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'12 Years a Slave' Dissenters Raise Questions Worth Answering

by Sam Adams
October 18, 2013 12:25 PM
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Since 12 Years a Slave made its debut -- unofficially at Telluride, officially in Toronto -- the debate surrounding Steve McQueen's unsparing chronicle of American slavery has been less about whether or it not it's a great film than just how great it is. With 31 reviews in, it's overtaken Gravity at Metacritic as the best-reviewed movie of the year; Criticwire's 39 reviews yield an A- average. There's nothing inherently wrong with critical consensus; some movies just are great, in a way that few find reason to dispute. But consensus doesn't clarify like debate, and when critics unite in praise, it's always worth seeking out those who intelligently depart from the herd.

It's no surprise that among the dissenters is Armond White, a once-great critic who's become a tiresomely predictable contrarian; given that his review was the subject of at least half a dozen blog posts, it's clear where the impetus lies. White's review is characteristically rife with  ad hominem attacks -- "Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie" -- and incomprehensible jabs: "It's the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of The Help and The Butler." What could "aberrant warmth" even mean? If anything's aberrant, in the non-judgmental sense of the term, it's White's eccentric views.

But as is sometimes the case, there's a salient critique mixed in with White's street-corner ranting, one that's echoed by other, less spittle-flecked takes on the film:

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. 

Without exception, 12 Years a Slave's critics point to McQueen's fine-art background as the source of the movie's faults. New York's David Edelstein cites the movie's "painterly malignancy," while the Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek, who calls it "the movie for people who think they're too smart for The Butler," says:

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.

At ArtsMeme, Robert Koehler echoes White's scorched-earth approach, with similarly unsupported assertions. McQueen, he says "wrongly perceives the psychological and emotional underpinnings that guided the Southern slave trade," evidently assuming those misguided notions are sufficiently self-evident as to need no explanation. McQueen's "ridiculous dramatic reduction of the slave experience makes the huzzahs the movie is receiving as the 'first genuine slavery movie' [NB: not a phrase anyone has used before Koehler] misguided. Solomon's own dilemma gets lost in the movie’s concern for the masters' sick and twisted psychoses."

Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt, via his own site calls 12 Years "slavery porn," who fails "to convey his main character's inner life either as a free man (very briefly) or 12 years a slave." McQueen's "educational horror show," he says, "refuses to transcend the gruesome particulars of slavery. Nor does it with a few exceptional moments say much about the human spirit."

It's not clear how Honeycutt expects a movie about slavery to "transcend" its particulars, nor why that would be desirable. Indeed, slavery's particulars are just what the movie insists on, with its grueling long takes and its insistent (if subtle) reminders that American slaves are an integral part of the global economy: A crane shot (which Vadim Rizov draws attention to here) that pulls back from Ejiofor's character being led off a slave ship to show the dozens of similar ships docked behind it; a frame split between the blurry figure of a whipped slave and her comrades at work sorting cotton. 

At Slant Magazine, Ed Gonzales echoes and amplifies Honeycutt's complaint, charging that the movie "cheapens Solomon's experience by presenting it as an educational string of episodic horrors." He also bring in McQueen's art-gallery past, saying that the director "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."

The most considered attack on 12 Years a Slave comes from Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot. Even as someone who esteems the film highly, I find his individual observations impossible to gainsay, though I see strength where he sees miscalculations:

Three movies into his second career as a feature filmmaker, McQueen has leveraged his obvious skills as an installation artist into becoming the modern master of a certain kind of set piece -- the literal show-stopper, in which the movie grinds to a halt to beg our applause. It's indeed disturbing to watch Ejiofor's Solomon Northup choking underneath the noose placed around his neck by a brutal plantation foreman (Paul Dano), but it’s also infuriating in a way that exceeds its narrative function. McQueen may intend the sight of a dangling black man as the centerpiece of his grim historical drama, but it's actually a symbol of his artistic exhibitionism. Powerful as this image is, it conflates the agony of the character with the bravery of the man unflinching enough to put it onscreen.

It's worth noting that the image Nayman singles out closely resembles one of McQueen's actual gallery works: 2013's "Lynching Tree," which famously served as the backdrop for Kanye West's live performance of "Blood on the Leaves." I think there's power in that level abstraction, as well as a commendable unsentimentality that prevents 12 Years a Slave from becoming simply one man's story. But the objections the movie's more articulate critics raise deserve consideration. Great films don't need to be protected from criticism; they grow stronger withstanding it.


  • Joseph peters | December 13, 2013 10:40 PMReply

    What emotion? Movie drags and the protagonist stares like a deer in headlights for 2 hours. Very forgettable....and I thought " The Help" deserved best picture so my opinions are not racial.

  • TellTheTruth | October 31, 2013 4:40 AMReply

    I saw the movie and my only critique is that while the cruelty was spectacular, sustained images of complete indifference were still lacking - not too mention there was too much affluent dialogue.

    It will not win "Best Picture," even though that's for others to decide.

  • Andre Morton | October 18, 2013 6:01 PMReply

    Having read Mr. White's review of the film and still sifting through my own feelings on it these are my thoughts on 12 Years a Slave. The slavery narrative is in itself a most peculiar institution, in as much America is an ahistorical culture. The only tolerable lenses for self reflection are gauzy visions of self sacrifice by the so called "Greatest Generation" in WW2 or their progeny the Baby Boomers in Vietnam Nam. War is the backdrop against which any measure of American psyche can coexist with the never ending greatest nation in the world mythos. It is an aversion to the self loathing that would be born from an honest assessment of the genocidal roots the Americas, that keeps some white folks and some of color locked in a protective bubble of make believe "post racial/everything is better and I'm guilt free" in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

    I believe it is almost impossible to view 12 Years A Slave within the cultural context of being an American without experiencing certain psychological shocks both from the scar tissue of ancestral victimization, or the disconnect the fact that today's white privilege is rooted in this history of brutal subjugation. In other words the deck is loaded before the curtain is raised, the prism with which you will view the film has been firmly imprinted in your brain before the first frame rolls simply because we have never had an honest discourse about our collective experience here in the Americas.

    While I believe Mr. White is entitled to the esthetic criticisms he makes, as those are matters of conjecture and opinion, it is disingenuous for him to claim that Steve McQueen and Henry Louis Gates are "profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history". That is an exceptionally specious claim for a film with a budget of $20 million shot on location in 35 days, hardly a summer tentpole. And as for Brad Pitt's on screen presence, a necessity to secure the funding for a film no one else wanted to make. If the film is lauded and being pushed towards the Oscar races that is a testament to the quality of Mr. McQueen's filmmaking and a bit of shrewd marketing tactic by the coterie of investors who are attempting to recoup their investment. Any industry insider will tell you, no one makes a 20 million dollar picture in hopes of striking it rich.

    If the film fails Mr. White's desire for specific esthetic choices, that is of small consequence if it begins a moment of long belated self reflection on the American continents, whose bloody history of slavery and genocide has yet to cease reverberating through the body politic and society at large.

  • Bentley | October 21, 2013 10:58 AM

    "it is disingenuous for him (White) to claim that Steve McQueen and Henry Louis Gates are 'profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history'". This is a matter of opinion as well, and dependent on how cynically you see the business of movie-making. I myself am a bit wary of a narrative involving a successful artist like McQueen being plucked up and establishing himself as the savior of serious cinema in just a few short years. Not to mention that White ascribes these qualities to McQueen on the basis of what he feels to be an exploitative nature in his prior films. Kevin Shields, the leader of the band My Bloody Valentine, recently in an interview shared that the British government was behind pushing the British cultural movement of "Britpop" in the nineties. A lot of post-war films in Europe and Japan also seemed to benefit from large, hidden benefactors of governments and political movements. Movies have always been a propaganda tool, and it is my opinion that ascribing to its artists the virtue of complete sincerity is probably misplaced. In that respect, Mr. White is entitled to ALL of his opinions regarding the film; as are you, yours.

  • Bforreal | October 19, 2013 11:08 PM

    "I believe it is almost impossible to view 12 Years A Slave within the cultural context of being an American without experiencing certain psychological shocks both from the scar tissue of ancestral victimization, or the disconnect the fact that today's white privilege is rooted in this history of brutal subjugation. In other words the deck is loaded before the curtain is raised, the prism with which you will view the film has been firmly imprinted in your brain before the first frame rolls simply because we have never had an honest discourse about our collective experience here in the Americas." YES to this, and to your last paragraph.

    As a slave-descended black American who just saw the film today, I can say with absolute honesty that the type of psychological pain and discomfort this film stirred up in me (I seriously wept throughout the entire film and could hardly hold it together during and for several hours afterward) was unparalleled and yet entirely necessary. No movie depicting slavery has ever moved me so much. The effect of slavery on the human spirit - gosh, McQueen conveyed it brilliantly and unrelentingly, and for that I thank him and the entire cast and crew. Bless Brad Pitt for financing this important film. I will think about this film for a long time, and I can only hope that more Americans (especially those from slave-descended backgrounds, and whites with generations of family in this country) see this movie.

    That said, thank you for your comment. I completely agree with all points!

  • Brent L-Z | October 18, 2013 1:18 PMReply

    I find it somewhat appalling that these reviewers seem to be responding to the widespread praise for the film as opposed to the content of the film itself. I saw the movie a few days ago and, as a fan of McQueen's other work, struggled with how overwhelmingly popular this movie seems to be getting.
    I don't want to be presumptuous, but I feel that all of the negative critics would praise this film if this was McQueen's first film and it wasn't receiving Oscar buzz. The movie is phenomenal, presenting a narrative about slavery's toll on the human spirit rather than focusing on the tired (though still poignant) race inequality themes. McQueen is just as interested in the damage slavery has done to the psyche of the slave owners as he is concerned about its effects on the slaves. For that reason, I find the attacks on "12 Years a Slave" to be dismissive for the sake of being dismissive.

  • imahrtbrkbeat | October 19, 2013 2:48 AM

    You took the words right out of my mouth, Brent. I saw a rough cut in February and said the exact same thing. This is why I think a lot of people are not ready for the gravity and the emotional depth of this film. It's a narrative, not a day in the life. It showcases the psychological toll slavery took on the spirit. It's not about what happened during slavery. It's about a free man that has been savagely thrown into human bondage because that is where society feels he belongs. It's not something he was born into, nor is it a way of life with which he is familiar. So the perspective itself is what brings dimension to the film and the story of Solomon Northrup.

  • shelly | October 18, 2013 12:56 PMReply

    There is a lot of truth to the movie losing the character of Soloman to the director's obsession with Fassbender. It morphs into a story about Epps and a far less interesting one.

  • David | October 20, 2013 12:37 AM

    No, there's no truth to that. Epps was Northrup's owner for only half the film. Besides, weak villains make for dull protagonists. And the film was based on a true story. I have no doubt that it is in fact your version of the memoir that would be much less interesting.

  • Christopher S. | October 18, 2013 12:50 PMReply

    Stephanie Zacharek is the worst critic working today. Back when she was at Salon and apparently now at the Village Voice, she typified the '90's first year film school hipster contrarian that hates everything that everyone likes and likes many movies that critics loathe. Not for aesthetic reasons, but for purely hipster contrarian reasons. "The movie for people who think they're too smart for The Butler," she says. You can just feel the smarm, pretentiousness and condescension dripping off of those words.

  • Chris | November 1, 2013 2:12 AM

    Zacharek has indeed always been a horrifically bad writer and critic, but she's well within her rights to depart from the crowd if she feels a movie has been overrated. I have no problem with her panning this or any movie. I've even read thoughtful, intelligent pans of Citizen Kane, believe it or not.

    The problem, as you point out, is not that Zacharek panned 12 Years a Slave, but the utterly fraudulent and phony manner she goes about framing the issue: "The movie for people who think they're too smart for The Butler." This is, without a doubt, a permanent tic and quirk of Zacharek's writing: she lazily resorts to this false framing of the taste divide in almost every single review she writes. First of all, only an idiot critic would reflexively link together The Butler and 12 Years a Slave just because they deal with the experience of African Americans. But what's repugnant about her reviews is her need to pose as someone who can see through other people's illusions. Other people may fool themselves that they are too sophisticated for a ham-fisted film like The Butler, but Her Majesty Queen Stephanie, of course, is far cleverer and more self-aware than the unwashed plebs.

    Only she isn't. She isn't self-aware at all. Her pathetic and incessant need to falsify other people's aesthetic responses in order to prop up her own bloated ego is becoming wearisome. She's been at this job for almost two decades now, yet she still writes like an immature teenager, even though she's in her fifties. That at her rather advanced age she still feels the need to play this stupid game - "YOU thought the movie was saying THIS, but REALLY it's saying THIS - YOU thought THIS glossy piece of Oscar bait was high art but really it was THAT piece of honest, wholesome, multiplex trash that was the REAL work of art!" - a game she learned from Pauline Kael - a far better critic in every conceivable way than the perennially mediocre Zacharek - has simply become embarrassing by this point. Obviously Zacharek has never grown up and never will grow up, she will play her "I'm hipper and smarter than thou" game to the bitter end of her dismally solipsistic hipster life. Unearned condescension is her watchword, her talisman, the essence of her being.

    You thought 12 Years a Slave was a masterpiece, but really it's not as good as The Butler. (It doesn't seem to occur to Zacharek that even if this were true, one might still think 12 Years the better film because of the cast - it shouldn't exactly be controversial to think Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Paulson more gifted performers than Oprah Winfrey - and because The Butler falsifies the life story of the man whose story it purports to tell.)

    You thought The Dark Knight and Inception were great blockbusters, but really they suck: the REAL masterpiece was Salt starring the greatest actress on the planet, Angelina Jolie! (It doesn't seem to occur to Zacharek that maybe, just maybe, none of these movies live up to the hype, and that all resort to formula and cliché to achieve their effects.)

    This is the stupid little self-congratulatory game Zacharek has played for almost two decades now, without any more competence now than when she started out at SALON. She takes down, sometimes with justification, a popular film that has received a great deal of acclaim - then follows up her pan by heaping praise on a different title that, 9 times out of 10, proves to be no better, and sometimes proves worse, than the title she panned!

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