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Review: In Steve McQueen's '12 Years A Slave' Black Pain Is Hard, Torturous & Visceral

by Frances Bodomo
October 15, 2013 2:46 PM
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'12 Years a Slave'

On his motivation for making 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen says with his usual sardonic wit, "I wanted to make a slave movie."

Yes, 12 Years A Slave is rife with the markers of a slave movie: mute negro masses, violent lashings, broken skin, objectified black bodies, chains, negro spirituals, self-pity. And my gut instinct resisted this iconography that usually asks me to feel blanket emotion, these visual markers that usually make black pain easy… because how can I not feel anything here? I am resistant to most war movies, Holocaust movies, and African genocide movies for the same reason.

But I am thankful McQueen did not break free of this iconography. He uses these markers to keep us rooted in both the physical and—more interestingly—the existential restrictions of the time. 

12 Years is refreshingly not a slave revolt movie. It is not the rhythmic fever dream of Hunger, and thankfully so. Because in this era we are far enough from Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, far enough from the Civil War. By keeping us firmly rooted in the tense twists and turns of a largely uncaring world, McQueen crafts a slave narrative filled with specific interiority and existential significance. We have little poetic respite—though Sean Babbitt's cinematography is literally breathtaking—we have no comfort in the distance of poetry. We must be drawn through the minutiae of obstacle after obstacle, punishment after punishment, betrayal after betrayal. 

And it is physically draining.

12 Years A Slave is not a pity party, it is a heart-clenching horror film. It is not a sad film (because I am not distanced from these characters), it is tense and draining and gut-wrenching and uncomfortable. In the horror tradition, the objectification of pain—rather than "poeticizing' of their pain—is used to stunning result. As Solomon makes Sisyphean attempt after Sisyphean attempt at his escape, we are drawn through a tense and chilling journey with little respite.

I tell you, black pain in most other films is easy. Here, in the high altitude hills of Telluride, my heart was threatening to stop.

This is its greatest triumph.

I have never felt turned on during a slave movie; I have never giggled at a slapstick tumble during a slave movie; I have never felt so powerless and simultaneously refreshed during a slave movie. This audience involvement—borne from the complex ways in which we are asked to partake in the drama—is what makes this different from any other slave narrative I have ever seen. 

Where Django was distanced in its postmodernity, where Lincoln was an apologist retelling that relegated blackness to naive dignity, this new installment in America's current obsession with slave narratives successfully achieves moments of—heck, rolling landscapes of—interiority.

Despite its rigidly temporal title, McQueen is masterful in removing a sense of the passage of time. We traverse the 12 years through escape tactic after escape tactic, struggle after struggle. At no point do we feel that Solomon is making a teleological journey towards his escape, that he is laying down building blocks towards freedom. No the (admittedly anachronistic) American idea of upward movement is not available to him. His attempts often twist him back to where he began. In fact—in a fantastic move—we are only ever cognizant of time when Solomon returns home to see that his young children are now grown. My heart fell deep into my belly, "Oh shit! It's been 12 years!"

As expected, the performances are just stunning. Most notable is newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, whose tempered treatment of both her character's pain and sexuality evokes a specific existential melancholia. To see a negress accused of such a complicated emotion as insolence

Michael Fassbender shines in yet another chillingly charismatic role (honestly, the McQueen-Fassbender duo can do no wrong). The star-studded cameo list does not disappoint. 

And then there is Chiwetel Ejiofor. In all honesty, going in, I was worried about his interpretation of Solomon. He tends to play characters with such dignified black pain and I was fearful his role could easily slide into Oscar-pandering. But as Solomon sits stiff in the presence of white men, I am reminded painfully of the way in which my Ghanaian elders curl their Rs in the presence of white people. 

I ask: Solomon, are you really free in this world? 

Thanks to Ejiofor relentlessly holding on to the dignity of his character, I am free to question him as a subject and not an object: what character traits led Solomon to be sold? Does he take too much pride in praise from the white men around him? Why does he so believe in the legal system (procuring his free papers to prove his freedom)? As a freed black man, does he not question a legal system in which his kin are still enslaved? Because the film is so loyal and relentless in stripping him of the affect of his socialization, it is exhilarating to watch dignified Ejiofor go through the twists and turns of a character that is being robbed of his identity, humanity, psychology. His reaction to this is full-bodied, fluid, and heartbreaking.

Solomon's psychology, which begins rife with flashbacks, is literally stripped of him. The flashbacks disappear to make way for mechanized bodies moving in perfectly-framed shots. 

When Solomon finally gets his chance to escape, we finally see him as we haven't been able to yet: a long, slow, closeup with the POV sounds of the lush bayou ringing on about him. He has his psychology—his humanity—back.

McQueen is masterful. He explores characters through their attitude in this restrictive world, thereby giving them a sense of agency. But it is suggested early on that, for slaves, all tactics at betterment have universally brought them to the same despairing place. Seeing how each person has reacted to this fate is refreshing and intensely human. 

McQueen explores nuances of character and attitude without falling prey to the sentimentality with which we regard our ancestors' struggle, the way in which we tend to unify their interiority. The intersection of these varying attitudes further intensifies the despair in a time right before the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and Juneteenth.

With no end in sight, McQueen treats violence with finesse. He does not simply employ off-screen violence, he specifically shows the violence being enacted and keeps the recipient of this violence off-screen. A mother's pleas to not be separated from her children are out of focus, her voice is off-screen as cold-faced slave owners barter; a young woman's body is off-screen as we are see the contorting face of the slave owner; a woman's cries ring above a pristine powder-colored church service. McQueen shows us the products of such violence in later scenes—scars, open gashes, bloodied eyes, broken skin—to achieve a peculiar objectification of the black body that evokes empathy, not sympathy. 

Once again, my visceral disgust puts me in the story. Within this framework, we are asked to watch violent acts in long (looong!) takes with all other people in frame simply milling about and going on with their day. This violence is everyday. And the camera serves to heighten this relentless, cold objectivity in the face of suffering. It is chilling, I am stunned, I am begging for the sequence to stop. I do not feel pity, I feel visceral pain and discomfort. 

And what is more powerful than that?

As I rose with the largely white, upper-class audience—sorry, gotta say it—into a standing ovation, I wondered if we were feeling the same kind of catharsis. 

Ultimately, though McQueen's usage of the slave narrative iconography is specific, it is still present. I am preparing myself to be stunned when, come awards season, this daring and heartfelt treatment of slavery will be assimilated into the sympathy and pity of "easy" black pain. I sincerely hope that the discourse will do justice to the fact that, in 12 Years A Slave, black pain is hard and draining and torturous and visceral. 

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  • Tom | May 23, 2014 11:12 PMReply

    This movie was more fictional than truth. How the actress from Africa got best supporting actress for what she said 25 words in the whole movie. What a rigged system. So many better actors better actresses and better plots in a dozen movies that I saw last year. I give it a C just because it did keep your attention. The scensry was nice if you like the swsmps of Georgis really this movie wss for the dogs.

  • EvAngel Mamadeelove YHWHnewBN | October 23, 2013 12:49 PMReply


    Thank you Steve McQueen & Brad Pitt
    For 12 Years a Slave that Resurrects the
    Consciousness of John Brown and Nat Turner

    John Brown, facing his sentence of a hanging death, is quoted as saying, ”you can dispose of me very easy as a matter of fact, I’m already disposed of but this Negro Question; the end of that is not yet.”

    Brad Pitt, a White Man using his Money and Steve McQueen, a Black Man using his Gift of Moviemaking takes the Negro Question to the next level by telling the experience of a Free Black Man, kidnapped into “12 Years of Slavery.” Like Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments examined the life of Moses, we journey through time and visited the “Peculiar Institution” of Slavery thru the life of Solomon Northrup.

    John Brown and Nat Turner fought to Emancipate the Bodies of Chattel Slaves. Brad Pitt and Steve McQueen forces today’s African American to deal with the Negro Question. Seeing themselves as Crimes Against Humanity Descendants and Survivors of Unjust Laws of Segregation Jim Crow/genocide has been a missing link. Who will remove the shackles from their minds?

    Knowing who put them there is not enough. The Slave Creator that put the chains on the minds of the enslaved Africans never intended to remove them. In fact, they cannot even, if they wanted to. Only the enslaved can liberate their mind.

    In 1841, the free man didn’t have a Xerox Copy of his freedom papers and Fugitive Slave Laws meant he could lose that Kunta Kinte Identity and become Toby, at any time. Whether kidnapped from Washington D.C., an anti-slave state, or kidnapped from Africa; We as a People must acknowledge the slave mentality and only ourselves can liberate ourselves from Toby back to Kunta Kente…from Platt back to Solomon Northrup.

    Blacks had no rights that Whites were bound to respect. They were a Subjugated Race, inferior and subordinate, whether they were emancipated or not, according to the United States Supreme Court Dred Scott Decision of 1857; so their freedom was conditional, not an inalienable right.

    12 Years a Slave examines the many levels of the SlaveOwner’s Mentality. They could be obsessed with the Black Woman while seeing her and other slaves as a non human property thing that he owned. Yet, he must have recognized their humanity
    Cont’d on page 2

    at some level because he used the Bible to keep them in check and to justify bullwhip beatings. The Slave Master is your Lord and if you don’t obey the Lord…you will get many stripes…many lashes from the whip, 40, 50 or 150.

    12 Years a Slave examines the despair of a slavery mother losing her children, as compared to a father losing his children. Slave Rachel’s weeping for their children, if they could not be comforted, were put away as unseemly.

    We get to examine the Slave Master’s Wife and her hatred for the Slave Woman that her Husband lusted after day and night. When the object of his obsession did not return his affection…it turned to hatred… His perverted affection turned to grooming little slave girls to soothe his sickness; no one had sanctuary, especially a pretty little girl child.

    Some enslaved women took the lesser of two (2) evils so they could avoid the lash, the fields and be served instead of serving. As in “Roots,” they wanted to be warm, not cold and fed, not hungry.

    12 Years a Slave let’s you see how talent and beauty was more of a curse for a slave than a benefit because it could cause jealousy and increase punishment.

    The journey of 12 Years a Slave is why Mary Robinson, the U.N. Secretary General, suggested on August 29, 2001 (when the United Nations voted Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade as a Crime Against Humanity and always has been),
    “that the World Community needs to honor the Memory of the Victims of these Tragedies.”

    My hope is that December 18, 2013, the 148th anniversary of the Signing of the 13th Amendment will be honored as a Annual National Holiday to Celebrate the truth of the blood, sweat and tears of a people for centuries that made America rich; and their Descendants without financial repair or cultural respect. That would make us free of the Legacy of Race Hatred Rooted in Slavery that diminishes us all.

    Thank you Steve McQueen and Brad Pitt, in the Spirit of John Brown and Nat Turner revisiting the Negro Question that 12 Years a Slave, forces us to answer. Hatred was learned, now love can be taught.

    Page 2

  • Rel | October 21, 2013 1:38 AMReply

    I'm beginning to believe that all Blacks in Hollywood (or trying to get into Hollywood like half the people on this site) are plain and simply dumb. I mean, how many more movies reminding Black people of their servitude to whites do we need? How much more propaganda will you idiots promote before you realize that you're helping to sign your own death certificates? You're condoning "your station" as inferior to whites - that's what these movies are about.

    Why is it that you can't see that hollyweird rarely if ever makes movies about european servitude to the moors? or to the arabs or any other non-white people? why? because they don't want their children believing that their station in life is to expect mistreatment, expect servitude, expect domination by non-white groups, even if it is in their history. if you can't see the danger of constantly filling your mind with propaganda that promotes defeat, then you're lost. what a bunch of dummies on shadow and act.

  • Rel | October 21, 2013 1:26 AMReply

    Did this fool really call a Black actress a "negress'??? Well, if this is the mindset this movie gives Black viewers, I definitely won't be watching. Sorry, but these movies are made to entertain racist whites and other black people-haters who secretly relish in "the good old days", and pathetic blacks who believe that their past, present and futures are only supposed to be victimization, with their savior patronizing.

    If black people always only see themselves as victims, servants and failures, don't be shocked that everyone else will too. Please take your pathetic point of view back to Ghana. And McQueen can take his crap back to Britain.

  • j | October 15, 2013 9:11 PMReply

    I am always amazed when I hear black people say there are too many films about slavery and the horrors of jim crow. We have been in this country for 400 years. The first 250 as slaves. The next 100 covered the jim crow period. That is 350 of the 400 years we have been here. 350!

  • Troy | October 15, 2013 5:03 PMReply

    I like mostly all of Chiwetel's works except his is not convincing by any means as an American Urban Criminal. Great supporting actor and decent leading man. I've only seen Shame I like Fassbender's screen presence but the movie seemed like it was made by someone fresh out of film school. I could give a damn about awards. I don't watch feel good black movies. They don't make me feel good.

  • SuccessIsAMust | September 10, 2013 11:09 PMReply

    I actually like Steve McQueens idea on this film. I like how he describe the film full out on how it was different from most films out here and what this film meant to him and what we would be seeing. He shows the struggle after struggle on how difficult life as a black slave was. I like how he said that this film is not a pitty film that you need to feel sad and sorry for but this film is more of a heart clenching horror film. He made sure that with this film the audience was going ot feel uncomfortable and powerless watching, like the slaves were living in this time period.

  • JTC | September 3, 2013 9:40 PMReply

    Firstly, I must "jump on the proverbial bandwagon" and express my agreement that the review was excellent. Secondly, Steve McQueen is a director with a level of skill which inspires me to push myself harder as a filmmaker, which is the best compliment I can offer.

    As an artist/director, I think that it is very important for us to be careful in regards to our efforts to suggest parameters within which artists should operate, whether explicitly or implicitly. The fact is that the spectrum of black images in films is far less representative of the ACTUAL spectrum of real black people than it is perhaps for any other race of people. This dissonance in film and in many more of our cultural representations is one of the sources of self hate which is still pervasive in many of our people. I understand the sentiment which informs this latest debate, but although I have an interest in creating a body of work which delves deep into a fuller panorama of black experience. I reserve the right to make a slave movie. Not because I make the cynical calculation that such a film may due to some perverse Hollywood instinct be a film that I can find a budget for, but because slavery is so much deeper than it appears from the outside looking in. The level of depth, strategy, and intellect demonstrated by our ancestors is hardly understood. The persistence of revolt, rebellion, and resistance is far larger than most history books show. Slaves with intellectual and spiritual complexity are often missing. Slaves with a level of intrigue to match the modern CIA tale. Sadly, far too many of us see little more than the violence of subjugation and forget the geniuses, the craftsmen, and lovers who walked for miles after their time in the fields just to spend a hour with the love of their life. I am inspired by their stories. Slavery was in many ways overwhelming in its power, yet it did not keep our people from experiencing the fullness of their humanity.

    Having said that, I believe that in addition to reclaiming a dignity and respect for our ancestors, we also need to see the spectrum open up. We have had philosophers, scientists, artists, and a variety of visionaries. There are a vast array of genre which are potential lenses to see the black experience through and perhaps most importantly for filmmakers are wide range of narrative forms (consider the narrative structure of films such as, CONTAGION, FIGHT CLUB, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, and SYRIANA). I am excited about this moment in black films, even if I don't love all the filmmakers because if we stop bickering about things which should be left as a personal artistic decisions, there is a vast space of creative possibility for us to partake in.

  • CareyCarey | September 4, 2013 1:03 AM

    HOME RUN!!! The devil IS in the details. A slave movie is not "just" a slave movie. There are many stories yet to be told.

    Great comment!

  • QBN | September 2, 2013 1:20 PMReply

    Meh.. Django was the be all-end all for slavery movies for me.. because I knew there would be payback at the end. Django was very, very, very emotionally satisfying. I don't want to see another "misery porn" movie and that's what this film sounds like. More importantly what happened to McQueen's planned Fela Kuti biopic??

  • dancelover51 | September 1, 2013 10:04 PMReply

    For all those who are sick of "Slave" movies please have a seat. You dishonor the pain and memory of those who through no other fact that horrible luck were birthed into a life of unflinching pain. If they made a movie for every slave that ever lived and died it would still not be enough. The Slave, the human, needs to have his/her story told and Steve is the one to do so and do it unapologetically.

  • scripttease | September 2, 2013 10:31 PM

    I think most Black Folks are sick of "Slave MOVIES" because it seems it’s the only thing we have to look forward to. I cannot speak for all Black folks, but it's nice to see a "feel good" movie every now and again. I agree, it’s good to know our history, and culture, but do we not experience happiness. Must I leave the theater pissed? Especially that one scene (and I hope I have the right film), the white woman examining the black woman’s mouth as if she’s at the Westminster Dog Show.
    I am sorry, but Slave Films do not send me on an emotional ride, I stay in one mode and that is a never-ending decline at two-hundred miles per hour. People are allowed to voice their opinions without being told to have several seats. Since we seem to enjoy these types of films, white folks need to start dishing at least five or six of them per year… it’ll keep us employed, and possibly keep us in a straight line because let’s face it, they have all the guns and power to turn this back into reality.

  • CC | September 2, 2013 8:44 AM

    "For all those who are sick of "Slave" movies please have a seat. You dishonor the pain and memory of those who through no other fact that horrible luck were birthed into a life of unflinching pain"

    Really? Isn't the devil in the details?

    " A holocaust movie is just the icing on the cake, whereas, a slave movie is the cake"

    WINNER! And... "ask yourself if you really honored your ancestors in some meaningful way by doing so [by watching a nondescript slave movie]?

  • Toussaint | September 1, 2013 11:30 PM

    Or one could argue that it's a dishonor to continue to watch slave movies.

    A lot of people have compared slavery movies to holocaust movies. But slavery should not be really be compared to the holocaust on any level. Many of these comments imply that there should be so many movies about the holocaust, which is debatable. But it may be more instructive to compare the sense of vindication that black people and Jewish people feel after watching these movies. Jewish people have had their horrific experience legitimized and revenged by the whole world through the Nuremberg trials, reparations, a new homeland, and their sustained economic prosperity. Descendants of slaves, on the other hand, have none of those things; and probably never will. But we do have slave movies. So, imagine how the two groups might/should feel differently when assessing their past to present progress after watching such movies. A holocaust movie is just the icing on the cake, whereas, a slave movie is the cake. But it's not so delicious in my opinion.

    And at the end of the day, there are only opinions. Some people don't want to see another slave movie, and that's fine. Some people do, and that's fine as well. If you don't want to see this movie, then don't watch it. If you do, then watch it. But if you do watch it, then ask yourself if you really honored your ancestors in some meaningful way by doing so.

  • dancelover51 | September 1, 2013 9:56 PMReply

    This is not only the best review so far of 12 years a slave but possibly the best review I have read period!

  • Nikki | September 1, 2013 8:44 PMReply

    That's a great review.

    There are actually very few films about slavery only 20 (including Gone with the Wind and Lincoln) compared to over 170 films on the Holocaust. So I'm confused when I hear folks say, "I'm tired of films about slavery" How many have you seen?

  • Donella | September 2, 2013 1:15 PM

    Like Gone With the Wind, Lincoln skates on the edge of being a slave movie. Most of the dark people in Lincoln stood in the background with not much to say (3 lines at the most) while the pale people spend three hours speechifying and wrestling with their moral conscience (Daniel Day Lewis) and show-boating (James Spader, Lee Pace).

    Same with Amistad. Dijimon shouted "Give us free!" while Tony Hopkins and Matthew McConahey talked and talked and talked and... looked morally outraged and thoughtful.

    Finally, Steve McQueen comes along and finally puts the camera and boom mike where they belong... in front of future Oscar nominee Chiwetol Ejiofer.

  • Nikki | September 2, 2013 7:36 AM

    "Now when are we going to see more films that show us as blacks as something more than slaves, thugs and losers?"

    Lol, this is a bunch of crap. You've never seen "The Best Man'', "Soul Food", "Middle of Nowhere", "Pariah" or any of Tyler Perry's movies? Or how about "Malcolm X", "Jumping the Broom'', "Barbershop", "The Great Debaters"?

    There are plenty more films like these than Slave movies.

    I said that there were 20 (I'm sorry I meant 19), but films like Gone With the Wind and Lincoln were included.

    The last movie about Slavery before Django was Sankofa 1993. That was 20 years ago. So where are all these slavery films you've seen please point them out to me? It would make more sense to say I don't want to see a film about slavery than I'm tired of slave movies.

  • Ghost | September 1, 2013 11:36 PM

    I have seen enough to not want to see another one. While there have been 170 Holocaust films-how many other film showing Jewish as whatever they want to be have there been?

    Now when are we going to see more films that show us as blacks as something more than slaves, thugs and losers?

    When are we going to see stories about Marcus Garvey? And every other black person that rose about it all without playing a sport or rapping? Just like our Jewish counterparts.

    They have seen their people get brutalized by Hitler and still rise about it all. We have been salves, maids, butlers, jocks and criminals. And when you keep drilling to black kids we were salves and white folks are evil-what will you eventually get-out of control black males who don't care and will kill each other.

  • FactChecker | September 1, 2013 8:24 PMReply

    WOW! What an AMAZZZZZING REVIEW. I'm really curious, excited, and scared to see this tour de force of a story. While I, too, am tired of so many heavy, downtrodden movies, of late, that deal with our history, I know it's important. And I want to support McQueen. So I will go. I do think it's important, and we, like the Jews, need to continue to tell these stories. They never STOP telling their story of the holocaust. They might find a million different ways, and some repeats, but they NEVER stop telling that story because they know it's important not to forget.

    And it's the same for us. These are reminders of how the remnants of slavery STILL affect us. Every day. In every facet of American life. We are still NOT FREE.

  • CareyCarey | September 1, 2013 7:51 PMReply

    "He [ Steve McQueen] is not easy to anticipate or stuck in a mold -- but these commenters are. They are so superficial in their reaction to movies they can only reject them in a generic, uninformed condemnation of slave movies or servant films in general. You people don't deserve to watch movies." ~ SYNTHIA

    Hmmmm... who "deserves" to what movies? Better yet, how does one reach a place where they "deserve" to watch movies? Anyway, hold that thought because that comment and this "review" took me somewhere.

    As many have said, this is a grand review, layered, concise and well written. This was on par with the talents of Armond White without the provocative and idiosyncratic film criticism he's noted for. However, just like when I read Mr. White's reviews, I question who/what audience this type of review is written for? Wait... let me explain.

    The President of the United States often has the difficult responsibility of speaking to the entire nation. He has to craft a message that is complex enough to talk about complicated issues, but easy enough to be understood by the majority of citizens in the country. Well, there are actually formulas that determine which presidents innagral speeches where the most understood by the most citizens in the United States. The formula/test was originally developed to determine how readable army manuals were, but can be used for any text in English. It takes 3 variables: words, sentences, and syllables, and gives back a score between 0 and 100. A high score indicates high ease of understanding; for example, a score between 90 and 100 can generally be understood by the average 11 year old. Time magazine generally score around a 52 (understandable for the average 14 year old) while the Harvard Law Review scores in the 30's (for college grads only).

    All that to say, who is the average movie going audience... do they deserve to watch movies... and who was this review written for? That said, I believe most people go to the movies for a superficial instantaneous experience, not a deep analytical one.

    Btw, for those interested, the most easily-understandable president was George H.W. Bush, follow by Lyndon B Johnson and Richard Nixon. The hardest to understand was John Adams, followed by George Washington and James Madison. Adams low score meant that his inauguration speech is only easily understandable today by college graduate students.

    Anyway, I am reminded of Sergio's opinion that black folks are not ready for a serious slave themed film. Now I'm thinking, based on this review, this film has all the elements of "serious"... BLACK PAIN... HARD, TORTUROUS & Visceral... "McQueen shows us the products of violence —scars, open gashes, bloodied eyes, broken skin... I am begging for the sequence to stop"

    WOW! That sounds serious to me, but... "As I rose with the largely white, upper-class audience—sorry, gotta say it—into a standing ovation, I wondered if we were feeling the same kind of catharsis"

    Hmmmm, upper class whites (up in the mountains of Telluride) rose to their feet to give the film a standing ovation. Well, based on the comments in this post, there's obviously some black folks who can't wait to see this film, so is Sergio gonna have to eat crow? Then again, maybe this post, this review and the glowing comments do not reflect the taste nor opinions of the average black movie-going public?

  • Guest | September 1, 2013 6:08 PMReply

    Do we really need another movie on slavery? Is this all the African race is about?? Yes the enslavement of African people by Europeans (and Arabs - this is always forgotten) is important to know but we must remember we have history prior to these events in history.

  • Darkan | September 2, 2013 10:38 AM

    There are many others. Those are just the most recent. I fully believe that if one doesn't add "Mandingo" or "Roots" to their list then they will barely scratch the surface of the ignorance of the south on film.

  • Accidental Visitor | September 1, 2013 8:42 PM

    12 Years A Slave

    These are about all the Hollywood films (and I'm not even sure if 12 Years qualifies as "Hollywood") that dealt with the lives of slavery in America over the last 30 to 40 years ("Lincoln" tackles the subject of slavery without directly dwelling into the lives of slaves). How does this small number represent an overkill of the subject in your mind? Hmmm?

    Truth is the idea of slavery and the civil rights movement has been far underrepresented in Hollywood films compared to WWII movies, Holocaust stories, Civil War epics, etc. The surface hasn't even been scratched. So let it go already. And stop acting as if you are surprised about the existence of this movie; as if it just appeared out of nowhere and popped up on your screen. It had been in development, and then production and then post production for over a year. I think you had plenty of time to mentally prepare yourself for its release.

  • Donella | September 1, 2013 5:51 PMReply

    Now that's a review! Thank you!

  • BURP | September 1, 2013 1:01 PMReply

    FRANCES BODOMO this is one of the best reviews I have ever read on showdow and act. You make me really want to see this film now. Best of luck to you and keep writing.

  • Peace82 | September 1, 2013 12:09 PMReply

    Been waiting to see this movie all year but somehow waiting another 40+ days seem like an eternity. I'm just so so excited for Chiwetel. He deserves all the praise and accolades that's starting to come his way.

  • Campbell | September 1, 2013 9:54 AMReply

    I have a feeling this is the movie I've been waiting for.
    Just a feeling.

  • Accidental Visitor | September 1, 2013 12:34 AMReply

    " but he is often typecast into a type of character (not just black character) that could easily "soften" a film like this in making the lead easily likeable"

    Often typecast? I still have to respectfully disagree. Earlier today I looked at his list of movies on IMDB just to see if I wasn't giving your point enough credit. But a quick glance only confirmed my initial my eyes at least. Ejiofor doesn't get typecast into one kind of character. He plays good guys, he plays bad guys, he plays idealists, he plays pragmatists, he plas realists. But there is nothing of the type of typecasting of the dignified black guy that you found in Sidney Poitier's career (understandable considering the times and Poitier's importance) and in much of Denzel Washington's work. I don't get the sense that Ejiofor is playing some sanitized version of a black male or a male in general. If there s anything that makes some of his characters look alike that's simply a result of the unfortunate fact that like the vast majority of black actors/actresses he doesn't get all that many opportunities to play truly three-dimensional characters.

    However when he gets the lead role or at the very least a major part in a film, he conveys the natural talent that is at his disposal. Kinky Boots. Serenity. Dirty Pretty Things. Redbelt. Inside Man. His characters in those films are nothing alike. Nor is his thuggish crime lord in "Four Brothers", his nerdy, initially socially insecure but idealist scientist in "2012" or his uptight, stiff, put-upon, earnest straight man in "Talk To Me" (in which I thought he was able to steal the film in many respects from the Don Cheadle who played the far more flashy role). Where's exactly the typecast? I'm assuming "12 Years" and "Half a Yellow Sun" will both show him providing further different facets that he has not had before been called upon to convey on screen.

    Not trying to pick a fight with you, though. Frances. Just defending a guy whom has gotten overlooked too long in the film industry. We'll simply have to agree to disagree. Once more thanks for a wonderful writeup. It was a joy to read.

  • Donella | September 1, 2013 5:53 PM

    I agree. Ejiofer has successfully defied typecasting. He's played heroes, villains, and antagonists. The only commonality is he played them all well.

  • Haqi Jamison | August 31, 2013 10:19 PMReply

    Wonderful review Frances!!!

    I also must say great comments, Terrance Nance, Synthia, Adam Scott Thompson, CREOLEYAYA and OK RESPECT BUT.

    Just to add to the discussion of story that a black filmmaker could make I would suggest that there are a lot of obstacles to getting the story made. We all know the gatekeepers are hard to deal with but maybe we ca find a way to tell EPIC tales of greatness.

    Sundiata for instance or his son Mansa Musa would both be great subjects. They existed in Mali and maybe there we could get a movie made with the help of africans around the world. How about Anansi tales or the Yoruba Orisha(which are already done by the x-men movies) but with black heroic face.

    I'm looking forward to movies like Blue Caprice with Isaiah Washington(Magna) because I know he will tell the story of this sniper filled with the rage and duality of our people. Trying to cope with injustice that doesn't seem as injustice.

    There are great stories to tell and re-imagine. I think we as black filmmakers may have to just widen our scope of literature and story. We must be creative and also unique.

  • LL2 | September 1, 2013 2:10 PM

    Great ideas! A movie about Sundiata or Mansa Musa would be fantastic! Let's try to expand mainstream ideas of black people and black history.

  • Terence Nance | August 31, 2013 9:21 PMReply

    Wonderful review Frances.

    I can't overstate how important it is that your review dropped so early. Why? because you perfectly outline what the discourse on this film should look and feel like -- contextualizing McQueen's creative decision making inside the nuances of character and culture -- as well as dealing with the larger issue of the film's emotional/cultural impact on it's European and American audiences:

    "As I rose with the largely white, upper-class audience—sorry, gotta say it—into a standing ovation, I wondered if we were feeling the same kind of catharsis. "

    My humble hypothesis is that if you had to wonder -- then they didn't.

    I saw Fruitvale in a theater with some of the same types of people, I wondered the same thing.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | August 31, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    Early reviews have this film becoming the talk of the coming awards season.

  • Synthia | August 31, 2013 4:58 PMReply

    Steve McQueen is a top-notch,award-winning director who does a range of exciting and subversive movies. He's not easy to anticipate or stuck in a mold -- but these commenters are. They are so superficial in their reaction to movies they can only reject them in a generic, uninformed condemnation of slave movies or servant films in general. They don't understand the complexity of vision or narrative in this or in Lee Daniels' movies. They don't care that a particular story like this (a black man born free in the U.S. and enslaved) is rarely told because as with condemnations of the Butler, most commenters don't analyze the story at the level of character and conflict. They stay on the surface offering looking at film as a dense amorphous blob worthy only for its most obvious veneer. You people don't deserve to watch movies.

  • QUENTIN | September 2, 2013 1:12 AM

    This is nothing, Careycarey. You should read Synthia's comments on the IMDB message

  • CareyCarey | September 1, 2013 9:17 PM

    Okay, you two bozos (Synthia & THANKS) get my award for the most ambiguous and ridiculous comments of the month.

    "most commenters don't analyze the story at the level of character and conflict, therefore they don't deserve to watch movies"

    REALLY!? GTFOOH with that nonsense.

    And then, Ms. THANKS comes by to champion mess... " I'll also include some of its authors. [they] lack knowledge and passion for watching movies... which shows through their point of view and writing styles"

    WHAT!? REALLY!? Their writing styles are testaments to their LACK OF PASSION?... for watching movies? Please-please-please splain that silliness or GTFOOH with that BS.

  • Thanks | August 31, 2013 6:32 PM

    This was so well worded that my breath momentarily 'got caught' in my throat. It oozes some of my digest to why I don't visit this site as often anymore.

    Although Synthia directed her comment to the commenters, I also include some of its authors. Lack of knowledge, lack of passion for watching movies shows through their point of view and writing styles...creating an inferior exterior that gets harder to take in.

  • CreoleYaya | August 31, 2013 3:52 PMReply

    Enuf already. If we want to keep making slave movies, where's the story on Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and/or someone else, black, who helped us out of slavery.

  • QUENTIN | September 2, 2013 1:19 AM

    I regretfully agree with Synthia on this one, which leads me to ask Creoleyaya... "Who is making the slave films you're talking about?" Django Unchained was the closest thing to a slave theatrical release in years before 12 Years. What are people saying exactly when they talking about enough with the butler films, and the gangster films, and so on? I can't even tell you the last time I saw a gangster film produced by Hollywood. You people get a taste of something and think you ate the whole meal with seconds... Really, they need to keep making films of all kinds regarding the experience of the African diaspora.

  • Donella | September 1, 2013 5:49 PM

    There are many stories that are public domain. No permission necessary. So anyone can have at it. It sounds like McQueen has done a hell of a job.

  • Accidental Visitor | September 1, 2013 12:36 AM

    "Enuf"? There are slaves that can spell better than you.

  • sosgemini | September 1, 2013 12:32 AM


    Have you seen McQueen's previous films? Kasi Lemmons'? Dee Rees'? Heck, any of Tim Story's or *cough cough* Tyler Perry's nightmares?

    Stop with the revisionists bullsh*t! Please!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | August 31, 2013 5:36 PM

    Northup, like Tubman, helped usher fugitive slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. He also, like Douglass, published an account of his time in slavery and joined the movement to abolish slavery. He may not get the nod every February but his life and story are no less important a part of our journey out of bondage.

    I agree that there are many ripe stories about blacks not tied to slavery or domestic servitude, but what I as a viewer hope for from a filmmaker is a work of art -- fiction or non -- which causes me to feel. If that, for Mister McQueen, is "12 Years..." then so be it.

  • Darkan | August 31, 2013 5:07 PM

    Agreed guys... Agreed %100!

  • Synthia | August 31, 2013 5:02 PM

    "We" are not making slave movies. Specific directors are telling tales the find interesting. And YOU can make whatever movie you want. This isn't a collective. Stop viewing black directors and moviemakers as just some intertwined mass involved in some insidious lockstep. There are a variety of movies being made by black directors and Steve McQueen in particular makes incredibly unique movies that transcend race. Your comment and feelings are simple cliche.

  • Ok Respect But | August 31, 2013 4:14 PM

    Ditto. But can it just be enuf already on a whole? Butlers, slaves, maids... is there no other story that the black person belongs? done, so done...

  • Accidental Visitor | August 31, 2013 3:42 PMReply

    "He tends to play characters with such dignified black pain and I was fearful his role could easily slide into Oscar-pandering"

    I really think you are confusing your impression of the actor himself with the roeles he has played. Outside of possibly the wonderful "Dirty Pretty Things", I don't recall too much of Ejiofor relying on some crutch of "dignified black pain" when trying to convey character. In fact even in "Dirty Pretty Things" (which he is excellent in) I will only concede at best that he seemed to be channelling "the "dignity" part but not necessarily the "black" part. In other words he played the character in a humane way that was universal, not limited to some specific racial viewpoint. Anyone who saw some element of the ol "dignified black pain guy" was likely guilty of projection. Even when reading interviews of him it becomes quite clear that race rarely comes into play for him and that he is not worried about being viewed as an, um, undignified black man, he is concerned instead with playing interesting characters.

    And if I might add who ever worries about the performance Ejiofor will deliver? Whether it is on stage on the screen he always delivers as long as the material provided to him is rich enough to play with.

    With that being said I thought your review and choice of words were outstanding. Well done.

  • Donella | September 1, 2013 5:47 PM

    I also don't believe Ejiofer's typecast with dignified Black pain. He's played villains and antagonists (Serenity, 4 Brothers, Children of Men), transvestite (Kinky Boots), criminal (American Gangster), law enforcement (Salt, Inside Man), radio host (Talk to Me).

  • tmack | September 1, 2013 12:35 PM

    Being familiar with McQueen's work and method, I knew 12 Years would not be just another slave genre film.

    Hunger was the first McQueen film I ever saw and, at first, I was skeptical. Knowing that McQueen had worked as a professional visual artist, I was afraid that there would be little narrative and an overabundance of pretty image-making. Hunger, to date, is one of my favorite all-time films and one of my favorite IRA films. It is both beautiful and compelling and sucks you into that prison without your even knowing it. It is a masterpiece.

    History gets re-written generationally, the best re-examinations coming from those who examine events from new points of views and fresh eyes. What is happening to this man once free and equal, he assumes? What is happening to the innocent men we have imprisoned in Gitmo for 10 years whom we brutalize as terrorists?

    I bet on McQueen to deliver this film as Hollywood could never do.

  • Frances Bodomo | August 31, 2013 3:47 PM

    The comment was not meant to disparage Ejiofor's work. I see him as an extremely talented actor, but he is often typecast into a type of character (not just black character) that could easily "soften" a film like this in making the lead easily likeable. Thankfully, the film plays with that typecasting & his acting is superb, nuanced, heartbreaking.

  • Nadia | August 31, 2013 3:20 PMReply

    Solid review! I imagined McQueen wouldn't flinch at the reality of the subject matter nor would he exploit it. I also expected the performances to be strong. I'm glad to be hearing a lot of praise for Lupita. She's an actress to watch and this just may catapult her to the next level when the film comes out. Folks don't know her name yet, but they will.

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