Film Review of 12 Years A Slave
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/11/13
If the 1977 ABC television miniseries, Roots, based upon Alex Haley’s book of the same title, was a sort of prosaic James Michener like take on the subject of the bondage of African descendants in America, then British director Steve McQueen’s 2013 film, 12 Years A Slave, based upon an 1853 as told to narrative of freeman turned slave turned freedman, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is American slavery’s poetic take on the subject, what would have been wrought had Herman Melville taken on slavery with his crew of the Pequod.
Of course, like the nearly infinitely larger oeuvre of Holocaust/Nazi films, the much smaller American slavery genre has its own bounds: the suffering risks becoming banal, the overseers, slavecatchers, and slave masters risk becoming goony eyed sadists in the Nazi storm trooper mode, and the slaves, themselves, risk becoming mere symbols, and NOT individuals. Fortunately, McQueen is a great artist, and 12 Years A Slave is a great work of art- which dashes almost all those strictures, as were the man’s two prior films: Hunger, which dealt with the centuries old Irish-English antagonism, and Shame, which dealt with the depth of loneliness, and the things that drives people to. Of course, most critics, even those who recommended that last film, utterly missed the fact that the film was, indeed, about loneliness and NOT sex addiction. Similarly, while the book, 12 Years A Slave, was most definitely, a work focused on slavery- as was the solid, if unspectacular, film made of the tale, in 1984, by Gordon Parks, for PBS, titled Simon Northup’s Odyssey, McQueen’s take on the film is only SET in the Antebellum slave days (1841-1853). It’s real focus is on power, and the way humans wield it, and this ripples through the film- not only in relations between the black slaves and white overclass, but in the relationships between the slaves and the whites- most notably between Solomon and Eliza (Adepero Oduye)- a free black woman who enjoyed a decade as a white man’s mistress, only to have her lover die, and the man’s daughter sell her and her two children, including the daughter’s own half sister, into slavery through deception, then to have the family cruelly broken up by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), and sold with Northup- now renamed Platt- to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch)- a kindly preacher who is that century’s answer to the modern Guilty White Liberal- all talk, no action. Oduye’s Eliza is one of the key characters in the film, as she, by virtue of her education, brings a sense of pathos and tragedy to her role as grieving mother that the more critically noted role of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
Critics have raved of Nyong’o’s role and performance, but while it’s a good, solid performance, it is the role of Eliza that provides the true yin to Northup’s yang. While Patsey suffers in a brutal whipping scene, after attempting to get soap, and is the target of the lust of Northup’s second master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), and the jealous rages of Epps wife, a reformed whore named Mary (Sarah Paulson)- the Eppses a grand portrayal of life as Beckettian or Sisyphan farce, Patsey has no real depth, no real inner self. She is a pile of ineffable cruelties, whose main goal in life seems to be how to emulate Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard)- the risen slave lover (and possibly common law wife) of a nearby plantation owner- a still successful Eliza, who now is queen of that plantation, herself. By contrast, Eliza’s torments can actually be vocalized, and elucidated, and they are deeper and more penetrating than even Solomon’s for, at least, he knows his clan is still relatively safe, up north, in his hometown of Saratoga Springs. Eliza’s children are now slaves, as she is, and all three are separated from each other, and she knows her fair skinned, pretty daughter, is already being sized up as a master’s mistress. In the most revealing exchange in the film, Solomon chides Eliza for her constant weeping. She counters with a great soliloquy on why she cries and why she will continue, and this humbles Solomon, who, in his false sense of dignity, thinks her the lesser for her honest grief. The scene then continues, after her speech, with a resumption of her weeping, which carries over, on the soundtrack, to the next scene of Master Ford (whom she nails as an ethical coward and hypocrite after he is defended as a good man, by Northup) preaching to his slaves. Initially, the viewer thinks this is merely a symbolic carryover from the prior scene, until we see Ford discomfited by the noise, and then we see that Eliza is still weeping, at this future date. Right there, we get a sense of the power of loss in its ability to affect raw power, itself.
Eventually, Eliza and Northup are separated when Ford sells off ‘Platt’ to the Epps plantation, because Northup finally stands up to the bullying of John Tibeats (Paul Dano), one of the slave minders for Ford, and whips his ass. Of all the characters in the film, Tibeats is likely the most stereotypical- the dumb ass, inbred, redneck racist with a sadistic streak. He tortures Northup after Northup shows him up with engineering plans that Tibeats doubts will aid in transporting their goods through the swamp. In revenge, Tibeats and two pals try to lynch Northup, but are thwarted by Ford’s overseer, who nonetheless allows Northup to hang, with only his tiptoes on the muddy ground, to prevent death, for what seems to be hours. This shot and the later whipping of Patsey have led some lesser critics to decry them as slavery porno. This is so ludicrous, because the tiptoe scene shows the utter banality of the cruelty the whole scene conveys- not Tibeats predictable rages, but the inurement of the other slaves who work and play with no mind to Northup’s near death experience, and the casual cruelty of the overseer and Mrs. Ford, who do nothing to help Northup, until Master Ford, himself, cuts him down, then fends off a nighttime attack by Tibeats and company. This is why Northup goes to the Epps plantation.
Epps, who quotes Bible verses like Ford, immediately dislikes him for his intellect and low pound count in cotton picking, while he shows favor to Patsey for outpicking all the men. Then comes what is a true scenario, yet one which nonetheless seems a deus ex machina: the arrival of a Canadian Christ-like carpenter, Bass (Brad Pitt- one of the film’s producers), who agrees to ferry out a letter from Northup, back to his friends and family in Saratoga, which results in Solomon’s manumission. The whole episode seems forced for two reasons, regardless of its verity: 1) Pitt’s late appearance smacks of the movie star cameo that George Clooney made in Terrence Malick’s 1998 masterpiece, The Thin Red Line- there simply is no real reason for Pitt to have essayed the role, and he does nothing with it, and 2) an earlier episode, wherein Northup tries to get a white former overseer, Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), reduced to working with the slaves, to help him get a letter out, backfires, Armsby betrays Northup, so the viewer senses that this, along with the film’s approach to the two hour mark, clearly means success is not in doubt.
Other than that, the rest of the film works well, albeit, because of the aforementioned limits of the slave film genre, this entry in McQueen’s canon is simply not as bold, daring, nor important as Shame, despite it being the third consecutive great film at the start of his career (name me another director in cinema history who can claim that?), and moves him firmly into the discussion as the world’s greatest living filmmaker- at least as for someone in their prime. Only Nuri Bilge Ceylan seems to be a viable alternative, and the English speaking world offers none. With the recent death of Theo Angelopoulos and retirement of Bela Tarr, with the senescence of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, as well the possible same in Malick, McQueen has the Anglo film world at his fingertips. He is this century’s answer to Stanley Kubrick, and the stolidity of critics confirms this, as the very things, pro and con, they claimed of Kubrick, equally slimes McQueen’s trail.
Before I tackle the lamentable insipidity and stolidity of the critics, let me just comment on the technical aspects of this 133 minute long film, which was shot in color, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The adapted screenplay was written by John Ridley, but one senses that such a script was just a template, for the film reeks McQueen’s sensibilities, and those are a European’s sensibilities, not an American’s (black nor white)- there are long, poetic takes, meditative interactions between different aspects of the film- a synaesthesia, and a desire to let character propel narrative, not the American inverse. The same influence of McQueen’s sensibilities can be said for Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, and the film’s penetrating camera movements. Hans Zimmer’s score is spare and often ambient and diegetic, and, considering his known propensity for the ornate, this, again, attests to the fact that McQueen is in charge of everything in his work.
And, as with Kubrick or Michelangelo Antonioni, this leads small minded critics and historians of film to make ridiculous claims about the man and his work, with even critics who are positive or effusive about his work utterly muffing the facts of why the films work. In the case of 12 Years A Slave, as example, most of the positive reviews show that the critics have utterly no ability to distinguish the art of a film from its subject- hence this film set in slave times is lumped together with PC crap like Spielberg’s Amistad, utterly displaying the critics’ inability to even understand WHAT art is. Praising this film for being unflinching, searing, against racism, startling, powerful, brutal, unimaginable, courageous, tragic, difficult to watch, stunning, unspeakable, devastating, extraordinary, shameful, unforgettable, and the like- all culled from the balloon blurbs found on the film’s Rotten Tomatoes aggregator page- shows how totally shorn of anything of depth most critics are. They make explicit what should be obvious, that there is a fundamental difference between a good or bad review and a positive or negative one. The former pair delineate reviews that are well wrought and argued, or not, regardless of whether or not they embrace the opposing meanings of the latter pair.
But, the worst are those utter morons who think this is a bad film. In a review in Grantland- a website that is usually pretty good in things sporting, and stolid to laughably bad in things cultural, recent Pulitzer Prize winning critic Wesley Morris, in a middling take on the film, writes:
The central dramatic question ought to be how Solomon will get back to his former life. Another movie might have kept track of time. McQueen lets the years simply accrue. Solomon doesn’t know whether he’ll be freed. His attempts to make contact with the North are thwarted. Either his fruity ink is too weak (even in the 1840s, blackberries are a vexing communication idea) or his messenger too unreliable. He just toils away in his allotted hell. When a woman rolls over and puts his hand between her legs, he abides.
What Morris misses is that THAT is the central dramatic question, since we know his bondage, given the title, is not permanent, but that this film is not merely a drama, but primarily a character portrait of the human penchant to acquire and use power. By trying to condemn McQueen to a limited A-B-C narrative structure, Morris utterly misses what the film’s real raison d’etre is. Moby-Dick is not about whaling, I Am Legend is not about zombies nor the post-apocalypse, 2001: A Space Odyssey is not about space travel, and Shame is not about sexual addiction. Similarly, the whys and wherefores of Solomon Northup’s journey are just an entrée into a deeper exploration of power in the human condition. If you are concerned with the ‘central dramatic question’ of ‘how Solomon will get back to his former life,’ then all you need do is watch the earlier film version of this tale, directed by Gordon Parks.
However, if Morris is merely stolid and planted too deeply in the obvious, other critics make him seem an intellectual giant. Stephanie Zacharek, in her Village Voice review, penned a few gems of increasing density, and seemed to channel some Kubrickian critical obtuseness, such as:
But is there any blood in its veins? 12 Years a Slave is a pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie about the horrors of slavery. Aside from a characteristically nuanced lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor—plus an oak-tree-tall supporting one by Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as a breath of movie-star vitality from Brad Pitt in a very small role—it’s a picture that stays more than a few safe steps away from anything so dangerous as raw feeling. Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity. In one scene, Fassbender’s creepy plantation owner forces Ejiofor’s Solomon to whip a female slave who has sneaked away to a neighboring plantation for a bar of soap. The camera moves slowly, in a partial arc the shape of a comma: It takes the measure of the grisly brutality of the scene, and of Solomon’s anguish, without really breathing it in. The moment is terrible, yet it comes off as weirdly antiseptic, history made safe through art.
First, while Cumberbatch is solid in his role, it’s a tertiary level role, at best, and he is onscreen for less than ten minutes in the film, it’s the next claim that shows the critical cribbing that most critics partake of: the film avoids raw feeling? How, in the scenes of Patsey’s whipping? When Northup is forced to do Epps’ dirty work? In the aforementioned brilliant dialectic between Northup and Eliza? And how does the forced whipping shot not breathe in Northup’s anguish? Antiseptic? Made safe through art? This is film school and philosophic solipsism made masturbation, at best. It shows that Zacharek is approaching this work with her own expectations, and because she’s not fed them, because McQueen is not a Spielbergian Lowest Common Denominator whore, she feels robbed, she cannot connect to something that actually does breathe, and looks anew at scenes older than the filmic medium. Zacharek went in with a ready made Hollywood take on slavery in her mind, and missed the great art that danced afore her eyes.
But, in case one might wanna grant Zacharek a pass for her missing this boat, she goes on to remind readers that, no, she really is a bad critic, because her comments on McQueen’s earlier films confirm this:
That’s a style, a choice. Filmmakers—the best ones, at least—think and feel through images, and the artisanal remoteness of 12 Years a Slave isn’t such a surprise when you consider McQueen’s two previous features, Hunger, a beautifully controlled picture about Bobby Sands’s hunger strike and death, and Shame, a meditation on sex addiction that’s as obsessive and single-minded as a lady-killer looking for his next conquest.
Notice how easily Zacharek betrays her own biases. She claims directors think and feel through images, and this is actually 100% wrong. Artists do not ‘feel’ through their art. They think- for art is ideas and emotions wrought through intellectual means- a means called communication. Audiences can and do feel art, but the artists do not, and those that attempt to convey their emotions via art make mawkish crap- think Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg. Then there is her de facto admission that she had no idea what Shame was about, replete with a childish metaphor- a meditation on sex addiction that’s as obsessive and single-minded as a lady-killer looking for his next conquest, which, incidentally, again betrays her own critical cribbing.
And that critical and intellectual cheating naturally leads to her intellectual crash and burn into cliché:
12 Years A Slave takes the spirit of that prose and arranges it with painstaking, distracting care for the camera. Ejiofor carries it inside him, hidden. And still, the light shines through.
One really needs to ask why such minds as Zacharek’s even are interested in art because, when confronted with it at its highest level, they cringe and cower, and drool like zombies.
But, I mentioned critical cribbing, and of all the critical cribs
regarding 12 Years A Slave, the most puerile, silly, and repeated, is the
claim that it was some form of violent pornography. Witness this ridiculous review
from Vince Mancini, which is titled: I didn’t like 12 Years a Slave and
here’s why, with the subtitle: Torture
Porn for Intellectuals.
The basic story is this: After opening with a non-sequitir, never-again-referenced wordless sex scene that I interpreted as a leftover from director Steve McQueen’s last film, Shame, we meet Solomon Northupp (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York, in 1841, who makes his living playing the violin. He’s lured into a lucrative touring gig by a pair of delightfully foppish dandy boys he meets in the park, played by Scoot McNairy and SNL’s Taran Killam, who seem like lovable scamps until the day, after a night out with the Dandies, Northup wakes up from a roofie-induced stupor to find himself chained to the floor, his first step on the stealth trip south to his cotton-covered twelve-year nightmare. The Dandy Boys’ motives and even their involvement in the crime remain a mystery
Bad critics’ checklist on McQueen: 1) gratuitous shot at Shame, which reveals the critic’s ignorance, 2) claiming something of a scene that is not so- in this case, the opening sex scene, which is, indeed, seen again, and helps structure the whole film as a flashback or memory (did the critic REALLY not see the exact same scene was repeated?), 3) a slew of hipsterisms from today that have no reference to the film’s diegesis.
But, this is just a warm up. The critic continues to lynch himself:
At one point, Northup’s bitter slave driver and his pals try to lynch Northup for his uppity back talk, before the overseer shows up to run them off. The overseer takes the rope they’d looped over a tree branch to hoist up Northup by the noose around his neck and he lowers it just enough so that Northup can hover on his tippy toes and avoid strangulation. The overseer ties it to a tree and rides off to find the owner, and there Northup stays, gingerly hopping from toe to toe to open the smallest path through his windpipe. And there the camera stays, filming Northup almost choking while the rest of the plantation goes about their day, for a full minute or two of screen time that feels like an hour.
A shorter version of the scene might’ve been intense. By leaving the camera there for a ludicrously long time, all McQueen does is suck the the (sic) tension out of it and turn it tedious, drawing attention to himself, to the form rather than the story. Instead of the horrors of slavery, you get ‘You see? I am showing you the horrors of slavery.’
Except that the scene is not intended to show the horrors of anything, but the willing acceptance of humans to ignore others’ sufferings, at the cost of their own skin, and to display the varied forms of power employed by people in power- from Tibeats’ overt violence to the overseer’s covert sadism to the mistress’s impotence of self and circumstance to the other slaves’ relief that it’s not them on tip-toes, to Massah Ford’s desire to feel morally superior to all others involved by cutting him down. In a sense, this scene is a latterday reworking of a scene from the classic Japanese film melodrama, The Samurai Trilogy. In Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, Toshiro Mifune’s wildman character is caught and hung up the side of a giant tree, for days without food or water, by a Buddhist priest, to do penance for crimes, and to see the error of his ways. His punishment, however brutal, is meant to be ameliorative. In this retelling, the overseer’s punition to Northup is punitive, but the criminal is the punisher. Power victors, regardless of ethos.
There’s a difference between an ‘unflinching’ look at something and an unflinching look at a person desperately trying to project ‘unflinching.’ 12 Years a Slave is often upsetting for all the wrong reasons. It relegates atrocities to the level of camera tricks.
Except that there is no trick, and the whole idea of unflinching is the critic’s conceit, not what the director is trying to do. Hence, the scene fails because of the critic’s wanton misinterpretation, not its immanent lack. The critic thus projects his own failure of cognition into the film as a failure of execution.
There’s a mean-spiritedness to the whole endeavor, and not in a gleeful, punky sort of way. I reject the idea that because slavery was cruel, that making a movie about it should be an act of unrelenting cruelty. Because it’s about a serious subject I should hate watching it? That makes it less effective. Art isn’t owed an audience.
Recall when I wrote ‘The critic thus projects his own failure of cognition into the film as a failure of execution’? Lo!: ‘I reject the idea that because slavery was cruel, that making a movie about it should be an act of unrelenting cruelty. Because it’s about a serious subject I should hate watching it?’ I witnessed great art in that scene and the film, as a whole. I don’t take great art as cruelty, and seeing a diegetic act of cruelty, and thus transporting it to the realm of the real is silly. I found the whole of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo to be offensive, but not because of the depicted violence and coprophagia (which was, as reckonable- chocolate), but because it was dull, stupid, childish, and a technical disasterpiece. If there was cruelty in THAT film, it was inflicted because of its artistic lack, not its depicted idiocy and puerility. And when a critic uses worlds as like or dislike, or- worse- love or hate, well, you just have to chuckle, pat them on the head, and find a critic who has passed puberty.
But, before you sneer that this critic is JUST an online guy repeating these idiotic memes and bad claims, well, here is a review by Kirk Honeycutt, a film critic of many years and all media:
‘12 Years a Slave’ is slavery porn.
Ok, his critical crib of the pornography meme is in the first sentence, not the subtitle.
McQueen, whose previous films, ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame,’ mark him an aesthetic artist concerned with the trials and indignities a body can suffer with only scant interest in psychology, searches for images and sounds to convey an atmosphere of total privation.
But he looks for almost none to convey his main character’s inner life either as a free man (very briefly) or 12 years a slave. Instead he is content to present an educational horror show albeit a highly effective one.
In fact, unlike a hackmeister, like a Spielberg, or even a studio director, McQueen is NOT concerned with the externals of slavery nor privation but is relentlessly internal. In a sense, the film that this one shares a similar DNA with is Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, High And Low, where, inexplicably, Toshiro Mifune’s shoe baron character’s life seems on the verge of major financial improvement, only to have another human element come in and inexplicably target him for the most insane of reasons. In the case of the Kurosawa film, it’s a singular psychopath who decides to ethically blackmail Mifune’s character, which leads to losses which ruin his career, even though Mifune grows as a person. And the only reason we get for the destruction of the main character is that he has been successful in business, and lives in a house on a hill, one the kidnapper sees as a mark of Cain. In McQueen’s film, a successful black man (the literal mark of Cain, to some Fundamentalist sects) is targeted by kidnappers for no real reason (in the diegesis and in real life, apparently) save the color of his skin. His life is ruined for a dozen years, even as he grows as a person. And we SEE this, in his dialectic with Eliza, in his carving of his children’s names in a fiddle Master Ford gives him, and later destruction of same. We see this in his silent walk by two soon to be lynched slaves when he makes a halfhearted attempt to flee, and in a dozen other moments of silence and reflection.
What most bad critics want ARE the clichés- the easy cues for them to KNOW when they are SUPPOSED to bleat, ‘Ah, psychology!’ and feel smarter than the average filmgoer. Great art does not do that, though.
Honeycutt then joins Mancini on the business end of a limb:
the movie descends into melodrama and obviousness.
But Honeycutt names not a moment of such, and given what he has written, it is not even a sure bet that the critic even knows the definition of melodrama.
There is never a moment to stand back and investigate the internal and philosophical challenges Solomon faces in his determination to come out alive.
Again, cue the elided cliché so Honeycutt can be assured a moment is deep, and meant to be so- speak of obvious! And, I guess he went to the toilet during the Northup-Eliza argument.
The loveliness of the Spanish-moss draped plantation, its bayous, rolling fields and woods deliberately plays against the human tragedy of each passing day.
With an aural design of crickets chirping, wind blowing and whips cracking, along with one of the more restrained Hams Zimmer scores in a while, McQueen seems to want to taunt his audience with the bucolic wonder of the Old South.
There are actually several moments where sounds and sights- of Tibeats’ singing an old racist song- Run, Nigger, Run, and of insects- actually act as powerful symbols and metaphors of the plight of slaves and the entrapment of master and slave in the old ways, and on and on and on and on….literally. The goddamn film is awash in metaphor, symbolism, depth, profundity, yet Honeycutt wants a nipple to give suck to his feeble mind.
But these aesthetic abstractions neither highlight nor explain the spirit of Solomon’s steady resolve to, as he puts it, not only survive but to live. He never quite becomes the hero of his own story as well he should.
They do not highlight nor explain, but they manifestly elucidate, if one can be so enlightened. Again, a critic’s stolidity dominates his wan take on a great work.
It’s hard to imagine how an American director bringing this very script to Fox Searchlight or any other studio classics division, say a Spike Lee or George Tillman Jr., would have fared. Not well, I suspect.
Given that the former director is a soulless provocateur and hack, and the latter a shallow studio director, who really cares? Oh, right, someone looking to stay unweaned from the milk of the mass production zone.
How many other American filmmakers, black or white, have dreamed of similar projects only for them to die in development? Or never even gotten that far? I’m asking; I don’t know.
Will this film become a starting point for an honest dialogue in America about race, as some critics and commentators suggest? Let’s hope so. It does confront slavery and all its dreadful operations head on. It minces no words nor avoids any images.
But it also refuses to transcend the gruesome particulars of slavery. Nor does it with a few exceptional moments say much about the human spirit.
[Loading bullets into revolver. Taking aim at Honeycutt’s
Of course, given that neither Honeycutt nor his editor seems to understand that paragraphs can actually be longer than 4 or 5 sentences, what more can be said? Ok, maybe an online critic and a Hollywood hack can be wrong, and even a journeyman scribe like Zacharek, but surely a writer for one of the more reputationally savvy film websites out there will be better? Right? Right?
Here is Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine:
There’s a transcendent scene in 12 Years a Slave that corroborates the emotional honesty director Steve McQueen is capable of articulating when he eases up on his fine-art pretenses. Transcendent because it’s the one moment in the film where McQueen risks spiritual inquiry, truly opening a window into the soul of his main character, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African-American free man who, in 1841, was kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery in Georgia. With a simple, reverent look up and at Solomon, renamed Platt by his captors, McQueen movingly conveys the moment when Solomon resigns himself to the cruel fate that’s been handed to him by joining a chorus of slaves in the singing of a spiritual and, provocatively, appearing freed in his understanding of his enslavement.
Ok, we’ve read bad critics utterly missing good scenes, but here we have one actually praising a weak moment- and probably the most trite and Spielbergian moment of Northup’s myriad scenes, as transcendent. Seriously, although Blade Runner is not in an artistic league with this film, this scene reminded me of the inapt death soliloquy of the android Roy Batty, and so many critics and fanboys who thinks there’s depth to be mined from this purple prose: ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched sea-beams [or C-beams?- DAN] glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain....Time to die.’ Like that scene, this is the one scene that would be right at home in the oeuvre of Steven ‘A red coat in a black and white film is a great act of symbolism’ Spielberg, a scene that is a throwaway and all too expected scene in a prosaic take on slavery like Roots, and THIS is what Gonzalez actually thinks opens a window into Northup: the scene that is the most diurnal, and borderline stereotypical? The moment we see the mammy character start singing, you just know Northup was gonna start belting before it was done: poorly planned, wrought, and executed, as well as trite and telegraphed.
Not content to tread into individuated stupidity, Gonzalez quickly retreats to the herd’s suckling tits:
But that flash of emotional intensity is scarce in 12 Years a Slave, because McQueen, as is his wont, is largely content to craft images and sounds that strongly convey atmosphere and evoke great horrors, but are less visualizations of human feeling than artistic posturing. Take the film’s opening shot, an artfully framed overhead of a plate containing a drab piece of meat and bread and a few blackberries whose juices the educated Solomon, who’s warned to feign illiteracy for the sake of his survival, will use to craft a letter to potential saviors back in New York. McQueen only implies Solomon’s realization of how he can repurpose the blackberry juice as ink, transfixing us instead with the beauty with which the juice circles around the plate as Solomon tilts it from side to side. This manner of giving primacy to the fastidiously composed image over human emotion is repeated when Solomon, after his intentions have come to light, burns the letter he’s written, the embers of the flame suggesting a vast universe’s dying stars. It’s an impossibly gorgeous image, poetic in its implications, though it isn’t preferable to the one that was meticulously left off screen: the dissolving of hope from Solomon’s face.
The juice is the life’s blood of Northup’s desire to go on and- oh, wait, Gonzalez doesn’t get that. Never mind. The stolidity NEVER ends; folks want to literally have the things they witness be so obvious and trite so they don’t have to work. Ah, laziness! Unless repeating the critically cribbed meme of the moment. Cue the reference to Shame:
Like Hunger and Shame before it, 12 Years a Slave is a chronicle of the body as a prison. In Hunger, his debut feature, McQueen rendered the brutal captivity of Irish Republican Army martyr Bobby Sands as an ostentatious museum exhibit. His follow-up, Shame, was a heroically performed peep show as art installation, and one that confirmed McQueen’s fixation on bodily experience and almost pathological aversion to psychological inquest.
Solomon plays the violin, yet we’re not allowed to understand what drew him to the instrument. If he seeks solace in music, you wouldn’t know it….
Note the way the critics strain to outdo each other with their wan attempts at cleverness in trying to disparage one of this century’s greatest films, one which went over their head? Again, this looks back to Kubrick, just as a good portion of the critical confusion that surrounds 12 Years A Slave owes to its marketing campaign as a more conventional Hollywood Liberal White Guilt epic than film’s most probing look at American slavery? Perhaps if the trailers began with ‘In a world….’? But, seriously, 12 Years A Slave may well be McQueen’s Eyes Wide Shut- Kubrick’s final great film, which was marketed as a sexy thriller, when it was really a richly symbolic psychodrama. I nailed Eyes’ greatness in my first viewing. It took a decade for the rest of the critical world to catch on. The same fate seems likely for this film.
As to the above excerpt? Seriously, let me hold Gonzalez’s hand: Northup is drawn to the violin because. Just because. He is a musician, and such a draw simply is. The violin and his seeking of it are actually things completely separate from his bondage. This is akin to asking why Harry Lime, in The Third Man, prefers to be an international drug smuggler, and not a flutist. And solace is not why artists make art.
Oy and vey!
McQueen, an unmistakably unsentimental aesthete, even denies us a rich sense of Solomon’s love for his wife and the life that he built in the North with her and their two young children.
Ah, another critic wont to bathroom trips during opportune moments in films they are paid to review. Did Gonzalez not see Northup’s refusal to be broken, his putting of his kids’ names on his violin, his reticence at the end when reunited with his clan? In fact, this is one of the truly profound moments in the film. Instead of the rush into each other’s arms, the members of his family tentatively reach out, to see if the other is real, if the other is what they recall. Northup’s apology for his detention is both ironic and telling, as well as wholly realistic.
Yes, I know this endless display of inanity is mind deadening, but just WHAT films do these bad critics actually watch- just those they WANT to see? Do they not understand that they have to accept an artists on his own terms, and then judge whether or not he fails them? One does not go in to a Disney film with the expectations of a Bela Tarr existential grunt.
To be fair, McQueen’s impersonal approach to his subject matter isn’t solely to blame for the failure of 12 Years a Slave, a safely anecdotal mosaic closer in spirit to Edward P. Jones’s The Known World than to Toni Morrison’s radically constructed Beloved.
Fuck. Beloved is radical? The Oprah Winfrey endorsed and overhyped novel that goes nowhere but the tritest places in the Civil War? The Known World is a mediocrity, but has a few good moments. But neither comes within a light year of this film, in terms of characterization, depth, nor artsmanship.
Perhaps the only review to yet even sniff at both this film’s actual greatness, and the whys behind it is this one, which references the film to the existential television classic, The Prisoner. But, even this review only grazes the actual deeper connections between that greatest of television artworks, and this great work of cinema.
The last critic whose take on this film I want to briefly take on is that of the obscenely obtuse exhibitionist and solipsist, Armond White- film criticism’s answer to Norman Finkelstein- a huckster who will say anything for attention, but means little of it, save for a desire for attention, and whose delusions and egoistic rants I was first made aware of when Roger Ebert did a blog post wherein this borderline literate’s screeds were laughably compared to my well wrought and thought out essays and reviews.
Let’s dig into White's insanity:
For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events. With Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen chronicles the conscious sufferance of unrelenting physical and psychological pain. A methodically measured narrative slowly advances through Northup’s years of captivity, showcasing various injustices that drive home the terrors Black Africans experienced in the U.S. during what’s been called ‘the peculiar institution.’
Note the gratuitous shot at Shame. Also note how he claims McQueen chronicles Northup’s psychological pain, whereas other critics claim such a probe is utterly lacking. In this regard, White is correct, but only superficially, as you shall read his utterly solipsistic misinterpretation of said chronicle:
Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend ‘a conversation about race.’ The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.
Note that White, for all his strivings for being apart from the crowd, easily falls into the cliché of claiming this is a film that strives to converse on race. It simply does not, nor does it pretend to be, not pretend to converse. The claims of linkage to horror films is utter lunacy, but the way someone who is either a) not all there, or b) desperate for attention, seeks to get attention.
Hence the mindless ad hominem:
….screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement.
It should be noted that White, who is black, has also made a career of reserving the looniest of his criticism for films made for and by blacks- to the point of never having an even logical line of thought, critically nor politically.
Except that he will fall in line with the easiest memes, again, with a nonsensical shot at Shame:
But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspect of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban ‘sexual addiction’ in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity.
No, McQueen merely show’s slavery’s depravity for what it is, the depravity of certain humans who once engaged in such. But let us not use logic, Armond, when screeding is so good for the phallus.
And if not screeding, then welcome to sophistry 101:
Because 12 Years of [sic]
Slave is such a repugnant experience, a sensible viewer might be
reasonably suspicious about many of the atrocities shown–or at least scoff at
the one-sided masochism: Northup talks about survival but he has no spiritual
resource or political drive–the means typically revealed when slave narratives
are usually recounted. From Mandingo and Roots to Sankofa,
Amistad, Nightjohn and Beloved, the capacity for spiritual
sustenance, inherited from the legacy of slavery and survival, was essential (as
with Baby Sugg’s sermon-in-the-wood in Beloved and John Quincy Adams
and Cinque’s reference to ancestors in Amistad) in order to verify
and make bearable the otherwise dehumanizing tales.
It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience.
Now, seriously, what in the hell is White foaming of here? What masochism is on display in the film, or is White referencing his own masochistic urges in writing a piece that so aptly trips him up? He then talks of spiritual sustenance, as if this film lacks it, and look at that last quoted sentence: It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience.
I apologize to White- this is not sophistry, but drool, spittle, slobber, pure and plain. The very term ahistorical ignorance would actually imply historical understanding, but even the rest of the sentence is a syntactical mess- and this from White as writer and editor of his own work. Does he honestly believe slavery was not constant misery? Really? No, White is no sophist, for a sophist is one who cleverly distorts. White is that lunatic who sleeps in a cardboard box and randomly raves. Why? To rave. Just to rave.
And on White does for quite a while. Then this laughable gem:
And Alfre Woodard as a self-aware Black plantation mistress rapidly sinks into unrescuable psychosis. Ironically, Woodard’s performance is weird comic relief–a neurotic tribute to Butterfly McQueen’s frivolous Hollywood inanity but from a no-fun perspective. By denying Woodard a second appearance, director McQueen proves his insensitivity.
Woodard’s character is hardly psychotic, but cunning, and trades her wiles for real life wares, but is just a dead massah away from becoming an older version of Eliza. Her lone appearance is actually a proof against White’s claim of ahistorical ignorance- or historical ignorance- which is what White actually meant, but was too deliterate to be able to write.
Near the end, we get this bizarre ad hominem bit of racism from White:
The egregious inhumanity of 12
Years a Slave (featuring the most mawkish and meaningless
fade-out in recent Hollywood history) only serves to perpetuate Hollywood’s
disenfranchisement of Black people’s humanity. Brad Pitt, one of the film’s
producers, appears in a small role as a helpful pacifist—as if to save face
with his real-life multicultural adopted family. But Pitt’s good intentions
(his character promises ‘There will be a reckoning’) contradict McQueen,
Ridley and Gates’ self-serving motives. The finite numeral in the title of 12
Years a Slave compliments the fallacy that we look back from a
post-racial age, that all is in ascent. But 12 Years a Slave is ultimate proof
that Hollywood’s respect for Black humanity is in absurd, patronizing,
Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.
Why would Pitt’s appearance or not, in this film (in the film’s most simpletonian role) in any way bear on his own life, and why would his multicultural clan need to have his face saved or have theirs saved? Ok, I admit it: White is just an idiot- one who often uses absurd and obscure references to things that are inapt, merely to try and prop up his idea that he has ‘vast knowledge,’ and, to echo his final shot, I wish I’d never heard of him, as he is an embarrassment to himself, film criticism, and, well, life. But, at least his inane and insane review(s) give a Plan 9 From Outer Space level sense of joy to bad criticism, unlike his more earnest peers- and by earnest I don’t mean to suggest that White is disingenuous- no, he is earnestly dishonest. Does that make sense? If not, maybe I caught something from White.
With 12 Years A Slave, McQueen asserts his place in cinema’s pantheon- and with one or two more great films he will easily claim the title of Great Britain’s greatest film director ever from David Lean, for he shares the daring traits of Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and John Cassavetes, the control and rigor of Stanley Kubrick, Yasujiro Ozu, and Andrei Tarkovsky, and the virtuosity of Akira Kurosawa, Terrence Malick, and Michelangelo Antonioni. In fact, this film is sort of McQueen’s version of Antonioni’s Blowup, in that this is the easiest film for the masses to follow- sans The Yardbirds playing, of course. Shame is the most complex and daring film of his, so far. Hunger was more cinematically daring. But, this film is likely the film to ‘break’ McQueen into that rarest of Anglophone directors- the auteur who can do what he wants, ala Woody Allen, Kubrick, and Malick, and the most daring and best film on American slavery, and possibly the best film on worker exploitation since Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear, even if a notch or two below Shame.
In closing, 12 Years A Slave is a great film, if not a masterpiece, and the acting throughout the film is uniformly excellent- save for Pitt’s throwaway role. Both of the ostensible leads- Ejiofor and Fassbender, have difficult roles, for both could easily lapse into gesticulation and camp. Ejiofor’s is the steadier performance, although he does rely a bit too much on hangdog expressions. Nonetheless, his Northup is individuated- from being a dandy at an unsegregated Washington, D.C restaurant (pre-Jim Crow), with his soon to be betrayers, to the look of utter cosmic betrayal when he sees his plan to rebel on the steamboat, taking him south, comes to naught, as one slave is knifed, killed, and tossed overboard into the Ahabian deeps, and the other- the more vitriolic and grand talking, soon quivers back to his role as Stepin Fetchit when his rightful massah claims him at the docks. Fassbender, though, has the far more difficult role, for Epps is so ready made a L’il Abner gone KKK stereotype that to see the actor actually evince him as a delusional bully who is pussywhipped and debauched, sexually insecure yet rapacious, wild eyed and little boy blue, is quite a feat. That his role is the most snidely derided by critics is not a surprise, but it is wholly and demonstrably wrong. Reread this review in 2050, and this will be cited as one of the man’s strongest roles.
12 Years A Slave is one man’s tale, not a slavery tale. It is a great film by a great director. Anything else is bullshit. I’ve shown you the feces above. Now, rise….like Northup.
Return to Bylines