Movies: 12 Years A Slave Review (or “Coasting On Subject Matter Alone”)

Long term readers of Stuart Reviews Stuff will know that in my reviews, I like to bring up the notion of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

By that I mean that certain things, whether they be films, games or TV shows are purported to be amazing just because people don’t want to go against the popular view.

And that’s true of the film I went to see today and the film which will inevitably win big at every award show going this year, 12 Years A Slave.

12 Years A Slave Review: What’s This About?

I would regurgitate the synopsis, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll write exactly what this film is about.12-years-a-slave-quad

A black man is kidnapped into slavery in mid-1800s America, he’s beaten up for 2 hours and then Brad Pitt writes a letter for him so he’s freed.

12 Years A Slave Review: Who’s In It?

The lead – playing the part of the kidnapped protagonist Solomon Northup- is Chiwetel Ejiofor, and his supporting cast includes the likes of Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o.

12 Years A Slave: How Highly Is It Rated?

As you might expect from my opening remarks, this is a very highly thought of film with high marking reviews everywhere you would care to look. Imdb give it 8.5 from around 45,000 votes, both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic give it 97%, and as you can see from the movie’s poster, it gets 5 star reviews from critics all over the place.

Thoughts – So Why Don’t I Like It?

You might sit there reading this and think “Why doesn’t he like such a critically acclaimed movie?”. Well I’ll tell you.

But first I’ll tell you why I think people like it.

The subject matter is the key to 12 Years A Slave. It’s being described as a “shocking” and “unflinching” portrayal of how slavery really was, and that it pulls no punches.

And that’s true. You won’t hear me argue against that.

The thing is though, I suspect critics feel they dare not go against the grain and criticise such a serious subject matter for fear of trivialising it.

Well I’m not trivialising it either, but that doesn’t mean it gets a free pass and heaped with praise just because of the subject matter. I get that slavery was a horrible thing in the pre-Civil War Era, but surely anyone with half a brain knows that? Is the idea that some people think that slavery’s best representation is the Disney film Song of the South (even though that is set after the abolition of slavery I might add)?

I’ve seen films that deal with the way slaves have been treated; hell, look at Django Unchained as an example of that. And sure, that film was over the top, but the core message that the oppressive white man of the American South seriously mistreated slaves was in there alongside the comedy and the ridiculous cartoon violence towards the end.

But Django Unchained had more than that; it had entertainment value.

12 Years A Slave has no entertainment value.

I’m guessing we’re supposed to reflect on how bad things were back then after we watch it, but like I just said, I think anyone with common sense knew that.

So what does it have apart from that? Practically nothing.

As a story, 12 Years A Slave just doesn’t cut the mustard. Once Solomon Northup is kidnapped, all we have is two hours of him lurching from one set piece where he’s beaten up or mistreated to the next, with almost no storyline to it. Nothing develops and it’s just one long slog. Is that the point? Maybe it is, but that doesn’t make for entertainment.

I do tell a lie there though; the film is padded out with two side-plots that go nowhere. The first is a woman whose children are taken away from him, and that’s not resolved. The next is that evil Plantation owner Michael Fassbender has a sort-of-relationship with one of his slaves, much to the annoyance of his wife, and that doesn’t go anywhere either.

Then, with no real reason other than it was perhaps time to wrap things up, Brad Pitt arrives on the scene and sorts out his freedom.

It just had no flow to it, and I attribute that in some part to the director.

The Direction

Now, whenever you read anything about 12 Years A Slave, you’re told about the masterful job Steve McQueen did. I couldn’t disagree more.

Here are my main reasons for that…

  1. The film starts off with an entirely pointless prolepsis (flash forward). There was just no need for it; it’s an overused, lazy directorial trick that lost its impact as long ago as the TV series Alias.
  2. For a film entitled 12 Years A Slave, it would have been good to get some perception of how long he was a slave for. But there was none. None at all. Nobody appeared to age and there was no indication of the passing of time whatsoever. If you didn’t get told how long he was a slave in the title of the film, you wouldn’t know by watching.
  3. I think he thought that showing the results of people getting lashed would hit home, but I feel desensitized to that sort of thing now. That’s not his fault of course, but while some are saying what he did was groundbreaking, I would disagree.
  4. It isn’t made especially clear how or why he was kidnapped.

But I will give him some credit. There were a handful of very strong scenes in there, most notably the one where Solomon is left almost hanging, and the rest of the slaves just went about their business without even trying to help him. That was powerful.

And similarly, some of the scenes involving the character of Patsey and the jealous plantation owner’s wife were pretty shocking.

Those are not enough though, and what we were left with was so much dead screen time and repetition that with an hour to go I was almost climbing the walls with boredom.

I guess though that “Oscar-worthy” movies have to run way beyond the 2 hour mark to be taken seriously, eh?

12 years A Slave Review: Final Thoughts

When I was leaving the cinema tonight, I heard some of the things the other patrons were saying about 12 Years A Slave. In the main, they were discussing how hard-hitting and violent it was and how it made them think about slavery.

And I get that; I honestly do.

But I go to see a film to be entertained. I think it’s more than possible for a film to educate and entertain at the same time, and that should be the standard by which all great films should be held.

12 Years A Slave will show the people of 2014 just how bad slavery was, and it makes no effort to sugar coat it or to make it melodramatic or over the top.

But it didn’t entertain me. It had no progressing narrative, it had some ropey directorial moments and it just dragged on and on.

So do yourself a favour; if you want to be entertained, don’t bother. And if you want to be educated, there’s bound to be a documentary somewhere that does that better too.



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