7. 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Steve McQueen
Horrific and gruesome and incredibly painful to watch, 12 YEARS A SLAVE seemed to pretend it was the great slave narrative of our time when, in reality, the film told the wrong story the wrong way. In case you haven’t noticed already, I’m going to be harsh in this review, as is my right.
There’s not a whole lot I was happy with. What irked me the most was that this film attempts to portray the worst evils of American slavery with faces an American audience would instantly recognize. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it felt very wrong watching it. This is essentially what film critic Gerald Peary of ArtsFuse.org argues, that Steve McQueen throws in Paul Giamatti as a slave dealer “having a great time” and then later in the film suddenly throws in Brad Pitt “to deliver the film’s didactic message.” No. Just no. It was wrong on too many levels, and clearly it has affected my ability to review this movie properly….
McQueen’s treatment of slavery on screen was, simply put, too horrific. I won’t go so far as to say what one (African-American) critic said, that “two hours of torture and degradation were done much better in SAW and HOSTEL. This is not a major statement about slavery but one about a visual artist’s preoccupation with pain.” I won’t say that. But I will argue that there is something much, much deeper going on here. As I watched a woman’s back get ripped open whip after whip after whip after whip after whip, as I watched the hero of this film struggle to make footing as he hanged by the neck from a tree for hours (the audience witnessed several minutes straight of this) while children played in the background, I started wondering to myself, “Who could possibly like this movie?”
Certainly not I.
I’m not being obtuse or close-minded or anything of the sort. Let me be clear: this film was not a great representation of slavery. Full stop. Frankly, Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER would have been better suited for the nomination than 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Watching this, I couldn’t help but realize that Tarantino with DJANGO UNCHAINED handled the topic of slavery better than McQueen did with this movie. I will pay homage to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gave an honest performance, and Michael Fassbender, who, despite his archetypal character as the ultra-violent slaveowner, did manage to raise this film to a higher standard. Ultimately, I couldn’t stand watching this. It did not cajole me to think or to question, as a film of this genre must do; instead it horrified and disgusted me. If this movie wins Best Picture, I’ll be sick to my stomach.
You get the picture.
I rate 12 YEARS A SLAVE 3 stars out of 5.