Paul G — #3

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Last time we were here, Paul was being a real bastard to the beloved, but troubled Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson in the wonderful music biopic Love & Mercy. The character was another great demonstration of how unlikable the actor can become on screen, putting such distance (hopefully) between his on and off-screen persona with a suitably slimy and obsessive round-the-clock psychotherapist whose smothering practices eventually become the crux of the entire picture. Today we explore a character that might be even less likable and less redeemable, a nasty slave trader who plays a huge role in the fate of the film’s protagonist.

Paul Giamatti as Freeman

Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Drama

Plot Synopsis: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Character Profile: Despite the character’s name being a bit overkill (do we really need the irony of a slave trader being named ‘Freeman?’) he nonetheless plays a crucial role both in shaping the very uncertain future of free man-turned-slave Solomon Northup and his cold, businessman-like personality in trafficking people around epitomizes the very institutionalization of prejudiced thinking. A blue collar worker likely perceived by his peers as a decent, upstanding man, Freeman’s job is to determine where the slaves are to be sent when they arrive at Port New Orleans. Despite Solomon’s protests of being a free man who’s been abducted, Freeman slaps an entirely new identity on him, that of Platt, a Georgia runaway. It is Freeman’s gruff hand that steers Solomon/Platt in the direction of slave owner William Ford, by comparison a saint of a plantation owner compared to the one he is sent away to later, the vile Edwin Epps. 12 Years a Slave demonstrates a number of terrible wrongdoings but it is Freeman’s intervention in New Orleans that has one of the biggest impacts on his harrowing journey.

Why he’s the man: Paul Giamatti shoulders the weight of playing a despicable racist, a character who is by definition of their job a terrible person, with aplomb. I doubt any of the roles in 12 Years a Slave were easy to play but Giamatti’s slave trader is so vile he comes only second or third fiddle to Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. That’s company you don’t really want to keep, but if you’re a solid character actor who thrives on the challenge of embracing difficult-if-not-impossible-to-like individuals, you do accept the challenge and become one of the most memorable notes in a symphony of powerhouse performances.

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):

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13 thoughts on “Paul G — #3

    • Thank you ever so much, yeah agreed. There are some really detestable people in this movie, and Giamatti’s slave trader makes the film as difficult to watch sometimes as the violence that pervades it.

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  1. Giamatti is, like everyone else here, fantastic. This will rightly be regarded as a game changer in years to come. Have you seen the TV show Billions? Paul G is pretty darn good in that too!

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    • Funny that you should bring that up Mark. My dad had just told me about that show this afternoon after I had picked him up from the airport. Ha! Small world. I’d like to see that. Giamatti’s commitment to his character is beyond reproach. He’s always so into what he does.

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    • Giamatti’s signature sleaziness fits like a glove into this harrowing account of man against inhumanity. Not a movie I could watch twice but I’m glad that I saw it and even revisiting it in this post gives me kind of the creeps

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      • I know what you mean about the movie, it was very well done and haunting. I don’t think I could watch it again either, but I’m glad I did see it upon release as it made an impact.


    • Giamatti really does own all the roles he steps into, doesn’t he? He’s completely vile here, despicable and beyond. I don’t actually remember that scene you speak of as much but I’m sure it was horrendous. It’s a testament to the power of Steve McQueen’s storytelling that so many talented actors flocked to this one. It’s such an ugly tale but such an important one. Paul G finds a perfect spot for himself within it

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  2. Hey great post man! I didn’t even know this guy was in 12 Years, I only ever watched it once, now I want to watch it again cos I loved Paul G in Love and Mercy. Keep up the good work, I like this series 😀

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    • Love & Mercy is excellent, one of my favorites of last year. It comes highly recommended by me! 🙂


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