Tag Archives: Solomon Northup

Pride and prejudice: the Oscar link between Dallas Buyers Club and Twelve Years A Slave

23 Feb

Okay, so having now seen Dallas Buyers Club, it’s going to be a closer Oscar race than I thought for Chiwetel Ejiofor in Twelve Years A Slave. The Academy has loved a physical transformation ever since De Niro piled on the pounds for Raging Bull. Here the famously pec-tastic Mathew McConaughey slims down alarmingly to play a straight rodeo roughrider afflicted with HIV.

The two films are intriguingly similar, in that each uses a Trojan Horse to smuggle a minority subject into the hearts of majority film-goers. If Solomon Northup had not been a free man illegally sold into slavery, but born into it instead, it might have been harder for the audience to identify with his plight. If Ron Woodruff had been a gay HIV sufferer, he might not tug on the heartstrings of Middle America.

But apart from McConaughey’s gutsy, livewire, enormously affecting performance, Dallas Buyers Club is not half the film that Twelve Years A Slave is. The supporting characters, though well acted, are little more than stereotypes: from the drag queen with a disapproving banker father to the good ol’ boys who turn against their former friend when they learn he has the disease. There’s a battle with the FDA, but it’s sketchily developed; and the closing caption pretty much undercuts Woodruff’s mission throughout the film rather than supporting it as intended.

It is powerfully affecting, though, especially if you lived through that terrible period. The HIV drugs war was starkly illustrated for me at Time Out, in the late ‘80s: the much-loved receptionist/Gay editor was HIV-positive (though few knew at the time why it was forbidden to throw him into the pool at the party in Porchester Baths, and did it anyway), and he died before effective drugs were developed. The features editor, Tim Clark, one of the liveliest, cleverest, funniest, warmest people I have ever known, was initially given months to live, but science caught up just in time, giving him well over a decade.

And it’s important to have this reminder, as with 12 Years A Slave, just how recent are our sins as a society. While everyone is sneering at Russia for their backward laws forbidding the “promotion” of homosexuality, we should recall with shame that they are a carbon copy of Britain’s own Section 28 legislation, passed by Thatcher’s government just when gay people needed the most support.

Meanwhile, as I was waiting in Chicago on Friday for my delayed flight back to London, the TV news was full of the new Arizona bill which allows Christian business owners to discriminate against gay people. Is the US heading for segregation all over again, with gays instead of blacks?

Never were two Oscar contenders more timely, more needed, and more closely matched.

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Why 12 Years A Slave is already the film of the year

10 Jan
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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup with his demented ‘owner’ (Michael Fassbender)

12 Years A Slave opens today in the UK, so you can finally see what all the fuss is about. I saw it at a preview a couple of months back, and was blown away. It is flat-out impossible that Chiwetel Ejiofor will not win the Academy Award for Best Actor, and doubtless the Golden Globe this Sunday too. Director Steve McQueen has said he never considered another actor for the role, and his performance is, like the film itself, one of enormous power, courage, dignity and, above all, restraint.

Where The Butler took such liberties with its source material that it can hardly be said to be ‘based on a true story’ at all, shoehorning all sorts of historical events Forrest Gumpishly into the narrative under a mess of mawkish music to demonstrate that Racism Is Bad, 12 Years A Slave is such an extraordinary true story it needs no embellishment. It is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free negro born in New York state, who was drugged and sold into 12 years of brutal slavery in the Deep South.

Benedict Cumberbatch and regular Steve McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender play, respectively, considerate and demented slave owners, and producer Brad Pitt gives himself a cameo as just about the only decent anti-slavery white character; but it’s Ejiofor’s film. His expressive eyes fill every scene, haunting you long after the film has finished.

Steve McQueen’s direction is extraordinary, too. He’s not afraid of long takes – consider the monologue in Hunger – and of letting the pictures do the talking: foreshadowing Northup’s captivity by a close-up of his violin pegs being tightened, for instance. The extraordinary natural beauty of Northup’s surroundings, shot on 35mm film and in widescreen by cinematographer Sean Bobbit,  only make his bondage the more poignant.

None of this sounds like a fun film for a Friday night, I know. But see it soon, and absolutely see it on the big screen where it belongs. Though we’re only two weeks into January, I would confidently predict it will be the best film you’ll see all year.