Too Tough To Watch? The 10 Lines From Armond White's '12 Years A Slave' Review That Make The Case

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by Kevin Jagernauth
October 16, 2013 2:49 PM
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While the accolades are rolling in for "12 Years A Slave," can Fox Searchlight convince awards season voters to sit through the brutal, hard-to-watch drama? "I've read all about the Civil War and slavery, I don't need to see a movie repeating what I already know," one voter told the LA Times (which makes you realize how arbitrary this whole awards season can be and the type of people who get to cast a ballot), who also reported that the first screening for Academy members was hardly full (approximately 600 people for the 1000 seat venue; by comparison, "Gravity" had people being turned away). But has Armond White just made the case that this movie is too awful to endure?

Granted, Armond White taking a stance against a movie that is near universally acclaimed is hardly a surprise. Nor is his tendency to delve into verbose hyperbole shocking either. But for the few looking to deem "12 Years A Slave" as an exercise in unflinching, harrowing sadism and nothing more, you have a champion in White (even if he ventures off into the ridiculous from time to time). You can read his whole review right here, but here are ten lines that will certain give you pause. (And here's our review as a counterweight). And before you dive in, remember, this is the same guy who said "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance" and "Taken 2" were better than "Zero Dark Thirty."

1. "Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise..."

2. "This is less a drama than an inhumane analysis—like the cross-sectional cut-up of a horse in Damien Hirst’s infamous 1996 museum installation “Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.” (click here to see Hirst's work).

3. "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.' "

4. "The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort."

5. "...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. But, as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. 

6. "McQueen’s “sympathy” lacks appropriate disgust and outrage but basks in repulsion and pity–including close-up wounds and oblivion...Nothing in The Exorcist was more flagrantly sadistic."

7. "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."

8. "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."

9. "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. McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ cast of existential victims won’t do. Northup-renamed-Platt and especially the weeping mother Liza (Adepero Oduye) and multiply-abused Patsey (Lupita Nyong‘o), are human whipping posts–beaten, humiliated, raped for our delectation just like Hirst’s cut-up equine. Hirst knew his culture: Some will no doubt take comfort from McQueen’s inherently warped, dishonest, insensitive fiction."

10. "The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it."

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25 Comments

  • dahlia | January 11, 2014 9:12 PMReply

    as I said, after seeing the film:
    http://thisisdahlia.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/12-years-a-slave-torture-porn-and-the-unfortunate-problem-of-american-apathy/

  • Jason | November 7, 2013 1:06 PMReply

    don't people realize that actual slavery was far far worse than what McQueen depicts in 12 Years? Slavery WAS horror after horror, every day. Much more "graphic" than anything on the screen.

  • DB | October 19, 2013 9:28 PMReply

    I thoroughly did not enjoy movie because there was no story line to follow. Instead there was one violent scene after another culminating to ... I walked out after 90 minutes. Yes, great acting. Yes, I imagine accurate depictions of deplorable slavery but for me movies need story, characters, plot, and in a period piece with someone to root for as he/she overcomes something.

  • Jason | November 7, 2013 1:13 PM

    you don't overcome slavery. there is no heroic journey or anything to "overcome" or anyone to root for. it is all about survival and doing anything you have to do to survive. We're talking about American slavery, not Mrs. Doubtfire or Die Hard.

  • Scott | October 18, 2013 11:51 AMReply

    It says something about the state of film criticism when a blogger (not a professional writer, mind you) feels that an article about one of the few dissenting voices in film is warranted for the simple purpose of ostracizing someone for not conforming to popular opinion.

    I find it sad that having an opposing viewpoint is considered controversial, especially in a world (film criticism, the indie film world in general) populated by people who enjoy striking false poses of defiance, platitudes about free speech, and liberal ideas that are so empty as to have nothing below the surface.

    So why is it wrong to go against popular opinion?

  • TAZ | October 19, 2013 2:29 AM

    I don't think it is wrong to go against popular opinion. There are a few other critics that are not raving about the movie. But this is not about them. This is more about this particular critic and how he notoriously almost always does not like anything and........well, you follow all of his 'writings', then come back and finish the sentence.

  • M | October 18, 2013 2:31 AMReply

    The fact that most actors hired in Hollywood are white, and that blacks are only portrayed in a stereotypical light takes this country back 175 years... where this movie should be trashed.

  • Jackson | October 17, 2013 6:49 PMReply

    Whatever. Everyone knows at this point, that whatever White hates, must be good, and he knows people think this way. He may think he knows everything there is to know and like about film, but he is the only one. He is just an overpaid troll. He makes himself look stupid with his reviews like this, so nobody needs to bother trying to do it for him.

  • ellison | October 17, 2013 7:20 PM

    Everyone also knows (well, some people), that whatever the corporate-paid critics like, sucks as well. So you're point is?

  • Lee | October 17, 2013 5:19 PMReply

    If it is a work that inspires to end slavery that still exists around the world then it is good.
    If it is used just to inspire more racial hatred against whites then it is bad.
    If it shows that owning slaves is a cause of insanity and mental disorders then it is good.
    If it is just for shock effect carnival ride like the Saw horror movies then it is bad.

    I can see no new truths being revealed from the reviews.
    I will hope that finally a film shows that even good people turn mentally ill once they own a slave but I doubt that.
    Maybe that is something that will only be shown in a film about slavery in the present times.

  • dearleni | October 17, 2013 1:46 PMReply

    Lol, making the case against Armond because he said Taken 2 was better than Zero Dark Thirty? Not sure about Taken 2, but Zero Dark Thirty was political trash. Thank god for a critic like Armond who may hide behind ridiculous exaggeration, but uses it to slip in the truth from time to time.

  • TAZ | October 19, 2013 2:21 AM

    The thing about truth is that it is just like beauty.......it looks different in the eye of the beholder. And the bottom line is that a movie review is nothing but an opinion and even Armond has one.

  • Donella | October 17, 2013 1:44 PMReply

    12 Years a Slave is based upon a true story... a narrative written by the title character Solomon Northrup.

    It's Solomon Northrup's history, not something that McQueen or Gates or Ridley created for personal amusement.

    Or does Armond White also have a complaint to file against Solomon Northrup for writing attention-seeking torture porn?

    If so, then he's REALLY not going to like the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, or any other slave narrative for that matter.

  • Angel | October 17, 2013 11:02 AMReply

    Who gives a crap what this idiot thinks. As someone who has done extensive research on slavery in America (more than three decades), reading narratives, finding those little known (often destroyed and hidden) facts about what happened to my people during the 17, 18 and early 1900s, Steve McQueen is doing all of Black Americans a huge favor. it's time we stop pretending that this did not happen. It's time for White America to give up the facade that slavery wasn't that bad and if it wasn't for slavery we would still be living in huts. I want all Black people to see this. I want all Black children to know what happened to their ancestors. I want Black people to wake up and see the lies that have been told about them for centuries. It's time for all Americans to admit the truth. Thank you Steve McQueen. Unfortunately it took a Brit to tell this story, because Americans, both Black and White are cowardly and don't have the guts to tell nor deal with the truth of our history.

  • AZ | October 18, 2013 9:59 AM

    Racism against whites or truth to power? Lee you seem to want to dismiss any frank discussion on the basis of racism, that's convenient when most of the power in the world is still ruthlessly held in white hands for white interests. Feels to me you may have some ingrained race issues yourself, that's okay, many people do, it's a tough habit to shake after hundreds of years of being reminded, most notably by the movies, of your huge self worth, however rather than trying to reflect back a ridiculous perceived victimhood, how about dealing with the issues at hand, which so obviously still exist and need to be debated.

  • Lee | October 17, 2013 5:24 PM

    The only white people that I know of that say they believe what you have written about whites are white racists, generally poor and badly educated people in some rural and inner city areas.

    To label all whites as white racists is itself a type of racism. You need to examine yourself.

  • free | October 17, 2013 2:02 PM

    McQueen has shown a genius for presenting important issues in his films and being relatively good at it. What is in question if there is not some sort of soul lacking in his extremely formalized vision, (at least that was apparent in the first 2 films, I have not seen Slave yet). The fact that he has jumped into Oscar front-runner territory is perhaps not so surprising, but also goes to support the nagging question of his films being manipulative and exploitive. I'm guessing that we will get no 5 minute closeups of Carry Muligan's face singing "New York, New York" in this one? But, as someone else brought up the example of Holocaust movies, it is dangerous to praise a film solely for the pc message that it portrays. Schindler's List is probably the most overrated movie of all time.

  • Glenn Kenny | October 17, 2013 10:40 AMReply

    White doesn't "make the case"—he makes a know-somethingish reference to McQueen's British-art-world roots with the Hirst comparisons, and then he makes a lot of nonsense noise. White is the Trent character in "Shock Corridor" recast as a film "critic." This piece promoting him is a disgrace.

  • AZ | October 17, 2013 10:33 AMReply

    Racist, ignorant bull...Would anyone dare say the same of holocaust movies? It's not that people already know the story, more like they don't wish to be reminded of the history that culminates in the established world many of the white, liberal class enjoy to this very day. At the end of the holocaust the Nazi's were humiliated, destroyed and tried, the culmination of slavery is far murkier and it's structures became much more internalised in the nation's psyche - we still live with many of the patterns and effects to this day. No wonder some folks are feeling uncomfortable, I say feel uncomfortable, but don't you dare try find other excuses for your discomfort.

  • Lee | October 17, 2013 5:27 PM

    They feel uncomfortable because films of this type, as happens with showings of Roots, inspires increased hate crimes against whites.

  • Lauren | October 16, 2013 11:01 PMReply

    I can't stand ignorant and snarky reviews like this. I'm sorry he feels the film is shocking just for the sake of being shocking, but there's no toning down the truth. People don't like to be faced with their own shame, and like it or not, the history of slavery is the history of America. Sure you read about it in a textbook and it made you feel bad, but you were able to push it aside and say "it's the past". The past informs the present.

  • Marbles | October 16, 2013 4:01 PMReply

    White's review is another way of saying, "I already know all that stuff, so I don't need to see it"--but said at greater length, and with a pretentious attempt to justify the author's own discomfort with the subject matter.

  • BEF | October 16, 2013 4:54 PM

    Ha, true.

  • DJ | October 16, 2013 3:14 PMReply

    It's true, White might come across as a blowhard at times – with sensitivities unpredictable and peculiar to boot -- but he knows film history and context and in this, speaks truth:

    "Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie..."

    And some of these folks comprised the NYFF audience, their visceral "denouncement" masquerading the ultimate elitist pathology: smug detachment.

  • BEF | October 16, 2013 4:57 PM

    Perhaps true, but saying that "Like 'The Exorcist' there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless" is pretty silly, it's like not only does he want to take down one film, but a classic with it because he doesn't agree that it is "victorious filmmaking".

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