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Reacting To Armond White's Torturous Reaction To '12 Years A Slave'...

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act October 16, 2013 at 5:59PM

While I haven't yet personally reviewed the film on this site (I want to see it a second time before doing so), if you read my interview with director Steve McQueen, as well as my September 25 piece on slave movies, titled Despite Success Of '12 Years A Slave,' Many Stories Set During The Period Still To Be Told, you'll know that I was underwhelmed with 12 Years A Slave (I first saw it about a month ago).
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Armond White

While I haven't yet personally reviewed the film on this site (I want to see it a second time before doing so), if you read my interview with director Steve McQueen, as well as my September 25 piece on slave movies, titled Despite Success Of '12 Years A Slave,' Many Stories Set During The Period Still To Be Told, you'll know that I was underwhelmed with 12 Years A Slave (I first saw it about a month ago). 

However, I certainly don't despise it. I just feel that praise for it has been excessive. 

But if you think I've been "anti" 12 Years A Slave, you're in for a "treat" in S&A film critic fave Armond White's review of the film, published this afternoon.

Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that White didn't care for the movie; after all, it won't be the first time that he's critically-obliterated a film that's seemingly universally-loved. It's humorously expected. And given the celebration that has been critical and audience reaction to 12 Years A Slave, a literary thrashing of the film by White was a near-certainty. 

Not to imply that he's a contrarian just for the sake of it, by the way. Although some have argued in favor of that, I genuinely anticipate reading what White has to say each week, in part because he's one of very few prominent black film critics, who commands attention and respect. The man knows his shit, to put it bluntly, and he knows that he knows his shit, and he's not at all afraid to show how much shit he knows. And I'd argue that some simply don't know what to do with, or how to handle his aggressive, adversarial nature. I appreciate the fact that he never walks away from a challenge, and I almost always learn something (especially about other films) from reading his film critiques - even though I don't always agree with his opinions.

They are also, at times, just plain entertaining to read - whether that's intentional or not. So I get an education some times, while being entertained in the process! The old one-two punch!

And he certainly doesn't disappoint in his 12 Years A Slave review.

Here's a sample of some of the more incendiary lines from the review, which, by the way, is titled "Dud of the Week; 12 Years A Slave," prepping you for what's to come:

- Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend “a conversation about race.”

- This is not part of social or historical enlightenment – the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement.

- Because 12 Years of Slave is such a repugnant experience, a sensible viewer might be reasonably suspicious about many of the atrocities shown–or at least scoff at the one-sided masochism: Northup talks about survival but he has no spiritual resource or political drive–the means typically revealed when slave narratives are usually recounted.

- It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience.

- These tortures might satisfy the resentment some Black people feel about slave stories (“It makes me angry”), further aggravating their sense of helplessness, grievance–and martyrdom. It’s the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of The Help and The Butler. And the perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like 12 Years a Slave to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history.

- The fact that McQueen’s harshness was trending among Festivalgoers (in Toronto, Telluride and New York) suggests that denial still obscures the history of slavery: Northup’s travail merely make it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad (as wags complained about Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an “official” Holocaust movie–which very few people went to see twice). McQueen’s fraudulence further accustoms moviegoers to violence and brutality.

- McQueen’s art-world background recalls Peter Greenaway’s high-mindedness; he’s incapable of Q.T.’s [Quentin Tarantino's] stupid showmanship. (He may simply be blind to American ambivalence about the slave era and might do better focusing on the crimes of British imperialism.) Instead, every character here drags us into assorted sick melancholies...

- And Alfre Woodard as a self-aware Black plantation mistress rapidly sinks into unrescuable psychosis. Ironically, Woodard’s performance is weird comic relief–a neurotic tribute to Butterfly McQueen’s frivolous Hollywood inanity but from a no-fun perspective. By denying Woodard a second appearance, director McQueen proves his insensitivity. He avoids any hopefulness, preferring to emphasize scenes devoted to annihilating Nyong’o’s body and soul.

- Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie. They may have forgotten Roots, never seen Sankofa or Nightjohn, disliked Amistad, dismissed Beloved and even decried the violence in The Passion of the Christ, yet 12 Years a Slave lets them congratulate themselves for “being aghast at slavery.”

- The egregious inhumanity of 12 Years a Slave (featuring the most mawkish and meaningless fade-out in recent Hollywood history) only serves to perpetuate Hollywood’s disenfranchisement of Black people’s humanity.

- Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.

What's most curious to me about his reaction is that I actually didn't find the film as harsh, repugnant and torturous as he did. In fact, as I've shared in previous posts, I believe that there are still even more brutal (physically and mentally) stories to be told about slavery. Although, I've also said that there's a rich history here (of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), full of a myriad of tales of all kinds, mostly untapped, which could be fodder for countless films to last many lifetimes. And I certainly hope that 12 Years A Slave won't be the final word on slavery movies in America, but instead the one that encourages a much closer look at those many momentous years in American (actually, global) history, where numerous untold tales are currently buried - tales of the inhumanity endured, for sure, but also of the triumphs, the loves, the hopes, dreams, traditions and mythologies rooted in the cultures from which our ancestors were removed, and everything else between the extremes, whether historical fact, or creative fiction.

I'm looking forward to the conversations that follow, once the film opens this weekend, and expands to other cities over successive weeks.

Read Armond White's full review of 12 Years A Slave HERE.

This article is related to: Steve McQueen, Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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