‘12 Years’ a hit with black filmmakers

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Famed film director John Singleton says when movies about African Americans debut, he is always one of the first to be called for insight. Singleton, who directed the 1991 critically acclaimed drama, “Boyz in the Hood,” recently realized that his telephone hasn’t stopped ringing.

“I’d like to talk about other movies, too,” he said, but acknowledged that he doesn’t mind addressing the recent avalanche of black films, including what many view as an Oscar front-runner, “12 Years a Slave.”

“I’ve seen it and I can tell you it’s a work of art,” Singleton said. “Steve McQueen, who is black and from the United Kingdom, has created a raw and unflinching look at a black man’s descent into one of the darkest chapters of American history, it’s as authentic as it gets.”

Kasi Lemmons, who directed such films as, “Talk to Me,” and “Eve’s Bayou,” said “12 Years a Slave,” and other African American films have resonated throughout Hollywood and around the globe because of their frank portrayal of the various trials of blacks.

“It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Lemmons, whose new film, “Black Nativity,” will hit the big screen next month. “These films are all different— comedies, dramas, historical dramas, musicals. It really is a whole range of movies primarily directed by and starring African Americans. It’s pretty exciting. “

McQueen’s film “12 Years,” arrived in theatres on Friday, October 18, and counts as a harrowing and unforgettable tale that not only takes audiences back to early America where slavery was an everyday reality, but it confronts the dark reality of this country’s history.

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free man working as a musician in Saratoga, New York, with a wife and two children, left for a trip to Washington, D.C. Two strangers approached Northup, and claimed to be businessmen seeking to hire a musician. After dining with the men, Northup awakens in chains, captured by slave traders.

He is beaten and shipped to the South to be sold, ultimately to a man named Epps, portrayed in the film by Michael Fassbender.

The beatings are so grotesque and stomach turning, that Fassbender himself noted that he couldn’t watch the retakes during the editing of the film. “It made me sick, I nearly passed out, that’s how real it was,” said Fassbender, who has appeared in such films as “X-Men: First Class,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “Jane Eyre.”

Violence and degradation dominate the film, including a hard-to-watch scene in which Northup stands all day with a noose around his neck as the ground sinks beneath him as slave owners, slaves and every day folk pass by without acknowledging he’s there.

“There should be Oscar nods for McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley, lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives the performance of a lifetime; and, hopefully, Fassbender, who plays the most compelling big-screen villain this year,” Singleton said, adding that it should be noted that the film would not have been made had it not been for Brad Pitt, who produced the movie and played a small but crucial role.

“There are few stars as big-hearted as Pitt with an interest in exploring challenging subjects,” Singleton said. “More should definitely follow his bold example.”

John Ridley’s deft, well-structured screenplay of “12 Years” balances moments of terror with telling glances of Northup’s sad resignation, film critic Joe Neumaier said.

“The music in the film underscores gently or, at times, jarringly, a symphonic suggestion of being caught in a machine. Through it all, Ejiofor and Fassbender are astonishing,” Neumaier said.

In a previous interview, Ejiofor said the movie is a telling portrayal of not only an American story but one that’s international as well.

“I’ve seen this story, specifically set in America, as an American story, but I’ve always seen the kind of international aspects of slavery, the universal themes that the film is discussing and how this kind of system was imposed throughout the African Diaspora,” said Ejiofor, who has starred in such big screen hits as, “American Gangster,” “Inside Man,” and “Four Brothers.”

With a $20 million budget, Forbes estimates that “12 Years a Slave,” will eventually gross more than $100 million at the box office. The film, based on Northup’s 1853 memoirs, hints that he had an apparent disregard for the reality of slavery before his abduction, according to Neumaier.

Yet, his journey into its horrors becomes the audiences’ own.

“McQueen has made a film comparable to ‘Schindler’s List,’ art that may be hard to watch, but which is an essential look at man’s inhumanity to man,” Neumaier said. “It’s wrenching, but ‘12 Years a Slave,’ earns its tears in a way few films ever do.”