Review: Case against ’12 Years a Slave’


I saw Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” some time after the universally acclaimed film won Best Picture.  Needless to say, my expectations were extremely high — and though the film is certainly better than most of the bile that Hollywood spews out, I found myself oddly disappointed by “12 Years a Slave.”

Of course, the true story of  “12 Years a Slave” — free man Solomon Northrup’s abduction, enslavement and eventual freedom — is a harrowing and apt example of the horror and absurdity of slavery. My problem is not with the story, but the storytelling.

For such a profound and human tale, McQueen’s film is strangely lifeless.

Devoid of much aesthetic beauty, the film drifts from atrocity to atrocity with a cold distance reminiscent of Austrian director Michael Haneke, minus the academic pretentions.

The rather banal visual style of “12 Years a Slave” was quite surprising to me, considering the Turner Prize winning McQueen first made a name for himself as the creator of compositionally jarring, richly metaphorical video art installations.

There is one scene however that draws attention to itself: a scene in which Northrup is hanged inches above the ground. The camera gazes upon him, unmoving, while he tiptoes and squirms, attempting to relieve pressure for his neck.

The camera lingers for quite some time. Eventually, birds are heard chirping in the distance, and other slaves carry out chores and play, ignoring Northup’s struggle. This scene appears to be making an extremely problematic comment on slave (and viewer) complacency — that the slaves (and audience members) who watch the man hang but do not intervene are just as guilty the slave owners.

This thought — an interesting one indeed — remained largely unexplored throughout the remainder of the film, leaving me feeling that the long hanging shot was just a rather shallow attempt at making audience members feel uncomfortable … and not much more.

The film allows little time for exposition — before viewers even have a chance to get acquainted with Northup, the man is kidnapped and imprisoned.

Yes, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Northup is spectacular — but it troubled me that audiences are never really allowed to know much about Northup aside from his tragedy.

Similarly, when Northup finally returns home, he finds his wife has remarried — but since viewers were never permitted to see much of Northup’s interaction with his wife and family before his enslavement, the conclusion is robbed of some of its emotional weight.

Though the film was packed with fine performances and had an important tale to tell, I cannot help but feel that “12 Years a Slave” was not quite the masterpiece it has been heralded as.

8 Responses

  1. navy guy

    Wife remarried? Wow, this fill is so far over your head I don’Navy Guyt think a repeat viewing would help you.

    • dw

      Agreed. And there were numerous cases where we saw complacency in the face of unnecessary suffering, it was a major theme throughout the film.

  2. Unbelievable

    I agree with both of the replies. If you are going to take the time to review a fikm, at least “see” and “understand” the film! The scene of him hanging not only dealt with the complacency of the other slaves, but also with the affect that slavery had on them that prohibited them from helping a hanging man! It’s not a good idea to see a film if ypu are not willing to think.

  3. James Holmes

    The sentence “that the slaves (and audience members) who watch the man hang but do not intervene are just as guilty (as)the slave owners” leaves me baffled! Having had such accounts related to me from direct descendants of individuals so inhumanly treated and having been provided soul wrenching details of what happened to others in bondage substantiates the fact that another offering help would be beaten to death or unmercifully whipped!

    Take a look at the photographs of lynched Black individuals and of other abuses. Please read the Book Slavery By Another Name and the diaries of folk who spoke from first hand experience!

  4. Michael

    I’m so glad someone has said this – and siad it so well. I marvelled as I watched; wondering WHAT the Academy could possibly have been thinking? ! But for a few brilliant performances, I would call this movie flop.

  5. Unbelievable

    If you wondered Michael, then you apparently suffer from the same “condition” as the review er!

  6. James

    Quinn, no offence pal but I think you need to see the film again. Lol! Wife remarried? When did that happen in the film!

  7. Brian Killian

    I thought it was his daughter who got married? I’m sure she said ‘meet your grandson’.
    Whilst the hanging scene was most definitely uncomfortable to watch, I thought it depicted how controlled and in fear the other slaves were.
    Thanks for your alternate review though. How we allowed and continue to allow fellow human beings to be treated like this is very sad and cruel.


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