Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

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During the publicity blitz for 12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen told a BBC interviewer that he didn’t make films for white people. Whereas it’s hard to see how this self-important and intellectually shaky proposition applies to the likes of Hunger and Shame, one can understand it as a statement of intent framing the true story Solomon Northup; a mid-nineteenth century musician from New York, who was kidnapped and sold to plantation owners. McQueen’s obviously of the opinion that previous cinematic treatments of slavery, spearheaded by white filmmakers, have stopped short of recreating history in all its brutal and unsentimental ugliness. He may have a point. White Hollywood’s been dealing with its guilt for decades by casting the American south as a backward, racist bog, populated by half-wits and Jackie Gleason but slavery is typically the manacled elephant in the room. Everyone knows that’s the spur for these movies but it’s seldom depicted and when it is, it’s flippant and cathartic like Tarantino’s Django Unchained. This is not a criticism anyone’s going to make of McQueen’s treatment.

12 years… might be thought of as his Schindler’s List. Like Spielberg, he’s not allowed anything as trite as geography to prevent him claiming the history as his own; an ancestral pain that must be confronted and reconstructed as a corrective to those who’d bury its poison legacy. Legitimate custodian or no, he’s made a film that’s superior to Spielberg’s holocaust chronicle. List was marred by the imperatives of the optimist; a filmmaker who ultimately wanted to give his audience something warm and uplifting to cling on to in the midst of all that death and suffering. McQueen opts to tell the truth instead.

His film is a nuanced and sober treatment of an inhumane period. There’s no girl in a red dress here, no grab at pathos, and certainly no cathartic ending; Northup may have been liberated but his fellow slaves stayed behind; just human nature and with it a reminder that people don’t snap to fit a social system, whatever its moral underpinning. Consequently we have sympathetic slave owners, grateful slaves, tyrannical masters who nevertheless desire their best workers and unsympathetic blacks, shanghaied and scornful of those born into slavery that are thought too meek to rise up and free themselves.

McQueen’s film can claim to be unflinching without being sensationalist but it also doubles as a well-judged piece of social history. The great rejoinder to those that would try and write off the movie as a stoker of racial tension is that in Obama’s America the social effects of the system explored here with such anthropological deftness can still be seen and felt. One of the first lessons Chiwetel Ejiofor’s slave is taught by a fellow captor is to hide his education and ability to read and write at all costs. His white masters would sooner kill an educated black man than take the risk that he may use that social advantage to rise up and usurp his owners. Indeed, the entire system is predicated on keeping blacks docile and impoverished to consolidate and reinforce the power of the ruling whites. You don’t need to be an historian to work out that abolition did very little to correct this injustice and that it survives to this day, dividing an America that lacks the conscience or political courage to redistribute its borrowed wealth by way of descendent reparations.

In a film marked by great performances across the board (and Brad Pitt), that cannily contrasts the beauty of Sean Bobbitt’s Louisiana backdrops with scenes of human deprivation and violence for maximum impact, we’re left in the unusual position of being presented with a movie that comes close to being a total success on its own terms. This is history alert to the many gradations that inform any fully formed understanding of the past; history unbound. Sure, it’s worthy in both senses of the word, perhaps that was inevitable given the subject matter, but black and white audiences alike will appreciate the craft on display, as well as the reminder that history’s never just black and white.

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Country: UK/US

Year: 2013

Running Time: 134 mins

Certificate: 15 for Paul Dano's whining, Brad Pitt's accent and poor Southern hospitality.

6 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Thanks for mentioning Spielberg and his Oscar grab piece of exploitation Schindler’s List because that’s exactly what 12 Years A Slave is. Exploitation with high art sheen,not unlike like Boyle’s high art version of Saw, 127 Hours. I find it hysterical that people have been falling over themselves for this piece of exploitation because the director is an artist with a capital A. Just the kind of affluent bullshit opiate/calmative that a certain portion of the community needs to offset their guilty feelings not merely of history but the way they treat their fellow man now. Tell me Ed, did Schindler’s List do anything to stop anti-semitism? Will 12 Years A Slave stop us from purchasing our products from slave labor camps in China? But we’ve got 12 Years A Slave to make us feel bad for a few moments right? This movie is bullshit and you should start taking some lessons from a real film writer like Armond White.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Well I’m not going to take any tips from the man who thought A.I was the greatest movie ever made (as of 2002); still, give the man his due, he’s managed to review movies for years with his head stuck in his anus. How did they get the screen in there? Please e-mail me if you know.

      To describe this movie as any form of exploitation is absurd. It wasn’t lurid or pornographic; it didn’t indulge in its violence – those scenes were filmed dispassionately and without embellishment. Your eyes should have told you that; have a word with them. I think you’re confusing this with a movie like Passion of the Christ or Django Unchained that revels in its violence. Don’t confuse production values and subject matter with the treatment of content. That’s what defines whether a movie’s exploitative. Even when this film does linger, as in the hanging scene, there’s no attempt at trying to get the audience off on the violence. The point there is to show that no one dares cut him down; that the slaves are conditioned and intimidated into remaining servile, no matter what the circumstances. Perhaps you found that unnecessarily gruesome; well it was gruesome but it wasn’t sensational. There’s a big fucking difference.

      As for this stuff about the movie being indulgent liberal guiltbait, unlikely to change social attitudes, I think you’re being disingenuous…and ridiculous. Art isn’t legislation and it’s not political power, it’s there to commentate, reflect and to try to make sense of the world as it is and was. This movie’s a take on history; it’s trying to understand what happened and why. The relevance to now is in how the legacy of the system portrayed in still with us. Any movie that helps us understand the present a little better is inherently useful (not that a movie’s required to be useful) so it really doesn’t matter whether it helps you empathise with modern slavery or not or change your behaivour. Those with a social conscience will be moved by it. If a single person thinks harder about the contemporary parallels, it’s worthwhile. More importantly it gets people talking about a period that’s often neglected on film because it’s just too difficult to deal with. I think McQueen deserves credit for doing a good job on it and tackling the subject without editoralising or santitising. Anyway, that’s a considered view – not quite up there with “this movie is bullshit” I but I don’t share you scatological obsession (inherited from Armond, no doubt).

  2. Joe says:

    Ed, you know as well as I do that this film was not made to enlighten but rather to garner awards. Regarding your views on exploitation, the main purpose of the maker, in this case McQueen, is to exploit subject matter that will garner him praise, build his ego and make him money. You don’t find this the least bit disengenuous? In fact, the main purpose of art or what one may call art is to exploit. Rather it be an ideal, a personal preference, to shock or to fool, artists or what we may call hacks do what they can to push a specific belief and then, being artists, they feel that they have zero duty to the greater public, as though they remain separate fom the rest of humanity; I’m special therefore I have no duty to the rest except to give them my art. Spielberg recognized that he was never going to receive an Oscar until he may that film. Further to that, Boyle made Slumdog to get his kudos and power that he craved and what better way to do it. McQueen recognizes given his background that the best way for him to garner that mass praise is to exploit the powerlessness of those before him, hiding under the aegis of high art and people fall for it. When smart people begin to recognize that the so-called film artiste is every bit as exploitive as the factory owner in using those who are powerless to make them bigshots, and people like you(not Armond) get your head out of your asses, maybe then there will be real change. Start reading more books and research about hubris and the human ego and psychopathy and maybe you’ll come to a better understanding.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Alright, so we’ve established you don’t know the difference between an exploitation movie and a film made to illuminate a hitherto opaque or difficult subject matter, no problem. Though I’m not sure why you’d want to keep drawing attention to it. Because I’ve read a few books, though never thankfully an anthology of Armond White reviews (I read enough hate on here), I know there’s something called the intentional fallacy. All that says is that we cannot know with any degree of certainty what was in the mind of an author, or indeed any artist, because we can’t access their consciousness and even if we could, and I hope you’re sitting down, it’s irrelevant because the work exists as a thing in its own right and must be judged on its own merits. In other words, even if what you say it true, and contrary to common sense, McQueen, who could make any film he wanted on any subject, and hasn’t played it safe yet, decided to make a film about American slavery for prestige and financial reward alone – which is impossible to prove, then it wouldn’t matter. The film works as historical reconstruction. It works as comment on the subject matter. It’s purpose is not to monetise misery, as you say, but shine a light on a subject of great historical interest. It’s irrelevant if McQueen is a bastard or if he secretly, internally, doesn’t give a fuck about the subject, though I don’t believe that for a second and I think only a cockend would; he’s made a well judged, well made movie. Perhaps you should concentrate on that and not your visceral dislike of prestige projects and the filmmakers who make them. In other words, it’s only wrong when done badly; it can never be wrong when it’s intelligent and thoughtful, as here.

      Incidentally the main purpose of art is not to exploit it’s to explore. Did Armond tell you that? And how could he with his head jammed up there?

  3. Joe says:

    It is obvious that your sense of aesthetics is so far superior to anything I would care to say that to elucidate anything I believe to be correct would be pointless. However…

    Have you ever worked “in the field” other than as an online opinionist?

    Do you know what the definition of exploit and exploitation is?

    Have you ever read What Makes Sammy Run or The Day of the Locust?

    Do you personally know any industry types?

    Explain to me again how McQueen’s torture opus is any different than say Mandingo or Drum besides the budget or the false respect and esteem that the cast and crew has garnered due to opinionists like yourself?

    Who was this movie made for?

    Are there any plans for McQueen to share his accolades with relatives of former slaves?

    I know that when I make art I do it merely to explore and could care less about making any money or awards or esteem or…said who?

    Imagine if you will a world in which no filmmaker had access to any publicity whatsoever.

    McQueen has made a piece of high art grief pornography, not unlike that other history pornographer Greengrass and as long as they have people like you to exploit them and their works(one uses that term loosely) the world will never change.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      You’re my favourite kind of commenter; the one who changes the argument when they can’t get any traction with whatever half-baked shit they posted in the first place. Exploitation means something very specific in a filmic context (remember context?), it’s not just about plucking words from the dictionary. It’s like “Adult movie” as a synonym for porn. All movies feature adults and the odd one or two are aimed at them but not all movies are pornographic, so let’s not waste time playing “define the word”. I repeat, it doesn’t matter what McQueen intended or whether he’s a great guy or a mercenary shit; in any event you can’t know either way so wasting time pretending you can is idiotic; the point is that the film belongs to the audience as soon as it’s released and it will survive McQueen, commercial imperatives and award ceremonies. The film is what counts. Arguing that you should discount a movie because you don’t like the motives of the filmmakers, despite not knowing with any certainty what they are, is imbecilic. On that basis they’d be no movies. As for filmmakers existing in a world without publicity, well, here’s the thing: films are expensive and they need to be sold to recoup the investment. Making it in a financial vacuum is not an option. You want people to see it and that means garnering publicity to sell tickets. That’s not in and of itself immoral. In any event, if money was the only motive, making a movie about slavery would be a bad bet. The subject isn’t generally considered to equal box office gold. The exception of course is The Phantom Menace…and there’s a real human tragedy.

      Anyway, anymore from Armond’s rectum of half-formed ideas, or shall we leave it there?