12 Years a Slave (2013)
I have finally got around to seeing this much-lauded and Oscar-winning film, from three years ago. If you like this film, or consider it to be a very good example of film-making, then perhaps you had better stop reading now. Because I am afraid that I am not going to agree with you.
Based on the memoirs of a real slave, and boasting a stellar cast, this was the first film to be produced and directed by a black film-maker (Steve McQueen) to ever win an Academy Award. The list of accolades is so long, it has its own page on IMDB. They all loved it, it seems. Name checking the cast promises a lot indeed. Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, and English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the title role. It even has one of my personal favourites, Paul Dano, as well as many excellent actors in supporting roles.
So why didn’t I like it? Why did I think that it was interminably dull, and a waste of the 134 minutes of my time spent watching it?
It is hard to criticise a film about this subject. In doing so, I am naturally not defending slavery, or the harsh treatment given to people captured and taken into captivity, deprived of their freedom, separated from their families and loved ones, to be treated as little more than trade goods. But I am looking at this as a film, not as a history of the slave trade. Perhaps we should examine the many stereotypes associated with other films and TV series about slavery, and see if this film includes any of them.
A free black man, deprived of his liberty. Check.
A married couple sold separately. Check.
Children taken from their mother to be sold separately. Check.
Harsh whippings, involving scarred backs. Check.
Leering overseers mistreating slaves. Check.
A free man unable to prove his status. Check.
The slave in the lead role can read and write, and has a skill. (Violin) Check.
A slave is made to whip another slave. Check.
Runaway slaves being lynched by slave-hunters. Check.
Slaves taken from one part of the country to another. Check.
Troublesome slaves traded off to new owners. Check.
Horrible slave-owning plantation masters. Check.
White slave owners obtaining sexual favours from female slaves. Check.
White slave owners fathering children with slaves. Check.
Kindly white men (who are abolitionists) helping slaves. Check.
Final recognition, and reconciliation with family. Check.
Sorry to drive home the point with a boring list (though not as boring as the film) but I hope that you get my point. It has all been done before. Surely anyone old enough to legally see this film must be aware of the injustice and appalling nature of slavery, without being subjected to a hackneyed repertoire of the same old stuff? Added to that, the characters perform as if they are in a Victorian melodrama. I half expected to hear boos and hisses when villains like Fassbender and Dano appeared, or cheers when Brad Pitt was on screen. It was so obviously going to end happily, I began to lose interest at the halfway point.
When you have looked forward to seeing a film that has won so many awards, received such critical acclaim, and stars many of the actors that you admire and respect, the disappointment is compounded. No doubt many of you saw this film differently. If so, I respect your opinion, naturally. I expect that you will let me know your thoughts in the comments. I would sooner have watched a serious documentary about the awful trade in human beings, or perhaps re-watched the long-running TV series ‘Roots’, instead of sitting through this. I have to conclude that it was a waste of talent, and a lost opportunity. If you haven’t seen it yet, you will make up your own mind.
Here’s the trailer.