” With a silky voice and hardened face, Ejiofor has been a major presence in other films and finally gets the chance to command the screen here.
Besides Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave is stacked with powerful supporting performances. Michael Fassbender is magnetic and abrasively over-the-top as Edwin Epps, a drunken slave owner who believes he is a man of scripture but is in fact a sinner. Sarah Paulson plays Epps’ missus, who controls her husband’s mood almost as violently as he does his slaves. Paul Giamatti gives an extended cameo (and is unsurprisingly strong) as a deceitful slave trader. In addition, newcomer Lupita Nyong’o gives an affecting performance as Patsey, a young mother fallen to despair and nearly driven to suicide after she is separated from her kids. Despite picking more cotton than any of Epps’ other ‘property,’ she still gets lashes from his outstretched arm.
Like 2009’s Hunger, his exceptional debut, McQueen makes a film full of visceral brutality and perhaps a few too many willful artistic flourishes that seem out of place. For a film of such raw subject matter, some of the establishing shots are too pictorial and pretty, interrupting the mood like if Terrence Malick’s photography intruded on a Ken Loach drama. McQueen lets the action unfold and the characters develop through spare images – of a burned letter folding into ashes, of humans standing like livestock as a slave trader pokes and prods them to prospective buyers, of a bloodied back after a blistering whipping session. In the film’s most startling image, Solomon hangs with a noose around his neck, barely alive and his feet barely stroking the muddy ground, while other people go about their business around him and hardly glance at the trembling slave.
At some points, it seems as if McQueen does not know whether to keep strictly to the historical narrative or deviate into a more abstract representation of human bondage. Even if it is not the director’s best film – although it is a big improvement from his empty sex-addict drama Shame from 2011 – McQueen still employs many of his signatures effectively, from long takes to a stylized amount of limited light (which works well given the lack of electricity in the antebellum South).
12 Years a Slave is more of a slice-of-life depiction of human adversity and barbarism in American plantations than a compelling biopic. Whether or not the film is too artful and episodic to quench the adoration of Academy voters who loved the exploitative pleasures of Django Unchained or mainstream audiences who made a simplified account of black history a major hit with this summer’s The Butler remains to be seen.
Airing to big ratings on CNN last week after a modest theatrical run during the summer, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish makes a great and equally unsettling companion piece to The Cove, the Oscar-winning doc from 2009. It is also a haunting depiction of the inhumane treatment of mammals and an infuriating glimpse at the practices from aquariums like SeaWorld in Orlando. The doc’s initial incident occurred on February 24, 2010 at SeaWorld when Tilikum, a 4,000-pound killer whale who had been held in captivity for more than 20 years, lived up to his ‘killer’ name and took the life of senior orca trainer Dawn Brancheau.
The park’s trainers who contributed to the film now view their work at SeaWorld as ‘misguided’ and ‘barbaric.’ When SeaWorld hired several of them, the new employees kept gushing about how great their jobs were – they were excited to interact with the majestic beasts of the water. However, dancing with killer whales is only safe when the trainer leads. Today, these past idealists have moral regrets, explaining that they bought into SeaWorld’s culture of building relationships with the whales while they, in fact, knew nothing about the mammals’ history of behaviour. The creatures the trainers were so excited to get close with could potentially be their murderer.
Blackfish plays back the gleeful commercials for big aquariums, which showcase the trainers riding atop the orcas, their skin like a surfboard, and smiling broadly after kissing the mammals. However, when one swims with orcas trapped in what is essentially a bathtub in comparison to the ocean where they grew up, it is hard to predict the outcome.
Cowperthwaite wisely brings in marine biologists to talk about the behaviour of the creatures. They touch on how these massive whales live in large families and the kids never leave the mother’s side – even as adults. As one of the biologists explains, “Everything about them is social.” They have a thick brain, with an advance emotional sense of self that even humans do not have. Alas, separation from one’s family is among the most agonizing things that the mammals could experience. Blackfish gets its title from the First Nations term for an orca, which alludes to how it is a creature of great spiritual power that must not be reckoned with.
The only times that the film treads too far is when it uses suspenseful music to titillate the audience and get them ready for a potential attack, which sometimes feels exploitative. Cowperthwaite often shows a disturbing human mangling and at other times prepares for it but stops before the gorier details can surface onscreen. On the other hand, Cowperthwaite also shows certain managers raking the orcas’ leathery skin, making them bleed into the pool. The brutality went both ways.
Disregarding some of the more ill advised attacks shown, Blackfish is still a compelling and deeply unsettling documentary. The argument is simple: dangerous and incredibly inhumane things can happen when you store whales in a tiny, dark pool with no escape for much of their lives and restrict their access to food and family.
The piercing chirps coming from the orcas are not out of friendship but of distress, an audio specialist tells the audience. If one did not feel enough pity for the animals, there is one scene where SeaWorld sends baby Shamu to another aquarium, far away from her mother Katina who remained in the park’s tank. After Shamu left, Katina remained still at the corner of the pool, speaking in long-range vocals with hopes that her child could hear her. To the doc’s benefit, it is not as much the story of the human trainers as it is about the whales.