12 Years a Slave: Two and a half hours of boredom

Melodramatic, episodic, and porno-sadisitic: 12 Years a Slave is free of historical truth and boring to boot, says a decidedly unimpressed Vincent Cooper

by Vincent Cooper on 17 January 2014 21:16

When it comes to films, Hollywood or otherwise, I have generally found that the more critically acclaimed the film, the less I have liked it. And so it is with the latest over-hyped but critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave –  a film about slavery in the antebellum South.

Virtually all critics praised the film’s technical achievements and its historical authenticity (the film is based on the book 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup).

Mark Kermode, film critic of the Observer, was typical of the critics. He says, “if you have any interest in cinema – or, for that matter, in art, economics, politics, drama, literature or history – then you need to watch 12 Years a Slave.”

That’s some praise for a mere film, an art form that usually is happy if it manages simply to entertain its audience. (Of course, there are some major exceptions to the point.)

Well, I watched 12 Years a Slave in a half-empty cinema and, frankly, I found it highly melodramatic, episodic, at times porno-sadistic (the public whipping of a naked young woman was pure voyeurism) and virtually without any wider social or historical context.

Technically, 12 Years a Slave lacked a sense of continuity through time. It came across as snippets of abstract, sado-torture events, with little sense of emotional, psychological or narrative cohesion. It was as if someone had said: ‘here, take a look at my photo collection of me as a slave. This is a picture of me being whipped. This is a shot of my cruel white master.’  

And, as with looking at a neighbour’s holiday snaps, after half-an-hour the film became boring.

The film’s director Steve McQueen, an ‘installation’ and ‘video’ artist (McQueen does not handle paint brush or pencil), won the Turner Prize in 1999.

That explains a lot. 12 Years a Slave comes across as a collection of ‘installations’, brutal pictures put together as a photomontage designed to shock, not to inform. Shocking the public, of course, is the prime purpose of modern art, nothing to do with actual artistic skill.

Perhaps McQueen might win the Turner Prize again with his latest offering.

Also, the critics’ claim that 12 Years a Slave reflects history is simply not true. Being little more than a collection of cruelty scenes stitched together, McQueen’s film lacks wider historical perspective and context.

I don’t mean that such scenes as depicted in 12 Years a Slave never occurred. They most certainly did. Only that the truth is much more complex.

For example, slaves were expensive chattel property. From an extremely cruel but "logical" point of view (the view of many slave owners), it didn’t pay to damage that property. The scene in 12 Years a Slave where a slave is stabbed to death for trying to prevent a rape is not in the original book on which the film is based, and is unlikely to be true.

Why kill a slave when he can work for you? Again, I have no doubt that these things happened. But were they "normal"?

There are other historical inaccuracies. In the film, a young slave girl pleads with a fellow slave to kill her so that she may depart her miserable existence. This is pure fantasy by McQueen. It is not in Northup’s book.

Some effusive critics noticed this inaccuracy but justified it on the grounds that such things ‘must have happened’. But that’s not history.

The hard fact is that it was in the financial interests of slave owners to take care of their slaves -- not of course that they could be relied upon to do so. In a much more profound sense than was allowed in the movie, that gets to the heart of the evil that slavery was. It turned human beings into property.

Because of this "property" interest, many slaves actually had a higher standard of living than many poor whites.

Consider this: ‘The slave’s diet of corn, pork, molasses, and greens was coarse and lacked variety, but it was better than that of many English farm laborers and infinitely superior to that of Irish or Russian peasants.’ (The Limits of Liberty Maldwyn A. Jones)

It was also the case that the working conditions of many slaves were no worse than those of free labour: ‘a slave’s long workday was no longer than that of many Northern industrial and agricultural laborers.’ (The Limits of Liberty)

Making these points must, of course, always come with the disclaimer: slavery cannot be morally justified or its evil downplayed; ever, under any circumstances. Period. The evil of slavery was the slavery itself.

But the points are nevertheless valid if it is real history that you are interested in, and explain why many slaves continued working on plantations long after liberation.

None of this historical context comes out in McQueen’s film. It is true that providing historical context is difficult in a two or three hour film. Gone With the Wind brilliantly succeeded from a certain point of view, but at the cost of romanticising slavery.

However, 12 Years a Slave failed on both counts; it misrepresented the conditions of slavery by leaving out historical truth.

12 Years a Slave is enjoying the self-congratulatory and effusive praise to be expected from the leftist luvvie world of the movies.

The film appeals particularly to white liberals who love feeling good about feeling bad about white Western society, and 12 Years a Slave certainly makes them feel bad about white society, while getting nowhere near to the heart of the matter at hand.

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