“12 Years A Slave” and “Fruitvale Station:” Unforgivable Blackness, Unbearable Bleakness.

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Fassbender, Nyong’o, Ejiofor. Practice saying the names now. You might be hearing them Oscar night.

As a freelancer, I used to review movies for a newspaper and I belonged to a local film critics group.  Every year we would make our list of the best movies and argue among ourselves whose list was the most and least credible and I admit that sometimes I may have been influenced by the will of the majority.  After all, I didn’t want to be the one who looked like I didn’t know what was going on.

I’m not part of any critic groups anymore and I only have to see the films that interest me so while I may have missed out by not seeing Blue Is the Warmest Color, Her, Nebraska, Frozen, or whatever bit of Oscar bait Meryl Streep is in this year, I’m okay with it.

The Best Movie of 2013 is 12 Years A Slave.  But so is Fruitvale Station.  Who says there can only be one?

Fruitvale Station holds a staggering 94 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but 12 Years bests it with a 96 percent positive reviews.    They’re both great films, they both are indelibly sketched in my mind in a way most movies this years aren’t.  I slammed plenty of popcorn over Iron Man 3, Star Trek: Enter Darkness, Man of Steel and The Wolverine.  I enjoyed most of them.  I recall none of them.

12 Years is not only unforgettable, it was unspeakable.  That’s an experience I’ve never had in the dark before.

I saw the movie in November, but I didn’t write it up.  Normally I write a blog post a day or so afterward.   Not this time.  Not for this movie.   Fruitvale Station troubled me immensely and brought me to tears but I didn’t squirt a drop to 12 Years A Slave.   All I felt was a dazed numbness that was replaced by cold blooded anger.   As the credits rolled I sprang from my seat leaving my wife and son behind and strode briskly and purposefully to the lobby.  I had to get out.  I needed air and about a minute all my own to collect my troubled thoughts.

Everyone figured we had seen the evils of slavery.  We got to a point where we could snicker at the funny side of slavery via Django Unchained.    Nobody was ready for what director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley had in store with 12 Years A Slave.  It is the anti  Django Unchained.

With a gross of less than $40 million, 12 Years A Slave hasn’t dominated at the box office the way Quentin Tarantino’s cartoon did, but it has cleaned up with critics winning 75 percent of the Best Picture awards handed out by various groups including the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

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In a less crowded year Michael B. Jordan’s performance would be a lock for Best Actor nominations.

This should bode well for Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and director Steve McQueen’s likelihood of receiving well-deserved Oscar nominations.   Why Michael Fassbender is being overlooked for his unnerving performance as Edwin Epps,  the sadistic “nigger-breaker” who rapes, beats, tortures and humiliates his slaves to satisfy his depraved soul is a small mystery, but I can speculate as to the reasons why.   Fassbender doesn’t just project evil and malevolence; he inhabits it.   There’s a lot of Black folks that would love to punch out Fassbender for being so convincing.

Fruitvale Station has been lost by the acclaim showered upon 12 Years.   It’s as if only one Black-themed film can be great in year.  Two or more throws off the curve.   McQueen has created an epic compressing 12 years into two hours (with Ejiofor’s Solomon Northrup looking fairly unscathed outwardly by his harrowing experience) while Fruitvale Station takes the last day of Oscar Grant’s life and attempts to fill in the blanks of who he was before he ended up handcuffed, face-down on a subway platform and dying in a pool of his own blood on New Year’s Eve.

Northrup’s story depicts the darkest part of American history: human beings bought and sold like chattel and treated no more humanely than cattle or swine.   Grant’s story has no grand scale, no larger implications than yet another urban youth left dead after a fatal encounter with law enforcement.   Perhaps the reason Fruitvale Station is being overlooked during awards season is critics gravitate to the unusual and the unique and Grant as portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, who is also being shut out for Best Actor considerations,  is depressingly familiar to anyone who follows the news.

Both movies will be released on home video next month which is where most audiences will gain an appreciation of how great they are.   However,  my wife has already said she has no wish to ever watch 12 Years A Slave or Fruitvale Station again.  There is a list of films that are simultaneously as great as they are unwatchable and both go into the collection along with  City of God, Requiem For A Dream, United 93, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.     These are the movies I have to be in the mood to watch again and I’m rarely in the mood.

12 Years and Fruitvale are  as dazzling as they are depressing and I’m glad I saw them, but if I don’t see them again for a year or so, I’m cool with that.

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Django isn’t coming to set them free. Neither is Abe Lincoln.

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