Just been watching…(9)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

*****Contains spoilers*****

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.


41 thoughts on “Just been watching…(9)

  1. Hey Pete…of course I loved it but you are entitled to your opinion. It’s funny that you mentioned the TV series Roots as when I read your list I thought to myself Roots had all those things too and was probably the first time such a production was made and reasonated with such a large audience. I’m a fan of both, I have very fond memories of Roots. I could see how McQueen’s style could be frustrating and drawn out though to some. I’m curious if you’ve seen his earlier films Hunger and Shame. Perhaps they will confirm with the directors style is for you or whether it was something more specific to this film. Of all 3, Hunger remains my favourite and the hardest one to watch.


    1. Hi Lloyd. I just thought that this film was by-the-numbers predictable, and I could have run through the action and events, as well as the denouement, without even watching it. I have seen ‘Hunger’, which was powerful, but so far I have not bothered with ‘Shame’, as the subject matter has no appeal for me.
      Bobby Sands’ hunger strike was well-known over here of course, though I actually preferred the Daniel Day Lewis IRA prisoner film, ‘In the Name of The Father’, about Gerry Conlon. I expected most comments to be in favour of ’12 Years A Slave’, but stick with my own assessment, naturally.
      Best wishes as always, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is very interesting that your post was about this movie.. I was just in Best Buy and this movie was in the four dollar bin, which I almost picked up to watch… But instead I bought “The Revenant” instead with Leonardo DiCaprio being attacked by a mother bear protecting her cubs. I’m still on the fence after viewing this film, I loved it and not so much liked it all at the same time… When pondering over my lack luster thoughts on this film, I think the subtitles were a bit daunting for me as they were tiny in print and not very easy to read. But, and yes there is always these when I talk or type… I noticed it’s time for another eye exam in my future because also the other day a small 6 looked like an 8 and messed up my accounting with my checking register… So, this film gave me a heads up on my sight not being up to par… ๐Ÿ™‚

    Take care, Laura


    1. I haven’t seen The Revenant yet. It has been well-received, but I know quite a few who didn’t like it. Sorry to hear about your eyes getting worse. I’m having some issues with cataracts myself.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh those darn Cataracts are a bone of contention for me too… I’ve had a slight laser surgery done to one of my eyes already and was told cataracts are heading my way, too…

        Oh well (pun) Here’s something for both of us to Look forward too.. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Take care, Laura


  3. I wrote passionately about the film some years ago, so I am going to quote what I think is the heart of the matter (but the majority of people I know have not liked the film, truth be told): “It is precisely the fact that Solomon was a free citizen, a literate man and talented musician (as well as family man), that makes the source material upon which Steve McQueen draws so compelling. A lot of films have been made on the subject of slavery (and racism) and will undoubtedly continue to be so. Yet it is unlikely that one so powerful and effective will appear again, anytime soon. Without a hint of sentimentality, melodramatic flourishes or need for historical preaching, McQueen plunges his viewers directly into the unimaginable horrors he portrays by confronting us with a reality that, suddenly, anyone can relate to. What if it were you, or me, abducted, separated from our family, and forced into a lifelong existence of menial labor and inhumane cruelty? The surprise, the perplexity on Chiwetel Ejioforโ€™s face (one of the most expressive that have ever been captured on film) fully transmits the dread, the irrationality, the injustice of his situation.”



    1. Thanks for your comment, Nandia. I have great respect for your film knowledge, and your opinions too, as you know. As I suggested, many critics and viewers share your admiration for this film, and consider it to be powerful and convincing. I watched the same scenes, and considered them to be melodrama. Despite knowing many people who really rate this film, I just cannot see it in the same way.
      As for the star, Ejiofor, I think he is generally very good. In the TV series ‘The Shadow Line’, he was excellent, and his performance as a drag queen in the film ‘Kinky Boots’ (2005) demonstrated his versatility. He does have a very expressive face, something I first noticed in the 2002 film, ‘Dirty Pretty Things.’
      Best wishes, Pete.


      1. I first noticed Ejiofor in Serenity (the film that turned me into a Whedonite forever!), and never forgot him since. As far as opinions go, these tend to vary greatly, and not only on this film โ€“ that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What most surprises me is that the majority of the people I know, disliked the film (or worse). And good for them, because I’d hate it if people liked it just because authority figures determined it was “good”. Not to mention that the list of films that have won the oscar over the years includes movies that range from indifferent to aggressively mediocre (do not get me started on this year’s The Revenant…).


  4. I find this is true about many ‘Oscar quality’ films – they have the money, stellar casts etc, but they cannot prevent themselves from trite scripts and clichรฉ. That’s why I haven’t watched the movie yet, and now I don’t know if I will. I prefer indies with a bit of originality about them.


    1. Cindy may well be right about age being a factor, M.L. As I got older, I began to find that I constantly felt that I had seen everything before, and that the so-called ‘Epics’ and ‘Masterpieces’ are nothing of the sort anymore. (Though my 27-year old step daughter found it boring too…)
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t seen the film, and have no real desire to do so. I figured the awards had more to do with political correctness than anything else. What’s your opinion of “Django Unchained?” Just curious. By the way, I’ve read “Schindler’s List” (in French translation), and have also seen the film. Both are excellent.


    1. I haven’t seen ‘Django Unchained’, David, so can’t comment on that one.
      I also have a tendency to believe that the ridiculous number of awards for this film were driven as much by politics, as by any degree of real appreciation for the work.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  6. You could take your slavery list and apply it to Holocaust films. It is a shame when an important historical happening has been overdone to the point of seeming mundane. Especially a specific account of a historical figure. Since it’s based on his life and autobiography, you are going to get the same old, same old. I am sure this also ties in with your hatred of reboots. The same story told over and over–I know that’s how I feel about Marvel Comics films. Third, your age has a lot to do with it. (Sorry). If you are young and have not much experience with the history of slavery or the Holocaust or Marvel Comics films, then the first ten times you see one, it’s riveting and horrifying. If you have spent decades watching the stuff, you are one tough cookie, not a virgin, but a hardened sell; it takes a lot to impress you. With 12 Years a Slave, what I did like, as one who has studied and researched and teach the topic, was the supporting character who played Fassbender’s wife. SHE was outstanding and unique and highlighted the interrelationships between the master and slave on the plantation beautifully. I liked the shots of McQueen–I frequently do–the sounds of the winged bugs, the light from the sun during the day. And I wholeheartedly enjoyed the acting of just about everyone.


    1. You make a good point about familiarity with a subject, Cindy. Regarding the Holocaust, I have seen a great deal about it, factual and otherwise. Then there was also the mighty ‘Shoah’ of course. Despite that, I still found much to admire in ‘The Grey Zone’, ‘Schindler’s List’, and ‘The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.’ If a film is good enough, and a story compelling enough, I can easily watch something new about the same subject. I am looking forward to seeing ‘Son Of Saul’, for that very reason.
      As for this film, I found it melodramatic, lacking anything fresh in approach, and with a cast acting by the numbers, to a well-tried formula. You know that I have great respect for your film knowledge and opinions. We will just have to agree to disagree on this one, I think.
      Best wishes as always, Pete.


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