Beat Breakdown #3: 12 Years a Slave

In this installment of the Beat Breakdown we’ll take a look at the 2013 biographical drama 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen. The film won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards.

12-Years-A-Slave-Movie


To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

In the antebellum US, a free black man is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery. What follows is a harrowing odyssey through the American south as our brave protagonist, Solomon Northup, is stripped of his dignity and is forced to survive at the mercy of a sadistic slave master. Throughout his ordeal, Solomon experiences both incredible suffering and unexpected compassion as he seeks a way to reunite with his wife and children.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 13-16) After some brief exposition during which we’re introduced to Solomon and his family, we move quickly to the inciting incident; that is, of course, Solomon’s kidnapping. As his wife and children travel, Solomon is propositioned by two seemingly trustworthy men who suggest that he accompany them to Washington, so that he may exhibit his skill as a violinist. It soon transpires that this prospective business venture is only a pretense, however, and Solomon, in his revelry, is poisoned and rendered unconscious. He awakes in chains, and in short order is subjected to the first of many instances of physical and psychological abuse.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 38-40) After Solomon’s imprisonment, he makes the acquaintance of other erstwhile freemen who, like him, have been ignominiously kidnapped. Together, the prisoners are transported via steamboat from Washington to Norfolk, where they are to be sold at auction. After being forced to wash and dress, Solomon is presented to prospective buyers, not as a man, but a product. Presently, a slave master named William Ford makes a bid for Solomon, purchasing him for one thousand dollars.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 55-57) While on the Ford plantation, Solomon and his fellow slaves are tormented by one of Ford’s malevolent overseers, John Tibeats. Tibeats delights in exercising petty authority over the slaves and especially resents Solomon for winning Ford’s favor. When Tibeats’s long-standing hatred boils over, it soon comes to blows between the two. Tibeats, momentarily defeated, vows revenge against Solomon. Ford intervenes in an attempt to save Solomon’s life, selling him to a new plantation with a new master, and likely saving his life in the bargain. It soon becomes clear, however, that Solomon’s new master does not share Ford’s benevolent sensibilities.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 111-116) What follows is an emotionally distressing descent into the maelstrom, as it were, as Solomon endures the savage cruelty of his new master, Edwin Epps. Solomon witnesses others slaves being whipped and beaten within an inch of their lives, and is even asked to mercifully end the life of a fellow slave who is frequently sexually abused by Epps. The second major plot point, however, coincides with the arrival of Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass. Bass confronts Epps about the treatment of his slaves, prompting Solomon to ask Bass to secretly deliver a letter to his home in Saratoga Springs. Bass, considering it his duty to help the disenfranchised Solomon, vows to aid him.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 118-121) The climax occurs shortly afterwards. While Solomon works in the fields one day, a carriage pulls to a stop outside of Epps’s estate. A sheriff and a certain Mr. Parker, whom Solomon was acquainted with in Saratoga, dismount and address Solomon, who doesn’t immediately recognize him after such a long period of separation. After the sheriff positively identifies Solomon, the two men hustle him into the carriage amid Epps’s impotent protestations. Immediately before departing, Patsy, the same slave who once begged Solomon for death, embraces him in an emotional gesture of finality. Solomon rides away from Epps’s plantation, still trying coming to grips with the fact that his tortuous ordeal is finally over.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 121-123) The climax is followed by an extremely short period of falling action, which is in turn followed by a few brief expository title cards. Solomon arrives home, visibly aged and hesitant to enter a home that now seems almost alien to him. The film has such a beautifully understated ending, which consists of perhaps three our four line of dialogue from Solomon. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, Solomon finds himself unable to maintain his façade of strength and stoicism any longer. On the verge of breaking down, he says simply: “I apologize for my appearance. I have had a difficult time of things these last few years.” With his family surrounding him, Solomon finally sees the end of the twelve long years of suffering that had separated him from his loved ones as we fade to black.

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Beat Breakdown #1: Argo

Here’s a new series I’m going to take a crack at. It works like this: we’ll start by taking a look at the screenplay of an Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning feature film, and try to identify and briefly discuss the important beats. Maybe I’ll keep up with this feature, maybe I won’t. I’m just such an unpredictable, free-spirited type of guy, you know?

In any case, today we’ll be taking a look at the the Oscar-winning 2012 political thriller Argo, written by Chris Terrio and directed by Ben Affleck.

Argo Pic Horizontal


A .pdf of the screenplay can be found here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The film opens with the famed attack on the US embassy in Iran in November of 1979. During the attack, fifty embassy staff members are taken hostage, though six manage to escape and hide inside the home of a Canadian ambassador. Meanwhile, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, begins concocting a daring, go-for-broke rescue mission involving secreting the six erstwhile captives out of the country by posing as a film crew scouting for exotic locations.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 1-9) The action begins immediately as a group of angry Iranian activists break down the gate of the American embassy in response to Jimmy Carter’s decision to grant the Shah of Iran asylum during the Iranian Revolution. Instantly, we’re faced with a simple and effective conflict: the bad guys have taken hostages, and the good guys want to get the hostages back. If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then this snappy, effective opening might luncheon with the Queen.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 27-44) So things have gone to Hell in a hand basket, as they inevitably must, and Tony Mendez is called to action (literally, on the telephone) to restore the status quo—that is, rescue the hostages before they’re ground up for fertilizer. In what we experts (read: random pleb) refer to as the “Eureka moment,” Mendez is on the phone with his kid one night when he notices Planet of the Apes playing in the background, thus providing the inspiration for the hair-brained scheme that is to follow. From there, we’re treated to a sort of odyssey of colorful characters and clandestine meetings as one-by-one the various specialists are brought on board Fellowship of the Ring style to aid in what would eventually come to be known as the Canadian Caper.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 80-86) As per usual with your standard three-act dramatic structure, things get real bleak real fast in the second act. There’s an almost audible clunk marking the shift of tone between the Happy Hollywood Fun-Time Hour in the first act and the point where we spend the rest of the film with the escapees in Iran, miserable, hunted, and afraid. The juxtaposition between the two, however, is a masterful touch, serving to drive home how high the stakes actually are. Of course, what is a Hollywood film without some good old-fashioned sensationalism? Accordingly, the story has to contrive an excuse for the hostages to go out in public, resulting the bazar sequence, wherein the escapees attract unwanted attention from an antagonistic shopkeeper, nearly blowing their cover in the process.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 87-92) One of the other major plot points takes us back to the States, allowing us to get embroiled in the administrative side of things. There’s an ongoing conflict between Mendez and his supervisor, Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donell, who, like any good authority figure in a governmental hierarchy just can’t resist stepping on the toes of his subordinates. O’Donell threatens to shut the operation down on the grounds that it’s too risky, but Mendez is loath to see all of his hard work go to waste. Even with its predictable outcome, this sub-plot is handedly well and its last-minute resolution adds an extra basting of adrenaline to the conclusion.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-113) When we talk about the crisis, we’re referring the chain of events, often becoming incrementally tenser, leading up to the climax. The climax itself, however, is the point of no return. Argo’s crisis, that extended and incredibly tense sequence during which the escapees, accompanied by Mendez, waltz their Western-sympathizing selves through a remarkably airtight security checkpoint. For the sake of drama, all the possible ways in which our motley crew can be sniffed-out are avoided or solved at the last possible moment, allowing them hightail it to safety while still retaining possession of their limbs. The climax itself occurs moments later, at the point when their plane actually takes off. The wheels leave the tarmac, the perusing Iranian officials shake their fists with impotent rage, and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the six luckiest McGuffins in all of existence got away safely.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 114-122) It’s wheels-up in Iran: cut to reaction shot of CIA staff members going berserk in celebration. Not exactly original, but it gets the job done, I suppose. As the audience decompresses from the tense excitement of the preceding sequences, we learn which governmental department gets the credit, who has to share, and who’s bummed about it. Moreover, Mendez himself is bestowed certain honors, but owing to the degree of secrecy surrounding the whole enterprise, they’re supposed to be classified. Ah, but surely reuniting with his family after such a close brush with death is enough reward for old Mendez, who we’ve all come to love and respect. So all’s well that ends well, except for the other fifty-two hostages, obviously.