Brian D. Johnson on a movie that left him lost for words

’Nothing I could say or write could begin to address the injustice and horror that the movie portrays’
Benedict Cumberbatch (left) and Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years A Slave'

I saw five movies on Friday, the last three of which left me physically and emotionally drained: Rush, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave, in that order. They added up to an escalating assault, launched on the ground with Ron Howard’s Rush, a race-car movie that delivers as much  fun as you can have on four fat wheels. But when you see a pack of movies in rapid succession, one can blow the others away. And at the end of the day, or at least this day, Rush is happy to be just a richly entertaining ride, a formula duel between two Formula One legends driving cars around in circles.

Gravity has higher aspirations. This 3D space thriller about NASA astronauts who face a calamity while repairing a space station is quite unlike anything we’ve seen before. Sandra Bullock–who is supported by George Clooney but spends much of the movie alone—gives a bravura performance that raises the bar for the female action hero and sends it spinning into a whole new orbit. I tend to avoid the word “awesome” but in the case of Gravity, it’s oddly precise. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), it invents its own formula, and cranks adrenaline to untold heights, achieving moments of transcendence and beauty reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life.  It literally takes your breath away, yet it’s a triumph of weightless entertainment sans gravitas. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We use movies to escape this world. In fact, of the three films I saw back-to-back, Gravity is the one I would most happily watch again.

But 12 Years A Slave, the final film I saw that day, is not just a movie. It’s a historical reckoning that hits the gut, and the heart, with devastating impact. So I feel it deserves a few moments of reflection before I rejoin the festival fray, which is front-loaded with a remarkable number of good and significant films.

Even though it’s based on a true story that happened  long ago, before the American Civil War, 12 Years A Slave waylays us with a sense of tremendous urgency. I say “us,” not just “me,” because I walked out the theatre with that weight of collective sorrow you get from leaving a fine and momentous funeral. Lost for words. Feeling that nothing I could say or write could begin to address the injustice and horror that the movie portrays. I was left with contradictory responses. You wonder how a movie so hard to watch can be so ripe with beauty—the narrative is gilded with lush Southern landscapes that serve as a silent witness to the cruelty. You are amazed that the movie exists, this opulent vision of atrocity, yet appalled that its story has taken so long to reach the screen. Not just its specific story, but the entire story of American slavery. Lurking in the background of so many Hollywood movies, it never been so fully represented until now.

12 Years A Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the North, and a skilled carpenter and fiddler, who was lured to Washington, D.C. by a pair of circus promotors in 1841, then kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. After the cartoonish pulp of Quentin Tarantino’s exhilarating revenge fantasy, Django Unchained, Steve McQueen’s epic is sobering to say the least. Played with simmering yet titanic force by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup is no Django-like action hero. He is a literate, sophisticated man who struggles to defend his dignity as it is assaulted , diminished and ground into the dirt. The movie’s most horrific scene, the one that will be talked about fearfully, involves a gruesome flogging that he is forced to administer to another slave, a young woman.

McQueen has marshaled a strong cast. Benedict Cumberbatch has a smallish role as the plantation boss who first purchases him at auction. Although he has no compunction about separating a slave woman from her children, this slave owner is a relatively gentle man compared to his next owner, an alcoholic sadist (Michael Fassbender) who runs a cotton plantation. Yet Fassbender makes this monster utterly credible. Producer Brad Pitt, meanwhile,  plays a white knight, a Canadian carpenter who eventually comes to Northup’s rescue. But his role is modest. This is not a Brad Pitt movie, or a story of a white guy saving a slave. It belongs to Chiwetel and the remarkable ensemble portraying his fellow slaves. With McQueen, they’ve created a landmark picture of devastating power.