Why 12 Years a Slave is a Bad Movie

12/16/2013 11:12 AM |

12 years a slave steve mcqueen

“I wasn’t even supposed to be here today,” the main character says repeatedly in Clerks, the line becoming his mantra as his workday gets progressively worse. Without trivializing the horror of its subject matter, this feels like the unspoken motto of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, unabashed Oscarbait masquerading as legitimate cinema—for proof, see the Hans Fucking Zimmer score!—as it wrings much pathos from the fact that its main character, real-life American slave Solomon Northup, isn’t even supposed to be a slave. Born a freeman, the adult Northup is kidnapped on a trip to our nation’s capital and sold into human bondage, spending a dozen twelvemonths passed around different owners of varying cruelty in the American South, which I guess makes him an easier sell to present-day audiences: neither were we born into slavery, so we can more easily empathize with his extraordinary plight.


But I’m put off by the film’s suggestion that Northup’s circumstance, likely suffered by thousands of others, was a greater evil than being born into slavery: slavery was (and is) inherently horrible, to put it lightly, for anyone forced to endure it. The end of the movie—the way Brad Pitt suddenly appears as deus ex machina—felt false to so many people, even the film’s fans, because the whole plot, really, feels false. Regardless of its true-story origins, Northup’s story works as a screenplay, as popular entertainment, not just because it offers us a way in but also a way out: imagine the horrors of slavery, then stop and imagine yourself back at home with your family. As Solomon is finally carried away in a cart back to freedom, another slave screams after him, but he literally won’t look back: he’s finally free, and he won’t take any chances that could put that in jeopardy. It’s painful to watch him have to do that, and it’s brave of the director and actor to include that unflattering scene, but it underscores one of the film’s biggest problems: the way Northup turns his back on the others in dire straits, so too do the filmmakers.

That’s a mistake. I couldn’t help feeling throughout the movie that the stories I wanted to hear, the ones that truly needed to be told, weren’t those of educated freemen caught up in a temporary nightmare but those left on the margins, those who were born into slavery and who would die in it, too. Particularly the women—McQueen touches on the sexual slavery to which females could become subject, the way their children could be torn from them—the compounded horrors of their thralldom—but they remain by the end merely peripheral, pushed aside.

I know, I’m supposed to critique the art the artist made, not just talk about the art I wish he or she had. And, also, what else should we expect? This is the man who brought us the laughable Shame. But, look, 12 Years a Slave is super emotionally manipulative, which I’m willing to forgive, except, why? To what end? To persuade us that slavery was, in fact, bad? Everyone but those who reside in the very worst comments sections knows that. It’s the same problem that often undoes so many WWII movies: a maudlin score doesn’t heighten our understanding, emotional or otherwise, of Nazi atrocities. The most stomach-churning movie I ever saw was silent documentary footage of the concentration camps just after liberation, no Hans Zimmer score required.

Solomon’s original memoir “is convincingly Northup’s tale and no one else’s because of its… unwillingness to reduce the complexity of Northup’s experience to a stark moral allegory,” scholar Sam Worley once wrote. This isn’t true of the film adaptation. What bothers me is that McQueen’s movie aspires, both by intention—as our Steve Macfarlane wrote, “McQueen claims he chose to make a film on slavery first, then began reading about Northrup”—and merely by its existence, to be not just one man’s extraordinary story but the definitive film about American slavery, to expose its cruelties with immediacy and sympathetic drama, and critics and audiences have been dubbing it such: the New York Film Critics Circle cited McQueen as the year’s Best Director (groan), the film tied for the most Golden Globes nominations of 2013, and it’s likely to pick up more critics and industry awards, not to mention Oscars. (This isn’t to detract from its extraordinary acting; any trophies it picks up for its performances are well-deserved.) 12 Years a Slave has its harrowing moments, such as when Northup is strung up and left to fight for survival on the tips of his toes, his fellow slaves going about their business in the background. But I’d argue the best slavery movie, at least recently, is still Django Unchained, which also highlighted the unfathomable barbarity of antebellum America while remaining hyperaware that it was, after all, just a movie.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

17 Comment

  • Isn’t the film an autobiographical account of a novel? If so then this is merely a film adaptation of that story. The way McQueen’s masterful direction of the film elicits a feeling from the viewer that they are witnessing something as it unfolds. The film (like Hunger and Shame) has an amazing way of showing the viewer something but still remaining void of opinion through it’s direction. Therefore, the ethical judgement is left to the viewer, and the filmmaker’s hand is only seen in recounting the story from the novel. Your critique of the work lacks so much sound criticism that I think this was merely written to get a few twitter followers. A way to go against the grain. Good for you. Basically you are critiquing a man for not making the film YOU wanted to see? Why don’t you make it yourself? Critique the aesthetics, the storytelling, but it makes little sense to pass judgement on a film that’s adapted from a book. I’m put off by the fact you call yourself a critic.

  • I suggest you leave New York for five minutes and you may see why this movie had to be made. Get your head out of your ass!

  • This article is poorly argued. If we’re taking Northup’s story as a narrative then the importance of his having previously been free is that it’s illustrative of the arbitrary barbarism of the system. The film makes clear that he is no more deserving of freedom than any of the other slaves but he has already known it and has a greater sense of what he has lost than those who were born into it and unlike those captured from Africa is thrown into the subjugated underclass of the country he was already a part of rather than a foreign land. As such, he’s a better stand in for the contemporary viewer. Further, I’d hardly say he tiptoes around the mistreatment of the other slaves, just because it is Northup’s narrative doesn’t mean that those viewed at the periphery of the story are any less memorable. The casual horrors inflicted on them, sometimes seen only in passing are even more memorable by how easily they’re neglected or seen as everyday by the others involved.

    While I’ll concede that Pitt’s character s a weak point of the film and that Shame was a misuse of the director’s talents, this film is easily as strong as Hunger and one of the highlights of the year and probably the best use of McQueen’s aesthetic yet. I’m sorry that this film didn’t have any winking hip-hop scored shoot outs for you to enjoy, it’s a simple, straightforward, unblinking film about a subject that rarely, if ever, gets such a treatment in American cinema and that’s what’s important about it.

  • I don’t get the pushback here. It’s nice to experience slavery from a different perspective; from someone who actually knew what it felt like to be free. This is the film’s most engaging aspect for viewers who might otherwise not consider their own fate if they themselves aren’t black. After all, we’ve already seen ROOTS among other depictions of slavery through the eyes of the enslaved.

    Furthermore this movie isn’t a statement about which is a greater evil; it’s about how the color of one’s skin was a facilitating catalyst for 12 years of slavery–one’s real-life experience in those days & times (in which we are certain there were many others). The end of this movie is in fact the end of Solomon Northrup’s harrowing ordeal and it indeed feels like a movie because the true story indeed sounds like one–and so it is. Mothers and Daughters and Children and lovers were often left behind when a runaway slave risked life & limb for freedom. At the end of the day Solomon was no better or worse than any other slave who had ever fled, and therein lies its heartbreaking authenticity.

  • “But I’m put off by the film’s suggestion that Northup’s circumstance, likely suffered by thousands of others, was a greater evil than being born into slavery”

    So, in other words, you’re “put off” by a “suggestion” that exists entirely in your own head and nowhere in the actual film? Good grief!

    Moreover, wasn’t Brad Pitt’s “deus ex machina” that “felt false” actually part of the original source material and not the work of a screenwriter?

    This is one of the most obtuse, reflexively contrarian reviews I’ve ever read.

  • “But I’m put off by the film’s suggestion that Northup’s circumstance, likely suffered by thousands of others, was a greater evil than being born into slavery”

    I am also very confused why you felt the film suggested this.

    This is an important film because our nation has never healed or fully dealt with the aftermath of slavery and the civil war. There is much more to this film than “slavery is bad.” For example, the fact that Solomon is a rejection of the masculinity typically seen in Hollywood films (DJANGO UNCHAINED).

    This was a beautiful movie desperately needed in a culture that continues to glorify the old South. I’m flabbergasted by this review.

  • Your review hits the mark. The people criticizing your article just idolize McQueen no matter what nonsense he dishes out. Yes, Shame was also laughable. I never saw the statement about him reading Northup AFTER wanting to do the definitive slave film . That’s McQueen in a nutshell. Used car salesman with a movie camera. Go do whatever can get controversy or attention but just pretend it’s all in the name of pure art. Only problem is he can’t usually get people to see his films. For the definitive slavery film it sure hasn’t had a big audience. Around 2.5 million movie goers whereas the Roots finale had 100 million viewers. Look it up. Roots averaged like 66% of the TV audience in America on average for each of the 8 days…something like 83 million per day with the highest bring the finale… 12YAS is not even being seen by a large part of the black community and it’s being sold as their heritage. This film is to get McQueen an Academy Award and he is the least talent ed director I have ever seen yet he will probably win due to white guilt.

  • I’m not the absolute biggest fan of this movie (that is, I thought it was really good but found the suggestions that some of the critics groups opting for other movies were being racist ridiculous — it’s seriously racist to prefer another movie?!), but I will say, I don’t think that the film suggests Northup’s circumstance is a *greater* evil than being born into it. Rather, the movie uses his circumstances to stress just how unnatural and evil slavery is. In no way does it suggest that those born into it are better off; by showing a free man forced into that life, it just emphasizes how fucking insane it is an institution compared to actual free life. Perhaps a lot of people don’t need to “learn” that — but there are still an awful lot of narratives that treat slavery as sort of an accepted sin, just the way things were back then.

    I also find the Django either/or thing a little weird. Less than a year after Django opened to great reviews, a lot of these 12 Years a Slave reviews basically say well, HERE is a movie that treats slavery CORRECTLY, not like a damn JOKE! And then your rejoinder to 12 Years a Slave is that it’s not as good as Django (which on the balance I probably do prefer, but at the same time would count as one of Tarantino’s weaker films). It’s great that we’ve had two high-profile movies considering the evil legacy of slavery!

  • Henry, awesome article! Dead on! If you send me mailing address I’d be happy to send you and Galena a double headed christmas dildo so you go ass to ass and whip up a classic piece of (probably American, hopefully World) cinema this joyous holiday season. I could send 9 for a belated Hanukkah. I’m assuming that you wouldn’t touch Kwanza with a 12 foot pole, but just in case, I’ve got 7 more laying around. Ujoma! Just think, you could call up your whitest, most guilty friends (ok, just to be fair, you can invite dipshits of all colors, creeds and walks of life) spread those rubber dicks out like a party platter and collectively grind out the next Citizen Ka…no…wait, that was a terrible shit-turd piece of a turd’s ass’ shitty ass movie. You should pen and produce a sequel to the remake of “Shaft”! That’d get those blacks away from their 1970’s TV nightly miniseries in the actual 1970’s and time jump them into mall theaters to be educated about their black culture (if you can even call it that, the poor dusky things. SMH. LOL!) All I ask is that you credit me and allow me to post a critique in your fine publication. Internet please, I think people have been pissing in those little kiosks you leave all over the more cultured parts of our fair city. SMH and TUT/TUT. Well, get at me, send me the deets. I’m neck deep in dildoes over here, and since you work at the L, I don’t need to tell you what THAT’s like. Hurry up buddy, it’s like a condom scented snakepit over here, get at me, bro!

  • I would like to see a film made about John Casor, the first American Slave for life, he must have thought his time in servitude finally being over meant he could lead a free life, instead his owner had him made a slave for life and as I already stated the first American Slave, and this was the start of such a sad affair in history.

  • You obviously didn’t read the book. By your flippant attitude, I am guessing that you had a tight deadline and so instead of taking the opportunity to educate, illuminate or help readers connect the historical dots – you decided to write a piece that is all about you. All about your feelings, your likes and dislikes and your unfounded opinions. I would also add that it is a disservice to ignore the historical importance of the book and what it means to make a film of it. Your lack of interest and clear ignorance of the topic of slavery itself is apparent and more than a little bit insulting. You can’t even bring yourself to compare and contrast this film with your preferred slavery film Django. Just a suggestion – it might be worthwhile to study grammar, paragraph structure and argument styles for writing expository prose. It would really improve your writing. these days it’s not enough just to have an arbitrary opinion.

  • I totally agree with what you are saying. I came away with the same thing… this story is so much worse because he was free and became enslaved– but again what about the millions of black people who were born slaves and died slaves. I hated this movie… the sadistic violence was over the top — The director created a film in my opinion that was voyeuristic in nature and what some are describing as torture porn. The performances were great– but that’s what the greatness of this film ends– sorry I don’t care how many awards it has won or is up for– I say the emperor has no clothes on!!

  • you speak the truth

  • The film is weighed down by it’s own pathos and sense of ‘great story telling’. I live in London and have kind of watched Steve Mcqueen’s career grow. I thought Hunger was a good film about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, but that guy was a terrorist?? Should we therefore have told a story to ‘glorify’ the London 7/7 bombersif any of those idiots had survived?????

    Anyway, I digress from the subject of 12 Year’s…..i’m not sure whether I saw such a ‘great’ movie either. At best, I would say it’s a fair enough film, but to give it Oscar category plaudits is surely way off the mark. It reminds me of the hyperbole concerning that other truly awful film made by another extremely average film maker, Danny Boyle,….yes that total load of nonsense Slumdog Millionaire.

    It is plainly obvious that there is a pervading agenda which the Hollywood fraternity are trying to follow, by allowing middle of the road directors who choose to make films which have a ‘racial’ slant which will thus attract sympathetic reviews and garner large audience figures because the story portrayed tugs at our heart strings and emotions. This film was NOT about slavery, but more about a free man being robbed of his freedom. In a sense Northrup’s experience is almost ‘sanitized’ by Mcqueen, because he does NOT deserve to be where he is. What a major flaw that is!!!!!!????? I mean ALL of the people who were enslaved didn’t deserve to be there either! That is why this film fails…..it tugs at our heart strings, attempts us to feel guilty, without any real thought going into the whole aspect of what Slavery entailed….so this is an Oscar charade…all smoke and mirrors……As one reviewer correctly asserts, women being torn of their children

    A deeply flawed film which almost suggests that Mcqueen tried to make the film before he even read the book.

    One to put in the ‘not so good….. over hyped film’ collection.

    Take care

  • My sentiments exactly, now that I finally watched it. The film may have done justice to the actual story, but it isn’t in any way a ‘pro-freedom movie’ with any message of significance to society at large.

  • I’m adding a belated comment as I just saw 12 Years a Slave on DVD. What struck me most about the movie was exactly the point you made – the complete indifference to all the other slaves in the story – they were treated as nothing more than extras. I had to read a lot of review to find one that made this point that I found so disturbing. I’m glad you took it up.

  • This movies’ differing treatments of Soloman Northup and the “legal” slaves was EXACTLY what was so compelling. The story showed some of our absurd laws dealing with non-whites at that time. If you were born/lived on one side of a geographic line, you were a human being. But if that SAME PERSON was unlucky enough to be born south of that line, you were fucking farm livestock. It highlighted human beings self-serving ability to do the complex mental gymnastics for that to make any sense.
    As a personal side note, I must admit, I enjoyed the portrayal of some of the plantation owners as both good, practicing Christians, and horrible, slave owning human beings.