The Pitch: 12 years a slave is a movie about a man who had a very bad bunch of years.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor- She Hate Me- 2004) is an outstanding gentleman- a marked musician, as well as hard worker. He has a wife, children and lives life like any good person might until one day after travelling to Washington to perform violin he is sold in to slavery. The year 1841, thus begins the aforementioned 12 years and over the course of 134 minutes we learn that all it amounted to was a rather bad bunch of years.
Some will argue that this is not a movie about slavery per se but the story of one man overcoming great odds and oh how the director (Steve McQueen) tries. He tries so hard to sell you on the hard ships of Platt née Solomon Northup as his Slavers now call him. The loss of his family. The abject racism that was abound at that time. How poor poor Platt, an educated man, a learned man must work amidst the ignorance of those around him.
McQueen’s film is not about the 4 million slaves in the United States at that time but one quote-unquote uplifting story among the lot yet he fails to even tell that story. And then, he still injects opinion on slavery that does not add to Platt’s story and is only there to show how bad such a thing as slavery was. I am brought to mind something Stanley Kubrick said (from the book Eyes Wide Open) which I will paraphrase here, Schindler’s List is not a movie about 6 million jews dying it is a about 600 jews living. And 12 Years a Slave should have the same thing said about it. If you are making a movie about one man in many then make it so but once you start making larger statements then the story is not about one man anymore, is it?
——The Side note
Here’s my thought on Slavery movies and then I will go in to further review of the film itself, once you place a film amidst slavery you are immediately making a movie about slavery and the ulterior motives are set in stone. You must point out that slavery is bad and you must point out that people are ignorant and you must point out that Non-white peoples had a real shitty time of it back then. Don’t take my matter of fact exposition to be one of insensitivity but to digress even further I must insist that taking all that in to consideration one cannot make a movie about one man in the middle of such dark mark in our history. The story of one Slave making it out of the muck and mire and ending the story with him getting his Free Life back with only a foot note at the end that he went on to try to help others is lying to the viewer of what your story is really about. Money. Oscars.
White Guilt is a wonderful thing to market for. White guilt is what will blind people in to thinking that this film is good and white guilt is what the Oscar committee will have poking at them when they tick the box for at least one of the awards for this film. (*1) This film wants you to think about slavery but only paints a colour-by-numbers portrait of a man who lost a warm bed.
—— End Side Note
Steve McQueen is an able director in that he does seem to have put effort in affecting a vision with artistic moments in his camera set-ups and the occasional dichotomy of dialogue over contrasting shots to try to evoke an emotion from you. But unfortunately this all feels like he has an agenda instead of telling a story.
One such scene has Platt is left to hang with only his tippy toes to keep him from dying. It is a wide shot with Platt about right of centre. In the BG are other Slaves passing by without so much as a looking in his direction until some time in to the shot a slave woman rushes over to give Platt a sip of water from a ladle before rushing off.
The director has made the decision to leave us to watch this for a painful amount of time. Enough time that one is intended to feel squeamish because they aren't given a cutaway for reprieve— I charge that he wanted to dig at our white guilt a bit more by making us a fly on the wall in this situation. To have us also be like the surrounding slaves who are going about their day and will do nothing about it we too sit in the audience and do nothing about it. What McQueen born a middle-class British Citizen is missing is that Slavery was abolished years and years before any of his audience was born so we have no connection to it. It is a scene that screams ‘Hey, look at me! I am directing.” How does this moment affect Platt later on? Trick Answer, it doesn’t. Not on film anyway.
I think back to Norman Jewison (RollerBall- 1975) who worked for years to get the story of Malcom X told until Spike Lee pulled the race card and stole it away from Jewison. Lee said that a white man could not direct a movie about a black man but he is way off there, anyone can direct a movie on any topic if they have empathy for the subject. Jewison has empathy for the subject of ignorance (see The Hurricane) and the subject of racism (see In the Heat of the Night) but to Jewison’s credit he did not fight to keep Malcolm X because his only wish was that the story be told. I bring this up because what I saw in 12 Years a Slave was not a movie made by someone who had any empathy for his characters but someone who was trying to drive home a point that slavery was bad (is bad).
You are also forced to bring your knowledge of social studies in with you. We are supposed to watch the film already knowing that slavery existed and that black people were treated horribly so we can then place upon the words and actions of each character our own assumptions. But the movie becomes so drunk on this meta-knowledge that it forgets that that is not good storytelling. A movie must show reasons within the film for the characters to act and react else you are simply making cardboard one-dimensional characters whom you can’t relate to on an emotional level. I argue that every single character in this film is no more a character than the characters in most horror films that other more notable reviewers tend to lambaste.
Who is Solomon Northup? We only see Platt when he was Solomon for but a short bit of screen time; enjoying his family and living his life because what this film is affectively about is slavery-melodrama (dare I say Porn). Disparate scene upon disparate scene piled on top of each other to convey one agenda: Bad Shit happened to the black people. If the story is about Platt and his single narrative then where do we get to know Platt? Who is he that this story matters that it is his.
Yet, 12 years a Slave essentially is a Bio-pic but not a good bio-pic where there is an over-arc of a story (The Social Network, and Ray, and Walk The Line fall in the same bad category) but merely the point-form notes from a life. As if the writer went to Wikipedia and grabbed all the highlights and wrote those scenes and slapped a Fade in and Fade out at the beginning and end.
Even the secondary story of beating the civilized -ness out of Platt is almost done as an afterthought. Platt spends most of the film trying to rise above his station in this new life telling anyone who will listen that he was a Free Man before this that you start to feel bad for the other slaves who never get a chance to tell their story. Once again you see where I am going with this, this movie is about a man having a bad 12 years. Whining as he goes along that when he tells slave girl to shut up her crying about losing her children you don’t see a man who has been beaten down by his masters but you really see Platt as an insensitive man who is annoyed that someone else’s story is getting in the way of his own.
One of the ways the writer and director tricks us with out presumptions come with Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbach- The Other Boleyn Girl- 2008) Platt’s first official owner. He is portrayed as a kind man. We are made to like him because he never hits his slaves and also recognizes Platt’s violin prowess gifting him a violin. You will like Ford. He is full of goodness but I urge you to remember that he has slaves. He has many many slaves. When Platt is purchased from a dealer played by Paul Giammatti (Cold Souls- 2009) he offers to take the mother and both her children so they won’t be separated but is told that it would cost more so he does not fight it.
Ford also employs Tibeats played by Paul Dano (Cowboys & Aliens- 2011) who is cruel and vicious and after Platt has a nasty altercation with Tibeats Ford sells Platt -instead of firing Tibeats for his cruelty- to another Slave Owner Edwin Epps played by Michael Fassbender (Jonah Hex- 2010) who is very famous for, ‘Breaking his Niggers’. Is Ford a good man? No. For to knowingly put another human in this position is to be apart of it yourself but most viewers will give him a pass because he tried.
Oscar is being bandied about in the direction of this film but they would be mistaken. This film is not worth an Oscar nomination nor does it deserve the 2 hours 14 minutes that it takes to watch it. If you are interested in a movie that brings to light the horrible time of slavery I can point you in the direction of many other movies that not only do a better job but also convey the situation with a weight that the subject deserves. (*2)
So, is 12 Years a Slave a good film? No, hardly. It is too ham-handed and in your face with it’s Oscar Ambitions that it forgets to tell a real story. The characters and simple and the narrative is clumsy and troubled.
Will you cry? Yeah probably.
Will you look good at the Oscars when you select the film about that horrible thing that happened hundreds of years ago to and by people none of us know anymore? Yup.
Skip it, unless you are trying to look smart or get laid from someone who thinks they are saving the world by only buying Free Trade Coffee.
signed James C.- The Cold Open-Bc
*1- If you did not know who votes for Oscars I will tell you now, people. People do. Actors, Directors, Producers, Editors. There is no vetting process for voters you just have to belong to a union or work in film in one of the more celebrated positions and the Oscars Committee will send you all the films on DVD and you just watch them and vote… and even then most of the voters don’t even watch all of them but vote anyway. Why, when I was working on Life of Pi in Taiwan someone there was on the Oscar voting committee and they gave me many of the DVD Screeners. After voting took place they informed me that they never had time to watch them all and simply voted by which ones they thought might be good.