The Brutal Truth Found In 12 Years a Slave

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On Sunday many of us will be glued to our television sets watching the annual Oscar ceremony unfold. At this time of year I tend to contemplate all the new releases I’ve seen in the past 12 months or more and linger over the films that have captured my imagination, awed me, inspired me or just made me think about old ideas and tired truths in new ways.

When asked what my general feelings are about the 2013 year in film I’m prone to answer with one word: brutal. After sitting through a barrage of noteworthy films and documentaries about war criminals, human rights abuses, animal cruelty, wretched poverty, unquenchable greed, gratuitous vanity, sexual brutality, mental anguish and religious hypocrisy in recent months I’ve often felt as if I’d been beaten up and left for dead. I’m still recovering from the bruises some of these films left on me but I’m grateful for their impact. It seems inevitable that after more than a decade marred by war, political strife, economic disasters and incredible abuses of power by individuals as well as political parties and corporate structures that the residue from these events would eventually consume our movie theaters and multiplexes. 2013 seemed to deliver a tsunami of angry, anxiety riddled, bloody, exhausted and desperate pleas for a wiser and more empathetic world than the one we’re currently living in. But many of the best films concealed their appeals behind jaw-dropping imagery and noteworthy scores creating a memorable kaleidoscope of sound and vision that is still ringing in my head.

As a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists I’m asked to create a list of my Top 10 Favorite Films each year and participate in voting for the EDA Awards that the organization hands out to filmmakers but this year voting was rushed and our individual lists were never published. As I’ve often pointed out, my own taste in modern cinema tends to be somewhat eclectic and I rarely agree with the final outcome of the awards but this year I was extremely happy that one of my favorite films of the year, Steve McQueen’s remarkable 12 YEARS A SLAVE, received the EDA award for Best Film of 2013. So it should come as no surprise that this coming Sunday I’ll be rooting for it to take home the Best Picture award and Steve McQueen to take home the Best Director award.

12years2Since seeing his first feature-length film HUNGER (2008), which focused on IRA member Bobby Sand and examined his participation in the 1981 Irish hunger strike, I’ve found McQueen to be one of the most interesting, engaging and intelligent director’s currently making movies. His artistic background seems to have given him an appreciation for visual composition, staging, framing, performance and sound that I find lacking in many of his contemporaries. I’m not surprised that critics such as Matt-Zoller Seitz have favorably compared him to Stanley Kubrick while others such as Mark Harris have hurled the Kubrick mantle at McQueen as a sort of backhanded compliment or softball-style insult. Although I think the Kubrick comparisons are a little premature, McQueen does seem to possess a painter’s eye and a surgeon’s precision. He is also much more interested in making audiences “think” instead of making them “feel” and frankly that’s a quality that’s vastly underrated and frequently missing from modern popular cinema.

12 YEARS A SLAVE features the director’s most conventional narrative yet but it packs an emotional wallop and a persistent vision that has remained with me since I first viewed it. The film has received multiple awards this year (over 100 to be exact) so winning an Academy Award seems irrelevant at this point but it would be a historical first for a black director and that’s something worth celebrating. And although the film has received almost universal critical praise there has been some notable opposition from critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adam Nayman, Melissa Anderson, Stephanie Zacharek, Dana Stevens and Armond White who have expressed serious reservations about the film’s depiction of violence as well as its apparent ability to encourage something often referred to as “white liberal guilt.” To be honest I find the term “white liberal guilt” pointless and without merit but if it means that 12 YEARS A SLAVE will help us consider, understand and appreciate aspects of our history that are uncomfortable to discuss or ugly to imagine I think that’s well worth supporting and every one of us (white, black, liberal or conservative) should be sympathetic to the impact that slavery had on America as well as the rest of the world. Many of us are still feeling its effects and the sad fact is that even today some modern business models continue to use management techniques that were originally created by plantation owners. Human trafficking persists as a national as well as universal problem and millions of people still live in what the United Nations refers to as ‘modern slavery.’ The issues that Steve McQueen’s film eloquently addresses have unfortunately not vanished into history.

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As for the violence depicted in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, I can only assume that those who find it too ‘gratuitous’ or ‘explicit’ have avoided reading the detailed historical accounts of slave owner practices because the film barely touches on the violent indignities that people suffered. I was grateful that McQueen was willing to show some of the brutality that Solomon Northup witnessed and I appreciate the fact that he made me squirm and want to look away. A film about torture, rape and the enslavement of human beings should make our stomach’s churn and our skin crawl. It should horrify and deeply unsettle us because it’s a horrifying chapter of our shared history. The film has been unflatteringly compared to the work of horror filmmakers such as William Friedkin and David Cronenberg, as if this comparison is supposed to disparage any serious critical consideration of McQueen’s film. It’s insulting to those of us who appreciate thoughtful considerations of horror cinema but it also attempts to restrict our conversation about 12 YEARS A SLAVE. I personally find the comparison of McQueen’s film to Friedkin’s EXORCIST fascinating and worthy of consideration and I can also find parallels between McQueen’s obsession with tormented bodies and the visceral aspects of David Cronenberg’s work but these are compliments, not criticisms. I believe that McQueen, Friedkin and Cronenberg are all thoughtful creative directors who ask audiences uncomfortable questions and often examine complex and even distasteful aspects of human nature that lessor directors like to sweep under the rug. Do they want to shock viewers? Do they enjoy making their audiences squirm? Probably but I would argue that modern cinema is often in dire need of a good shock or a hard kick to its soft rear and I’m glad that some directors are willing to provide us with that.

Before seeing 12 YEARS A SLAVE I, like many other Americans, was unfamiliar with Solomon Northup’s story. As a history buff that’s unforgivable but my ignorance about Northup’s plight speaks to a larger problem in our country involving education and the way our history books often gloss over the more troubling aspects of this Nation’s past. In a recent interview with Steve McQueen the director expressed his surprise and joy in finding out that Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir has sold more copies in the last 5 months than it has in its entire 161 year history. That’s an amazing number and confirmation of his film’s power and impact. I don’t think we should judge films simply based on their cultural significance but 12 YEARS A SLAVE has defiantly left its mark on a generation of film viewers and it will be interesting to see how the reverberations of McQueen’s vision shape our conversation about race, the human condition and the history of slavery in America as well as the rest of the world in the future.

Before signing off I’ll leave you with a list of my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2013 originally compiled for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ poll. Naturally it’s limited to the films I’ve had a chance to see.

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Top 10 Favorite Films of 2013 (Listed Alphabetically):
1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Dir. Steve McQueen)
2. BASTARDS (Dir. Claire Denis)
3. BLING RING, THE / SPRING BREAKERS (Tie: Dir. Sophia Coppola/ Harmony Korine)
4. DRUG WAR (Dir. Johnnie To)
5. FIELD IN ENGLAND, A (Dir. Ben Wheatley)
6. HUNT, THE (Dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
7. MAGIC MAGIC (Dir. Sebastián Silva)
8. ONLY GOD FORGIVES (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
9. SELFISH GIANT, THE (Dir. Clio Barnard)
10. STOKER (Dir. Park Chan-wook)
Bonus: THE SILENCE (Dir. Baran bo Odar) – The film was originally released in 2010 but didn’t get officially released in the U.S. until 2013.

Double Bonus – 6 Favorite Documentaries:
1. 20 FEET FROM STARDOM / MUSCLE SHOALS (Tie: Dir. Morgan Neville/Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier)
2. ACT OF KILLING, THE (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
3. BLACKFISH (Dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)
4. DIRTY WARS (Dir. Rick Rowley)
5. SQUARE, THE (Dir. Jehane Noujaim)
6. ROOM 247 (Dir. Rodney Ascher)

So with that out of the way, what movie will you’ll be cheering to take take home the Academy Award for Best Picture this coming Sunday? Please feel free to share your picks for Best Picture below!

17 Responses The Brutal Truth Found In 12 Years a Slave
Posted By Dan LaTourette : February 28, 2014 4:43 am

Nice essay. The biggest thing I took away form ’12 Years a Slave’ was the dichotomy of how horrific it was but also how beautiful it looked. I think it captured the colors of the Sun playing with the southern landscape intriguingly well, which made the ferocious content seem complex.

As for my personal favorites. Well, I think my Best Picture pick has no chance, but ‘Nebraska’ was my favorite film. It was the only one I watched twice, the second time with my mom, and I think I just like the way the story is easily accessible yet still showcasing a nuanced complexity. I;m pretty certain though it’s a race between ’12 Years’ and ‘Gravity’ (and I think the sci-fi film will take it).

Posted By swac44 : February 28, 2014 12:48 pm

I’m probably going to skip the Oscars and go see The Great Beauty for a second time on Sunday night. But I too was swept away by 12 Years a Slave and hope that it receives its due at the awards (although, like Dan, I have a sneaking suspicion that Gravity will get the top prize).

Posted By gregferrara : February 28, 2014 2:10 pm

As I wrote on Flickhead, I wasn’t a big fan of GRAVITY, either in 3-D big screen or on DVD screener. But 12 YEARS A SLAVE was, to me, a beautiful work of art. I hope it wins.

His artistic background seems to have given him an appreciation for visual composition

So true. The film’s quiet, emotional moments are twice as powerful because of the way McQueen frames them, the way he either quickly takes his camera away (when Solomon can’t make the juice work as ink) or lets it linger (when Solomon is hanging from the tree). It’s perfectly realized visually.

the film barely touches on the violent indignities that people suffered

Yes! I am absolutely perplexed(!) by people saying the film is too violent. That’s crazy. McQueen pulls back, showing only a few isolated instances, like the hanging and whipping, but making them powerful enough to speak to the brutality of slavery without having to make it every scene.

Anyway, I hope it wins and not GRAVITY but I gave up on the Oscars agreeing with me a long time ago.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 28, 2014 6:16 pm

Dan – Thank you! I appreciated NEBRASKA and thought it was a beautifully photographed film. And as a big fan of Bruce Dern I wouldn’t mind seeing him finally take home a Best Actor Oscar.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 28, 2014 6:21 pm

Swac – I still haven’t seen THE GREAT BEAUTY but I may catch it tonight or Sat. if I have the time since I’m curious about all the Fellini comparisons. In the meantime I’ll be rooting for THE HUNT to take home the Best Foreign Film prize this year. Thomas Vinterberg’s film really made an impact on me.

Posted By Doug : February 28, 2014 6:25 pm

I had to look deep down into the list of nominees to find the one film nominated that I have seen this year: “Ironman 3″. I don’t get out much. If I watch the Awards, I will cheer for everybody, as I have no favorites.
Did the movie “Gravity” use the Sara Bareilles song? That would be cool.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 28, 2014 6:51 pm

Greg – I think a lot of people who have shown objection to the film are mostly having trouble with the way McQueen mixes beauty & brutality. Accusing the film of being “exploitive” or using an absurd term like “torture porn” to describe it betrays their obvious prejudices against horror cinema and it shuts down any interesting or meaningful discussion, which I find really frustrating. McQueen’s film may have been informed by talented directors like Friedkin, Conenberg or even Argento and I think there’s an interesting conversation to be had about the influence of horror cinema on 12 YEARS A SLAVE. But I’m so damn tired of critics using that as a stick to beat a film with. As if it’s an arthouse (or multiplex for that matter) crime to show any of those influences in your work. Anyway, I’m rambling again but I’m sure you get the gist of my argument.

I will add that I was astonished that 12 YEARS A SLAVE cinematographer Sean Bobbitt didn’t receive an Oscar nom for his work on the film. Especially when GRAVITY, which was all special effects and camera tricks haphazardly (in my opinion) sliced together, was nominated.

Posted By kingrat : February 28, 2014 7:09 pm

To present another viewpoint: I do not want to see people being tortured in any film or TV show, whether it’s officially a horror film or THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST or 12 YEARS A SLAVE or 24 or ZERO DARK THIRTY or SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE or a trashy soap like SCANDAL. Torture porn is hard to avoid these days.

Is it possible to show torture directly without creating torture porn? I think the answer is “probably not.” If not shown indirectly (the shadows on the wall in classic era films) or very quickly, the result is probably torture porn.

Not only cable TV, but network TV, now shows scenes of torture with surprising regularity.

Kimberly, I realize that you are understandably focusing on only one film, which, I’m willing to believe, has other scenes which are well-made. I’m concerned about a culture in which torture and scenes of horrific violence are an expected and necessary part of everyday entertainment.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : February 28, 2014 7:49 pm

Kingrat – I’m sorry, but I find the phrase “torture porn” misdirected and frankly rather silly. While there are plenty of violent films and television programs there are also just as many that are not. Just take a quick look at the Oscar nominated films this year. They may deal with some uncomfortable topics but there are no violent moments in NEBRASKA, HER, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB or PHILOMENA.

Unfortunately torture is part of our everyday life as are all the other horrors I mentioned in my post. Our news media should be tackling these topics regularly and our history books shouldn’t bury them but they do. This means that artists like director Steve McQueen are left to fill in the gap. McQueen isn’t particularly interested in “entertaining” audiences and 12 YEARS A SLAVE isn’t a film you go to if you want to forget your troubles or the problems of the world. It’s a film we’re meant to think about and (hopefully) learn from. I think we need movies like this and I’m grateful for it but no one is forcing anyone to watch it, although I have heard that it will be made available to schools who want to show it in association with teaching the book it was based on.

Posted By swac44 : February 28, 2014 8:05 pm

It seems no one was bothered by the sight of a man’s head punctured by a piece of flying space junk in Gravity, which as an image is more horrific (minus the subtext, I mean) than any particular image in 12 Years a Slave.

Posted By swac44 : February 28, 2014 8:09 pm

The Great Beauty certainly invites comparisons to La Dolce Vita, Roma and maybe even Satyricon, but it grows more intensely personal as it goes along. I think it purposely plays on our expectations based on the viewer’s knowledge of Italian film, but still goes somewhere that feels fresh.

Posted By Doug : February 28, 2014 8:45 pm

I will never see “The Passion Of The Christ” as that is religious torture porn. As if the brutality is necessary to make us ‘feel’
more connected with the religion.
As distasteful and horrific as the violence in “Django Unchained”
was, it was shining light on a distasteful and horrific era.
Having not seen “12 Years A Slave” I can’t comment, but I trust that the opinions I’ve read here are right, that the unpleasant
elements are part of telling the true story. I will see the movie someday.

Posted By gregferrara : March 1, 2014 1:13 am

I will add that I was astonished that 12 YEARS A SLAVE cinematographer Sean Bobbitt didn’t receive an Oscar nom for his work on the film. Especially when GRAVITY, which was all special effects and camera tricks haphazardly (in my opinion) sliced together, was nominated.

We are in absolute agreement.

Posted By george : March 1, 2014 2:13 am

James Franco should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for SPRING BREAKERS. It’s the most imaginative performance of 2013. But I’m sure the movie repulsed the elderly Oscar voters, if they bothered to watch it at all.

Posted By jbryant : March 1, 2014 7:41 pm

I still haven’t seen Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips or American Hustle (hoping to catch the latter today), but loved Gravity, Her, The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years a Slave; Nebraska I liked a great deal, but not quite as much. Not sure which I’d vote for if I had a ballot. 12 Years seems likeliest to stand the test of time, but I give Her big points for originality, and Gravity is a tech game-changer (really surprised you used the word “haphazardly” in reference to its visuals — nothing in that film felt haphazard to me).

Posted By Doug : March 2, 2014 4:47 pm

This being Oscar day/night, I thought I might put this here, foreign film posters of American classics:
http://imgur.com/a/GhPcE

enjoy the day and Oscar night!

Posted By robbushblog : March 3, 2014 5:07 pm

If I were a voter I would have voted for The Wolf of Wall Street. I posted my picks online last Thursday and got 19 of 24 correct. I missed Best Documentary (I could have sworn that The Act of Killing was going to win), Best Animated Short (Mickey Mouse was robbed!), Best Live Action Short, Best Doc Short and Best Foreign Film. Those 5 always screw me up.

As for the violence in the movie: It probably wasn’t enough. The movie took place over a 12 year span. The few scenes of violence, though graphic, were few. It’s not torture porn to show the experiences that real people endured. Those who were too squeamish to handle the few scenes must have been unaware of the treatment that actual slaves received. I would also disagree with those who say that The Passion of the Christ was just torture porn. I guess it’s one thing to read it about it in the Bible, but to actually see it re-enacted is just too much. Hardly. The images from both movies should stay forever in our minds. For doing that, 12 Years a Slave was extremely effective, and quite worthy of its win for Best Picture.

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