Released in one year, an epochal statement on racism and rank prejudice, these films are both must see stories of our shameful past. They are both based on real lives and this is what makes them cut more deeply.
One is an appallingly brutal account of a formerly free man, played with breathtaking authenticity by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as he is sold into slavery by amoral and deceptive means, and the subsequent horror of being personally subjected to unspeakably harsh lashings and then helplessly witnessing them, the brutal rape of fellow women slaves and random but frequent lynchings of other men for small infractions. With no chance to move on, i.e.: no freedom as a human being, hard labor with no pay becomes a small matter amid this treachery.
Based on a book written by the educated individual subjected to this betrayal and vicious treatment of slaves, Soloman Northup went on to support the underground freedom train that got many slaves their chance for a free life in the north. (If unfamiliar with this historical 1820 -1855 effort, Google Underground Railroad/freedom train.) When one sees the atrocities Soloman did, what other course would one take?
Expertly and realistically directed by Steve McQueen with excellent pensive cinematography by Sean Bobbitt; casting the somewhat unknown lead actors lends more credibility to the brutality, as if new again with all it's attendant horrors and the plantation owners attitude of humans as property. One of the strongest and truly poignant and wrenching displays of acting is by the unknown actress Lupita Nyong’o, cast as Patsey, the plantation owner's favorite 'girl'. The sadistic owner played with eerie mean effect by Michael Fassbender, he rapes her at whim, her misery compounded by his equally cruel wife punishing Patsey for that misfortune; at one point she cuts Patsey in her beautiful face, slaps her repeatedly and encourages her severe lashing. What hell for this young women, who also happens to pick the most cotton poundage on the farm, man or not. You would be arrested today for comparable treatment of a dog or horse.
About one hundred years later, we have the story, precivil rights, of a butler in the White House. Based loosely on Eugene Allen’s life as a butler over 34 years, Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines, who embodies this butler with sublime humility and wrenching authenticity. This is a free man with share cropper parents, but still subject to prejudice in more subtle forms, however, as a child in the 1920‘s, he receives the same Neanderthal mentality from his parent’s 'employers' in the fields when they shoot his father dead for raising his voice in protest when his wife is raped. This affects Eugene, as it would anyone, for life.
Directed by Lee Daniels and written with detailed sensitivity by Danny Strong, the film, gains a life of of its own, perhaps through the politics played out in front of the audience. It became a sleeper hit for a film with a smaller budget (30M) and huge gross (167M) internationally.
Eugene takes these hazardous lessons of white folk and decides to work with them, not against them, thereby learning much more. When the Mistress of the farm whose son did the killing and raping, takes an ounce of pity on him, he is brought into the house as ‘a house negro’ where he learns 'serving' skills. Eugene's destiny is set.
The rest is history. He raises two sons with his somewhat envious drinking wife, played with quiet intensity by Oprah Winfrey. Not since the Color Purple has she delivered a performance of such power and conviction. The older son involves himself in protest and joins the Black Panthers for a time, but ultimately decides the group is too violent. Meanwhile, the younger son joins the army out of duty, is sent to Vietnam and is killed their like so many.
All the while, the butler works at the White House as different Presidential administrations come and go. The character Eugene remembers from childhood not to rock the job boat, even when confronted with racism in its array of forms, some subtle and some not as subtle. At one point, President Nixon asks him his opinion on an issue, to which he is taken aback momentarily, and while his opinion is ultimately turned down, he realizes how far he's come. This is a gripping mesmerizing film.
Having two films dealing with racism and skin color prejudice in one year equates to a giant leap over a cultural chasm. Thrilling, difficult to watch, historical, gut wrenching, acted with grace and power, the low boil of Negro hate burns into your sensibility, until one wants to stand and shout, "For God's sake why!?" And it's alive today in many states.
This is the strength of these two spectacular films with casts putting out the finest efforts in many years. Go and see them.