The Freedom Trilogy

Denzel Washington stars in Edward Zwick’s “Glory.” Courtesy of TriStar Pictures.

Denzel Washington stars in Edward Zwick’s “Glory.” Courtesy of TriStar Pictures.

Aristotle was right. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes films that are otherwise unrelated form a richer picture than they could merely on their own individual terms. Areas that one film left vacant are filled by another while the thematic threads remain consistent. Few chapters in American history are as criminally underrepresented by filmmakers as the story of slaves seeking emancipation during the Civil War era, and three films (two very recent, one 25 years old) now form what I believe to be one of the most important sagas in recent cinema. I refer to it as “The Freedom Trilogy.”

Part I is last year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture, “12 Years a Slave,” based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free black northerner who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Part II is 1989’s “Glory,” based on the books “Lay This Laurel” by Lincoln Kirstein and “One Gallant Rush” by Peter Burchard, as well as the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, the colonel who volunteered to lead the first black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, in the Civil War. Part III is 2012’s “Lincoln,” based in part on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. All three films are great on their own terms, yet when placed together, their impact is staggering.

While the latter two films were criticized for not making their black characters the central focus, nearly every scene in Steve McQueen’s “Slave” is viewed through the eyes of Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as he triumphantly strives to maintain his sanity in the most barbaric of conditions. His perspective is more in line with a modern sensibility, since he is appalled by the inhumanity of the South even as his fellow slaves remain submissive. Only after his hope is dulled to the merest hint of a flickering flame is he able to embrace the identity that has been forced upon him, joining in a group chant of “Roll Jordan Roll” over the freshly dug grave of a laborer who literally worked himself to death.

This scene is strikingly mirrored in Edward Zwick’s “Glory,” as the ferociously cynical Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington) delivers a tearful confession, admitting that his fellow soldiers have become his family, as the regiment sings a pre-battle spiritual, “Oh, My Lord,” around a campfire. Whereas McQueen wisely avoided any trace of narration or excessive music in order to make Northup’s experience resonate on the most visceral level possible, while relying on the astonishingly expressive face of Ejiofor to convey his character’s inner dialogue, Zwick’s film has Shaw (Matthew Broderick) read his letters in voice-over, which does provide audiences with an insightful glimpse at the altering views of whites regarding race and equality. Broderick may not be an actor of Ejiofor’s caliber, but his work here (delivered only three years after “Ferris Bueller”) is flat-out riveting. It must be said, however, that his most effective moment occurs in the absence of narration, as he savors his last serene glimpse of birds flying across the water before he leads the regiment in a battle as vital as it is doomed.

With McQueen’s uncompromisingly horrific portrayal of racism and Zwick’s rousing tribute to the Union soldiers’ sacrifice haunting every frame of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the culminating film’s meticulous examination of how its titular president (Daniel Day-Lewis) was able to abolish slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment achieves an even more operatic power. While “Slave” is, at times, audaciously abstract—halting the action for minutes on end in order for the audience to share in the excruciating passage of time with Northup—“Lincoln” is the most old-fashioned picture of the three, evoking memories of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Inherit the Wind” in its crowd-pleasing courtroom theatrics. Yet rather than end on a note of Spielbergian catharsis, the final moments of “Lincoln” are drenched in mournful silence, reminding audiences that even the heroes we consider to be larger than life must pay the price for making the righteous decision rather than the easy one.

Spielberg makes the unusual choice to fade out on the image of Lincoln delivering the final words of his Second Inaugural Address, which he gave a month before his assassination. The last shot is troubling because it seems to be naggingly unfinished at first glance. Even though his speech is complete, Lincoln’s voice seems poised to say more, as it most certainly was before being abruptly silenced by the gunshot of an enraged Southerner. The frustration of this ending is crucial because it enables the agelessly relevant words of Lincoln to linger in the minds of moviegoers, underlining the fact that the issues our nation fought over during the Civil War are still very much alive today, inextricably woven into the fabric of our blood-drenched history.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Each of these films derive an enormous amount of their magnificence from the eloquent words of their real-life human subjects. Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner’s mesmerizing verbal symphony in “Lincoln” is not only the best of the three, but one of the most accomplished film scripts of the last decade. Whereas McQueen’s film spans the twelve years of Northup’s enslavement from 1841 to 1853 and Zwick’s film covers the months leading up to the 54th Regiment’s deadly assault on Fort Wagner on July 18th, 1863, the vast majority of Spielberg’s film takes place over a few weeks in January 1865. By zeroing in on a small portion of the legendary politician’s life, the film is able to paint a more complex and nuanced portrait of him than any standard biopic.

Kushner brilliantly subverts the archetypal persona of Honest Abe by illustrating how he resorted to less-than-noble methods to procure the necessary votes, including the use of lobbyists. Similarly, Day-Lewis’s spellbinding performance boldly ignores the iconic screen portrayals of Lincoln, opting instead to embody the characteristics most historians deem accurate, such as a gaited walk and a voice pitched at a reedy tenor. This is a version of Abraham Lincoln no one had seen before, and it’s easily the most authentic ever put on film. Prior to “Glory,” few people had ever heard of the 54th Regiment, and screenwriter Kevin Jarre was reportedly inspired to tell their story after he noticed black soldiers depicted in a Civil War memorial. As for “Slave,” it is chockfull of historical details that have never before made it to the big screen, from white cotton-pickers to black mistresses living in luxury. A year ago, Northup’s name was nearly unknown. Now his memoir is being distributed in high schools across America, while its film adaptation is starting to emerge as required viewing for students.

Though uniformly handsome photography unites all three pictures, there’s an appropriate juxtaposition between the exquisitely choreographed Steadicam sequences of “Slave” cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and the static, deftly textured framing of “Lincoln” DP Janusz Kaminski. Whereas Bobbitt’s compositions are harshly beautiful, shedding piercing light on the Southern landscapes and the atrocities unfolding against them, Kaminski’s imagery has a warmer, deceptively serene tone that nonetheless externalizes Lincoln’s tormented psyche, such as when the shadows of battered soldiers are cast on his face as he contemplates the price of his wartime victory. The cinematography in all three films is chiefly in service of the performances, a key example being Freddie Francis’s close-up of Washington in “Glory,” as his hardened façade ruptures while enduring punishing lashes.

As a trilogy, this epic saga is bookended with two performances that rank among the greatest I’ve ever seen: Ejiofor as a man stripped of all power who fights to reclaim his life and Day-Lewis as a man who wields his power to destroy evil and dies as a result of it. There’s also a tremendous assortment of marvelous supporting performances peppering these pictures, from Andre Braugher as the well-educated Cpl. Searles, who faces hostility from his peers and undergoes a transformation similar to that of Northup’s, to Lupita Nyong’o as a slave driven to suicidal despair by the sexual abuse of her master (Michael Fassbender) and the violent scorn of his wife (Sarah Paulson). Another little-known historical figure resurrected here is Thaddeus Stevens, the fiercely progressive Republican played with scene-stealing relish by Tommy Lee Jones. His effortless manipulation of the awkwardly named Rep. Coffroth is a masterpiece of impeccably timed deadpan wit.

One person conspicuously lacking from all three movies (save for a brief cameo in “Glory”) is Frederick Douglass, the towering abolitionist whose story still hasn’t been given its due onscreen, yet another sign of just how little effort has been made by filmmakers to keep this historical period alive. As McQueen reminded audiences during his rounds on the awards circuit, slavery is not a thing of the past. There are millions of forced laborers throughout the world, not to mention the victims of human trafficking and the egregiously underpaid sweatshop workers who spend grueling hours churning out products now on sale at Wal-Mart. “The Freedom Trilogy” stands as a timeless reminder that in order for mankind to achieve a better future, we must be brave enough to look back upon our own past and learn from it. Those who don’t wind up like Jack Torrance in the Overlook Hotel, hopelessly lost in a maze of his own shortcomings.

PART I: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Directed by Steve McQueen

Written by John Ridley

Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt

Editing by Joe Walker

Costume Design by Patricia Norris

Production Design by Adam Stockhausen

Music by Hans Zimmer

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Garrett Dillahunt, Kelsey Scott

PART II: GLORY (1989)

Directed by Edward Zwick

Written by Kevin Jarre

Cinematography by Freddie Francis

Editing by Steven Rosenblum

Costume Design by Francine Jamison-Tanchuck

Production Design by Norman Garwood

Music by James Horner

Starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, Cary Elwes, Jihmi Kennedy, John Finn, Richard Riehle, Bob Gunton, Cliff De Young, Jay O. Sanders

PART III: LINCOLN (2012)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Written by Tony Kushner

Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski

Editing by Michael Kahn

Costume Design by Joanna Johnston

Production Design by Rick Carter

Music by John Williams

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Gloria Reuben, Lee Pace, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bruce McGill, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley

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