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Nov 172013
 

Why haven’t more movies been made about American slavery? Hollywood studio racism is certainly a prime factor; but even for determined anti-racists, there’s also the aesthetic problem of creating a compelling film drama.

"12 Years a Slave"

“12 Years a Slave” — there’s Paul Giamatti having a great time as a wheeler-dealer slave dealer, only missing the twirling mustache.

By Gerald Peary

Can a filmmaker possibly simulate the daily horror of Southern slavery? Jack the heat up to 110 degrees in a movie theatre and then project one continuous shot of shackled, nameless African-Americans, backs bent and sore, picking cotton. For a fifteen-hour period, sundown to sunset.

Filmmaker Steve McQueen doesn’t do anything remotely like the above in his 134 minutes of 12 Years a Slave, a decent film, and a sincere and civil one, but hardly the breakthrough anti-slavery masterpiece many have claimed. (Another Fuse view of the film.) For one, it’s difficult to stay in the brutal reality with A-list movie stars around every bend. There’s Paul Giamatti having a great time as a wheeler-dealer slave dealer, only missing the twirling mustache, and, hey, that’s Brad Pitt suddenly appearing to deliver the film’s didactic message. And when McQueen self-consciously holds on Chewetel Ejiofor’s saintly face toward the end of the movie, I imagine half the audience thinking: Best Actor Oscar!

How does McQueen strive to make the audience feel the pain of slavery? There are some effective scenes in which his subjugated are made to stand about naked, slabs of dark meat, to be worked, to be raped, to be bought, bartered, sold. But McQueen’s pièce de rèsistance is a kind of cheat, a too-facile battering of his viewers: having a slave on screen being whipped and beaten, whipped and beaten, and then, the slave moaning in hurt, the camera coming up close on the raw, sliced, bloodied back. Sure, the (arthouse) audience is horrified, sure the (arthouse) audience gasps, but we’re in the territory of the most manipulative melodrama—not far from Mel Gibson’s graphic torturing of Jesus to stir the religious masses in his The Passion of the Christ.

For me, McQueen’s great movie, and the most visceral, is his first one, Hunger, in which your nose is really pushed down through the bars into a hellfire Northern-Irish British prison. You’re in there with Bobby Sands and his fellow IRA members for their insane hunger strike. Yes, it is insane—they’re grubby naked and willfully starving, drowning in their own feces, on a lunatic death trip. And if their English captors are evil incarnate, the militant wing of the IRA are hardly winged altar boys. Terrorists perhaps, in the name of a noble cause? With all that ambiguity, and craziness on both sides, it’s the stuff of potent drama. But McQueen’s second feature, Shame, had one blunt point, and every scene hammered it in: the protagonist’s sex-addict life is so, so, so, so, so alienating. And the same with 12 Years a Slave: slavery is so, so bad.

Why haven’t more movies been made about American slavery? Hollywood studio racism is certainly a prime factor; but even for determined anti-racists, there’s also the aesthetic problem of creating a compelling film drama. Every good human opposes slavery, as they should. Where are the stakes? Slavers are evil, and they are, and slaves are heroes for what they endured, which they are. Simon Legree and Uncle Tom. To see the story any other way is unconscionable. So making a movie, one is fairly stuck with a treacly setup of good versus evil, Luke Skywalker opposing Darth Vader. And you can’t get much “gooder” than Ejiofor’s earnest, righteous Solomon Northrup, the last guy on earth who deserves to be enslaved. (As at least one skeptical critic has suggested, couldn’t Steven Spielberg be behind the helm of 12 Years a Slave?)

"Django Unchained" -- every cool admired this anti-slavery film.

“Django Unchained” — a few months ago everybody who was cool admired Quentin Tarntino’s anti-slavery film.

Was it just a few months ago when everybody cool admired Django Unchained, and Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? The word now is that Tarantino’s movie was phony stuff and that 12 Years a Slave, based closely on Northrup’s memoir, is, at last, the authentic movie. Well, be informed that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., historian of slavery, who was an advisor on McQueen’s movie, is also a huge fan of Django Unchained. (See Fuse review of Django.) He interviewed Tarantino about it for his on-line magazine, The Root. Am I alone (perhaps) in preferring, as a screen hero, Jamie Foxx’s rowdy, impolitic Django to Ejifor’s impeccably behaved Northrup? Might I also argue that slavery in Django Unchained is shown in an even tougher way than in 12 Years a Slave, with the forced ”Mandingo” fight of two slaves until the death of one, also a slave being torn apart by dogs trained to attack black men?

How do you dramatize a triumph over slavery? 12 Years a Slave celebrates with the freedom of its protagonist, who gets to go home to his family. His revenge will be later through his writings, where he finally indicts the plantation that enslaved him. Another way, for Django Unchained, is instant vengeance: to blow up the plantation and every racist living on it. And for Django to ride off exuberantly into the night.

Which is the proper path?

Perhaps wisdom should be taken from the words of Shoah filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann, that any dramatic attempt to recreate the Holocaust is intrinsically a lie, an obscene lie, no matter if it’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS or Schindler’s List. The same rule goes for slavery movies. For me, the most telling accounts of the institution of slavery aren’t on screen but in print. There is nothing to match Frederick Douglass’s extraordinary autobiography, or Nat Turner’s own fiery narrative describing his bloody insurrection, or William Styron’s deeply moving novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. I’m sorry I haven’t yet read Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years a Slave, said to be fabulous memoir, in lieu of the overrated movie.


Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.

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  28 Responses to “Arts Fuse Film Commentary: A Contrarian View of “12 Years a Slave””

Comments (28)
  1. Decent film, yet fails the movie anyhow? When will we get some intelligent critics?

  2. I believe all comments on the web are supposed to start like this: “your wrongg!!”

    Actually, your arguments almost manage to bring me over to the dark side, so to speak. Almost. In the end, however, I still admire this film a good deal more than you do.

    The Lanzmann quote strikes me as a lot of hooey. All art is a lie, in one sense, in that it depends on manipulation and editing things out. That, as Werner Herzog likes to point out, is as true of documentaries as it is of fiction. We use the “lie” of fiction to take us someplace that science or religion can not. In this sense, the mission of 12 Years a Slave — to acquaint us first-hand with the “peculiar institution” of slavery — is surely a worthy one.

    McQueen’s film shows how the grinding suffering of slaves was so proximate to and even enmeshed in the world of white privilege. The scene in which the main character is tortured while both slaves and masters try to carry on their routines brings the holocaust of American slavery to life with brutal clarity. And yes, we need to see this. We may all know slavery is evil, but it’s too easy to lose sight of its true cost in human capital on all sides. Many years ago, I visited a number of plantations along the River Road in Louisiana (probably very close to the locations used for this film). At some of these sites, you could still see the remains of the slave shanties, often just a hundred yards from the splendid main house. Time and again, the Junior League docents who showed us around the grounds would explain that “slaves were well-treated at this plantation.” It’s easy to sneer (as I did) at this attempt to will away past horrors, but even I— standing amid the historic artifacts and equipped with both a fertile imagination and plenty of liberal southern guilt— couldn’t truly picture the way the whole bloody scourge of slavery was lived by its victims and practitioners. Thanks to Steve McQueen, those elegant plantations now have an essential addition to their gift shops.

    To the problem of narrative stakes when dealing with a landscape in which there are only moral absolutes: I take your point in the abstract, but not as it relates to this particular movie. Very much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (today an unjustly maligned book), 12 Years a Slave is teeming with scenes in which characters must make fateful choices. Indeed, it seems to me it would be easier to knock the film for its rather conventional dependence on a tug-of-war between hope and adversity. Besides, haven’t I heard you say elsewhere that plot doesn’t matter?

    You take McQueen to task for languishing on Ejiofor’s face in a long close-up late in the movie, and it’s fair to be suspicious that such a shot is “Oscar baiting.” For me, however, that moment— like several others in the film— played on the screen far too long to be just some actorly display. This painful, strange moment is just one of many moments in the film where McQueen and his editor make full use of the possibilities of editing. The film has a symphonic rhythm of surges and pauses. This is one aspect of the general control of craft on display here — a facet of the work you don’t address. The extraordinary deliberation behind the sound design, the lighting, the shot composition really and truly puts Django and 99 percent of other recent productions to shame.

    • Attention must be paid to a man who actually has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
      Curly, I too was recently on one of those plantation tours, mine in Charleston, South Carolina, where, you guessed it, the plantation owners, though they had many slaves, were gentle, civilized people, according to the tour guides. In fact, when the family had fled to North Carolina during the Civil War, one of their loyal slaves went afterward on foot to find them, and bring them back to their old South Carolina home. The former slaves loved the damned place so much that they stayed about the plantation generation after generation, happily working in menial jobs. Up until now.
      To quote you, Curly, in another context: “Hooey!”
      I can agree with you that plantation visitors might ask tougher questions, be a little more skeptical of the benign slaver line, after seeing 12 Years a Slave. Oh, those poor Junior League hostesses, having to explain!
      I don’t think Lanzmann’s point is “hooey,” however. March a movie star into Auschwitz, and you’ve got instant baloney. No narrative film about the Holocaust can ever compete with, for example, Alain Resnais’s documentary Night and Fog for its unsentimental clarity about the death camps.
      Steve McQueen’s languishing on Ejiofor’s face is a self-conscious artsy gesture, calling attention not only to the actor but to the so-sensitive direction. Maybe the Oscar is for McQueen. Sorry, Curly, I don’t get what that has to do with editing. And I assure you that Django was well lit, finely composed, and had a first-rate sound design.
      I have never said that plot doesn’t matter, although my attention often drifts elsewhere.

  3. I agree with you, Gerald. Films about slavery always take me to that “here we go again” place. How do you tell the story differently? I worry when critical acclaim comes from needing to agree that past evil is in fact past evil and completely overlooks the film on its own merits. 12 Years a
    Slave
    , the film, did not do it for me, but perhaps the book would.

  4. Rivette’s comment on Pontecorvo’s pan in Kapo might be relevant.

    “Look, however, in Kapo, at the shot where Riva kills herself by throwing herself on an electric barbed-wire fence; the man who decides, at that moment, to have a dolly in to tilt up at the body, while taking care to precisely note the hand raised in the angle of its final framing — this man deserves nothing but the most profound contempt.”

    http://www.dvdbeaver.com/rivette/ok/abjection.html

    • Peter:I assume you are picking up the key point of the Cahiers du Cinema critics that morality is tied to the kinds of shots you have in a movie, and that Kapo, though being a film condemning the Holocaust. becomes itself suspect and dishonest with its manipulative dolly and tilt. As a character says in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revoluton, “Morality is a Nicholas Ray tracking shot.”

      So, are you perhaps agreeing with me that manipulative slave beatings at the hand of director Steve McQueen could be exactly what Jacques Rivette was condemning in Kapo?

      By the way, Pontecorvo seems to have learned from being wrapped on the fingers by Rivette by, afterward, forging his great, politically complicated masterworks, The Battle of Algiers and Burn!

  5. I, too, loved McQueen’s HUNGER, and dismissed SHAME. However, it seems strange to praise HUNGER for feeling more real, and then denigrate 12 YEARS A SLAVE for having too many stars in it–Fassbender was in HUNGER, too (although he wasn’t necessarily a star yet, at least not stateside). Look, Brad Pitt, the film’s producer, has gone on record saying that, were he not in the movie, the studio would not have given the okay to make it (at least he had the good taste to take a role with only two or three scenes). As for the rest of the cast, only Giamatti is a star in the strictest sense (and even he is someone most people would identify as “that guy that was in that wine movie”).

    Then you go on to give a pass to Tarantino’s claptrap, which has about 20 more notable faces in it (including Jackson and DiCaprio, for heaven’s sake). I don’t get it. It feels like you’re rapping on this movie, just because you kind of resented the fact that it’s one you’re expected to like or respect, even if you really don’t enjoy it (and I’m not sure the movie exists to be “enjoyed”). The film serves not as a revenge fantasy (like most of Tarantino’s movies are), but as a impassioned diary of how life really was on the plantations. I don’t see the problem there. It’s well-made, engrossing, directed superbly (McQueen’s chilly sensibilities don’t make this one boring, like SHAME was), and justifiably provocative (you get after the film for including whippings and such — and, what, are ya gonna have a slave movie without such treatment? — but you like the far-fetched fight to the death in DJANGO? Again, I don’t get it…).

    I understand the impulse to go against anointed movies once the awards season vulgarity comes around, but the very existence of the awards season isn’t any one individual movie’s problem, and so I don’t see why any film –if it’s a good one, and even if it’s Oscar-baity — needs to bear the brunt of blame. I mean, this ain’t SHOAH or KANAL or anything, but it’s pretty damn good. And in an era where we get 10 months of childish junk and maybe two months of actually worthy filmmaking, I see no reason to dismiss anything with the seriousness and accomplishment of a 12 YEARS A SLAVE. That said, COMPUTER CHESS is still my favorite film of the year; great work there, by the way.

    • Dear Dean: Thanks for a terrifically interesting response to my essay, with plenty of challenges. So, here goes: Brad Pitt, the person, seems like a great guy with sincerely fine politics. I applaud his rebuilding efforts for black neighborhoods destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and his producing to get an anti-slavery movie off the ground. He’s actually good in 12 Years a Slave, delivering the most didactic speeches in a matter-of-fact way. But I kept thinking, in this “realist” drama, “That’s Brad Pitt!” And Michael Fassbender isn’t he a star? When he appeared on screen as a slave owner, the reaction of my wife, sitting next to me, was to sigh about his beautiful eyes! Slave owner or not, for her, Fassbender is hot!

      Django Unchained is purposefully, openly mythic, a fantasy, a perfect place, therefore, for movie stars to do their thing. While still, I believe, being a valuable forum for race in America. That’s also the way I felt about the less clumsy parts of The Butler, that it was emulating a wide-screen 1950s Hollywood melodrama about race, done best, of course, by Douglas Sirk in his great Imitation of Life.

      Sorry, I just wasn’t moved the same way by 12 Years a Slave. I admit if it hadn’t got a million great reviews I wouldn’t have gone after it. I wouldn’t have pointed out its “vulgarity.” But it seems the (unpopular) duty of the critic to spoil the party a bit when the crowd is celebrating too loudly and for perhaps the wrong reasons.

      As for those whippings: recall that the Greek plays had all their violence off stage. Did that harm the power of The Oresteia or Oedipus Rex?

      Thanks for your kind words about Computer Chess. I hope that includes my non-star acting therein.

  6. I just wanted to make a few points about the film. First, whether or not it fits into a liberal guilt model about race, the fact that Brad Pitt’s character of Bass shows up towards the end of the film to give the didactic message is actually based in fact. Much of the dialogue in the scene, including his argument with Epps, is taken directly from the autobiography. So I don’t think we can fault the filmmakers for this.

    I actually feel that the long take of Northup at the end of the film was very powerful. Clearly it is breaking the fourth wall here–challenging us to respond to Northup and Bass’s situation. Is it indulgent? Perhaps it is a bit, but I was moved by it.

    I also don’t agree that Solomon is purely angelic and good. He is surviving in an extremely complicated situation, to say the least. There are instances where he can help people out and does not, just as there are instances when he can be helped, but is not.

    I found Django Unchained to be terribly boring. The fighting mandingo scene was much more gratuitous than anything in 12 Years a Slave.

    • Because something is true doesn’t therefore make it dramatically interesting. That’s rule one, by the way, for creative writing students, whose first line of defense is always, “But that’s what actually happened.” Sometimes lifting dialogue from a book works (The Maltese Falcon), sometimes the filmmaker needs to make changes.

      The long take of Northrup has little power for me because I feel the filmmaker nudging me, “Isn’t this a powerful moment?”

      Solomon is a wonderful guy, which he might have been. Reality. On screen, he seems a bit neutered, too palatable, a perfect dinner guest for white liberals, a 2013 version of the “nice Negro” played often by Sidney Poitier in the 1960s.

      • Hi Gerry, long time no comment.
        Just to say I agree; you are exactly right.

      • “Nice Negro” is absolutely correct. They always want a nice one to play in movies because they inflicted years and years of torture on the black man so that now a lot of them are very very mad. The “nice” one in their movie is the fantasy they hope will remain forever.

  7. You’re way off the mark Gerald. You realize you come off as a complete Debbie Downer that is ragging on the film for the simple reason it’s getting outstanding critical acclaim, and yes, sometimes things are that simple, you can’t make an excuse for it. By the way, sorry you yourself never got to be a star like Fassbender or Pitt, your performance in Computer Chess was mediocre at best. Hope you can sleep at night knowing your wife dreams lustfully of Fassbender’s eyes and sizable trouser snake.

    • Hi, Fidel: At last, a complete fan, someone who both hates my film criticism and my fledgling film acting! Someone who ridicules me as a Debby Downer, and revels in my confession that, in her checking out of Michael Fassbender, my wife has wandering eyes! However, I didn’t realize she lusted for Fassbender’s “sizable trouser snake” until you pointed it out. Thanks for astutely noticing what dangled from Fassbender’s trousers!

      Yes, Fidel, I am ragging on a movie which got outstanding critical acclaim, and which probably will win a barrel full of Oscars, and which IS NOT THAT GREAT. I don’t agree with the criticial acclaim, and my article explains why. It’s that simple why I wrote it !

      You are right that I’m jealous of Fassbender, but not for your supposed reason.I’m annoyed that, for his part in 12 Years a Slave, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for The Independent Spirit Awards. Unfair! 12 Years a Slave is in no way an independent film. And Fassbender’s nomination, and Will Forte’s for Nebraska, keep out little-known supporting actors in genuine low-budget indies, people like little mediocre me in Computer Chess.

  8. I am so glad I found this review. I have said again and again that 12 Years a Slave was a mediocre movie. I am tired of white people saying it was a great movie. It’s easy for white people to say it’s a great movie because in the end, they made all the white people the heroes. It made me so damn sick to my guts.

    This movie is supposed to be based on Solomon Northup; in the poster for it, I see him running. So, I go into the theatre thinking he’s gonna run his way to freedom. Well, well, well, some wack idea to have a “volunteer” slave is put in place where Brad Pitt, out of the some hollywoody philanthropy style decides to work on the plantation, as a white man with the slaves. That seems very very inplausible and no amount of convincing can make me believe it ever happened.

    I’m sitting there, waiting for him to run for it, run for the big dipper, run north, northup out of there. But then, some jive white guy shows up with some freedom papers and says “you’re free to go” and the movie is all over? I felt like a girl who’d not climaxed while my boyfriend was yelling out loud. I was like, “is this over?” This movie sucked because my expectations were not met.

    I’m black, African born and raised as a matter of fact. So I cannot be fooled when it comes to slavery movies. I have seen many of them and can tell what’s real and what’s not. So if you read this comment, don’t argue with me, believe me. When I saw Django, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The plantations looked real, the dialog sounded real, and I loved the wit and charm of the bounty hunter guy. Although the white person was the one helping Django, in the end Django killed everybody and he was the hero. That right there illustrates a main point, that black people didn’t get free without the help of white people, but ultimately, they are responsible for saving themselves.

    True, Django is a fictional story. But at least it gave power to us. It empowered us and showed us that we can be the heroes. It reminded me of Nat Turner’s story. Now back to 12 Years a Slave. What it reminded me of is the sick vitriol I note in America to day where some blacks make it, successful and all, and then want to move in with white people. That’s what that movie looked like. It made it look like Solomon was priviledged and he didn’t care about the others who were slaves. Sick sick sick. But at least make it climactic and have him escape. Don’t just have some jive white guy come and save him at the end.

    White people loved this movie because it didn’t make them look as bad as they should have appeared. Look at the slave masters and how they were portrayed. They were virtual saints if you think about it. Fassbender’s character wasn’t as mean and cold as DiCaprio’s character. Tell me he was and I’d tell you that you have NOT seen Django Unchained. Whenever a slave movie is made, slave masters should be painted as evil, very evil. Otherwise it’s fake an inauthentic, like 12 Years a Slave was.

    This movie felt like it was 2 years a slave and not 12 Years a slave. I felt the time progression sucked, because nothing much changed. I also didn’t like the fact that Solomon Northup was a passive observer in a movie based on his memoir. If you ignore everything else I’ve posted (which I do agree might be biased, since I’m black and this is one of my favorite subjects, but then again, i’m objectively biased since I know this stuff very well) the fact that he was a passive observer in a movie based on his, HIS, memoir shows how mediocre it was. Where was the focus??

    I think a movie that was similar to this, in story line, which I founded much more enjoyable (as an African) and was more authentic, is Blood Diamond. Solomon Vandy was captured and forced to dig for diamonds (slavery as well). He was taken away from his family (just like Northup was). In order to get his family back, he had the help of a white man (seriously, I can go on forever). What made that movie more enjoyable is that the focus was on Solomon Vandy the whole movie. We saw him struggling. We saw him smiling. We saw him telling his son how important school is. We saw him fighting and his character was developed. We saw how dire the situation was. All the killing going on around him. They never took the focus away. And the best part about it all is that the film had a real climax. When I watched this movie, I felt that the director spoke to me. That’s what a great film is about.

    Who the hell did McQueen speak to? I think he spoke to white people. But making a slavery movie, about a black man who was a slave, yet speaking to white people with it? That just puts us back into the mindset of a slave. He’s sending a message that in order for us to do anything, we must rely on white people to help us. True, we could receive assistance from them, but our will has to be there. I didn’t sense his will there. The director did a poor job of portraying it. He focused more on the white people than on the subject. That’s my whole beef with this picture. What inspirational quotes does Solomon Northup have that showed us who he wanted to escape slavery? Hell, what are the inspirational quotes from this movie? None. So a movie with a black man, who becomes a slave, who really wants to leave slavery has him as a passive observer, gives him no memorable lines (yet he’s highly educated and could have given a speech or two), doesn’t develop character, what’s up with that??

    I’m done. But thanks for this review. I too agree, print is better. Go to kindle and buy this book. I like it more than the movie.

    • You main complaint seems to be that the film is based on a true story. The movie is based on a chain of events that actually happened. To change it, to have Solomon shoot white people and gain his freedom through violence or running away would not be factual.

      Also, I don’t think the purpose of the movie is to develop Solomon’s character. He serves as an observer of the slave culture in many parts of the deep South. I think it is great that Solomon is not the most memorable character. The most memorable character to me is Patsy, who was born into slavery. You see her struggle to survive, even as Solomon is ordered to kill her.

      AI only saw two white guys in movie who were genuinely good: the Sheriff who rescued Solomon, and Brad Pitt’s character, who wrote the letter to Solomon’s friends. Think about the wife who abused Patsy and forced her her husband to viciously beat her. Think about the drunk who ratted out Solomon to the slave owner after Solomon paid him to send a letter. Think about the people who kidnapped Solomon. Think about Solomon’s owner.

      This movie wasn’t about Solomon. It is about those around him. Solomon serves as an outsider, observing a world that he was completely unfamiliar with before he was kidnapped.

      • The book was about him so if a movie is made based on the book it should be about him as well. Like I said before, they made this movie to make white people feel good. They made it so that white people would overcome their white guilt. Last year’s Django Unchained was a much better movie because it withheld no punches.

        The biggest difference between the directors of Django and 12YAS is that the first one is white and the other one is black. So when the white one made the movie, it would be more authentic and real because he doesn’t have to be scared about what the public would think of him for making a movie as violent and real as Django.

        Now, the black director has to be very cautious. He must make a movie that will portray the white people in a good light. Otherwise, he might not get funding for his project. That’s just the reality of the matter. Kind of like how the black cashier at a store has to treat the white shoppers with extreme courtesy but treats the black ones with rudeness and disrespect.

        Like I said in my comment, I may sound biased, but I’m objectively biased. I know what I am talking about, so I’m creditworthy. These two movies, one real and authentic, the other pretentious and fake, are the best examples to illustrate my point.

        As a viewer, I don’t care if the director is black, white, male, female, whatever. What I care about is what I see on the screen. If what I see on the screen is not what I know to be true, I’m not going to remain quiet. 12YAS was really set up to make the white people feel good. A lot of them even said it’s a “corrective” to Django because as we all know, in Django, the white people were all killed.

        And no, I don’t want them to change it and have Solomon shoot white people and gain his freedom (actually, that would be a great film). I want them to put the focus on him. The book was focused on him. It wasn’t focused on other people. It was focused on him. So, make the film focused on him and have him appear like a slave. Have him show the willingness to go back to his family. In this film he looked like he was okay being a slave. And also, the acting was poor. As soon as he found out he was a slave, the actors expressions looked very fake and anybody watching could tell it was someone paid to act.

  9. Just saw the movie this evening. I, too, was disappointed that Brad Pitt had the role of the “knight in shining armor.” As soon as his character appeared, I said to my husband, “That’s Brad Pitt.” The story turned to true fantasy then.

    I also agree with the previous comment about Solomon’s demeanor throughout the years. Despite the horrific treatment he endured, he remained fairly calm and complacent. There wasn’t enough rage – and surely the real Solomon must have felt it constantly.

    It was interesting that the plantations depicted were not sprawling landscapes, and that the film showed how many slaves were owned by small Southern farmers. These farmers didn’t have to be rich to own slaves – but since they needed the slaves to work they had to feed and shelter them. Much of the film was brutal and unrelenting, and some parts were difficult to watch. Some of the white overseers seemed more like caricatures than real people.

    Thanks Gerald for being brave enough to counter all the politically-correct critics who called the film a masterpiece. It was stirring and sad, but there was a bit too much “Hollywood” for the film to resonate. And I liked Django Unchained much better, too.

    • Hi, Michael, thanks for your passionate comments on 12 Years a Slave versus Django Unchained. I don’t agree with you that the white people in 12 Years a Slave are pictured in a positive way, except for Brad Pitt. But somehow they are portrayed in a way that white liberals can disassociate themselves from what happened: “We’re not like that!” I would call your attention to an interesting documentary, Traces of the Trade, in which the white liberal filmmaker shows how her family money came from her Rhode Island relatives, who were major slave traders. The other reason, as I said, that white liberals can adopt this movie so easily is that the main black character is so passive and neutered and unthreatening–not Django!

  10. Thank GOD for this review. I HATED the film, agreed with everything you wrote Gerald, and I am SOOO glad to read your review, and those of the people supporting your comments such as Michael and Gail. I’m glad I’m not the only one who found this film to be the worst piece of indulgent drivel.

  11. Thank you for your review! I saw 12 years a Slave tonight, and as the movie progressed, I got increasingly disgusted. As you did, I found it manipulative and almost naïve and simplistic in its black/white (no pun intended) portrayals of good and evil. Funny that you should also mention the movie Passion of Christ, which repeatedly came to my mind while watching this movie. Particularly so during the whipping scene towards the end. I did not see Django Unchained, but I have seen other movies about slavery that were far more effective than this one.

    It is hard to believe you were the only critic who disliked the movie. But thank you for restoring my faith in my own judgement!

    • It should have been called “12 Hours a Movie Goer.” Overly long, cliche-ridden, not a minute of humor or respite, and lost me when Brad Pitt showed up (I’m thinking “hey that’s Brad, what’s he doing here?”) and tried to play himself with a Southern accent as opposed to playing himself looking like a cowboy or soldier. Mediocre and overly acclaimed — for the exact same reason we are stuck with a buffoon for President.

  12. For all the critical acclaim this film received I was actually very disappointed. Evoke and nuance are words that don’t seem to be in the vocabulary of McQueen. Rather than allow the audience to think or reason he prefers to bludgeon every point home, long after empathy has left and is replaced instead by frustration. This isn’t a question of making the viewer uncomfortable but rather insulting their intelligence by continuing to bang home the point long after it has been made. There were so many scenes that I personally felt were completely robbed of their impact for this reason. In places the score was intrusive, the song about “going to catch me a nigger” must have run through at least three scenes. Again you wondered more about when the song was going to stop then what was happening visually.
    I appreciate that adhering pretty strictly to the book’s original text did not allow Brad Pitt much latitude but this would have been a better film without him. The scene was very stagy and he was wooden to say the least. The rest of the cast were good but not brilliant. A reasonable film yes, but a long way from being a great one.

    • Not nuaced? You have Eliza who can’t even numb herself to the truth of losing her two children, you have Patsey who has completely subverted all emotion to the rape and abuse she endures, and you have Solomon’s step-by-step decline into the abyss as each tattered piece of his dignity is wrested from him. 12 Years is complex in its step-by-step descent into despair. From unlawful abduction, to witnessing the selling of his flesh and the flesh of his kind for the first time, to meeting sympathetic slaveowner who lacks moral courage, to landing in the possession of a depraved subhuman owner, to being unable to protect a beauty soul from slavery’s most insidious vices, to the FINAL SPIRITUAL COLLAPSE of having to beat one of his own… If you cannot find nuance and cinematic structure in this progression of sequences, then you, my friend, have no business commenting on such a film.

  13. You say that this is not the breakthrough anti-slavery film most claim. Does there need to be an “anti-slavery film.” Why are you judging this film on the strength of some arbitrary “anti-slavery” meter? This film is not trying to be anti-slavery because it doesn’t need to be. No film does. If you think this or any film NEEDS to be anti-slavery, or anti-child-pornography, or anti-puppy burning, then here is some advice: STOP REVIEWING FILMS. This film did not need a message, because no one needs to be convinced of any message. The film does not condescend to just relay a message. It achieves the level of art.

    • Daniel, where oh where oh where did I say that this film “needs to be anti-slavery”? Please do me the honor of quoting me correctly before saying I should stop reviewing films. Perhaps you should stop commenting on films in e-mails based on your nonsense writing, which I will quote accurately back at you: “This film did not need a message because no one needs to be convinced of any message.”
      Huh? Huh? Whatever does that mean?

  14. It was a boring movie!
    Humans abusing humans 200 years ago just as it is done today in most countries.
    There are no consequences, no reflections. The victims are powerless and have no rights.
    One can read this in a newspaper every day: why do we need movie showing a “realistic” view of human atrocities in the past. We are, what we are: no hope!
    Does it really require good actors, a plot,etc. : an art form ( an artificial form) to state a daily fact of reality!

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