Omar Comin’ to “12 Years a Slave”

Omar is on the boat that takes Solomon Northup to slavery. The bad wolf of “The Wire”—Obama’s stated favorite character on that beyond-classic TV show—appears, at first, with a metal mask chained around his face, like Hannibal Lecter or Bane. He vows to fight, tries to fight, gets killed, and thrown overboard. He lasts maybe five minutes of film time, a mystery warrior who chooses to rebel. Solomon dumps his body and watches it drift out to sink below the waves. There’s a message there: Don’t fight.

This is an amazing cameo by the actor Michael K. Williams. He survived a prison stabbing attack in “The Wire,” but his “12 Years a Slave” character is dispatched via stabbing in practically no time. Slavery was so much more perilous than the modern-day Baltimore drug game.

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I used to play handball with a guy who explained between games that modern government welfare was like slavery. Poor people are relying on the government for their food, he said, and for their shelter. That was the extent of his argument. “Slavery.”

Sarah Palin said the other day in a speech “When [our debt] comes due, and this isn’t racist … but it’s gonna be like slavery … we are gonna be beholden to a foreign master.”

These two won’t be seeing “12 Years a Slave,” but they should. The evil of slavery (personified by Michael Fassbender as a villain, Epps, destined to be remembered forever) was rape, torture, and demented physical and psychological abuse.

Solomon runs once—and happens upon one of the movie’s scariest, most graphic scenes. Another message from on high: Don’t run. Just like the boat death of Omar was a message not to fight.

Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce calls Sarah Palin Princess Dumbass of the Northwoods. Unless she’s willing to say on-the-record that “12 Years a Slave” isn’t accurate, Princess Dumbass should shut up about comparing anything to slavery. Everyone should.

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My wife said the movie made her “physically uncomfortable,” and demanded afterward to be taken straight home to hug our baby. So much for a drink. There were sobs throughout the theater as we left.

“The Passion of the Christ.” That’s the last time I felt so physically afflicted—in the face and gut—over a movie character. (Maybe “Boys Don’t Cry,” too.) Except in this case, visceral sadness and sympathy are a byproduct of an exciting, interesting flick filled with great actors playing compelling characters.

Scene after scene is just excellent. When Solomon wakes up in chains it plays like raw horror. Then there’s the auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) walking among his kidnapped slaves, many stripped naked, hitting them and pulling on their faces. A family is split apart despite an appeal to the auctioneer’s decency. (There’s no decency.) A little later, we watch the kindest of Solomon’s owners, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), preaching gospel over the sound of a mother weeping for having lost her children. Ford’s religion probably makes him feel better about enabling such a wretched institution, but it can’t cover the basic wrong he’s committed.

The whippings in this movie make that famous Denzel Washington scene in “Glory” look G-rated by comparison. Even something as simple as a letter being burned in the dark takes on profound meaning because it’s filmed so thoughtfully by director Steve McQueen and the filmmakers.

And oh, God, what happened to Patsey? Epps’s wife is a Hitchcockian monster (think a meaner Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca”) who torments poor Patsey with physical attacks that make you cringe. And what Epps himself does to her is so much worse. Patsey, man. Patsey. She could pick 500 pounds of cotton a day. . . .

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Other favorite cameo, besides Omar? Paul Dano. He shows up to be evil for a while, squeaking like he squeaked as Eli Sunday in “There Will Be Blood.” Is “12 Years a Slave” the best movie since “There Will Be Blood”? It’s a fair comparison, since both films feature the main character beating the hell out of a shrieking Paul Dano. Kudos.

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See that rope behind him? Messing with Paul Dano had some seriously vicious consequences for Solomon.

How many acting Oscars can one movie be nominated for? We’re about to find out. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, for so many scenes but especially when he sings at the funeral. Fassbender, for sure. Dano? Paul Giamatti as the auctioneer? Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, is gonna be a Supporting Actress favorite. Just wait. Sarah Paulson as Patsey’s jealous tormentor is gonna get a look, as well.

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This blog had some fun previously with Brad Pitt’s “World War Z.” Pitt produced “Z” and that movie seemed an indulgent vanity project. It stripped away everything but the title from a beloved horror novel to make a zombie blockbuster without any good zombies.

But Pitt’s production company also made “12 Years a Slave,” and Ejiofor said it was Pitt’s star power that made the movie happen.

He puts himself in the movie, toward the end. Brad Pitt gives one of the very few featured performances that won’t get nominated for an Oscar, but that probably doesn’t matter. I imagine Pitt swung the deals to get this movie made and put himself in there because he simply wanted to be in something so great.

This is the best film of his career. He said so.

There’s a scene where Fassbender’s Epps is chasing Solomon with a razor. They run through a muddy, shitty pig pen and as Epps is jumping the fence he catches his knees and flips forward to smash into the ground. He growls. A pratfall like that is normally meant to be funny. In this case, it’s an instant of surreal physicality driving home two points:

1) This is a ridiculous, insane situation.

2) The acting, writing, and directing in “12 Years a Slave” are amazing in ways both big and small.

This is the best movie of Brad Pitt’s career, and he was in “Fight Club.” It may go down as one of the best pictures ever made.

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