12 Years A Slave: A Reluctant Review

I was really, really looking forward to seeing 12 Years a Slave, and today I got my chance.

At the risk of being called a racist … I did not like this movie.

I’m quite torn about it, honestly. It is a harsh, vivid, brutal demonstration of slavery in the American South. It’s been criticized for being too brutal, but that brings up the issue of sugar-coating evil, past and present. It made me uncomfortable, but slavery is uncomfortable. Few people these days are going to disagree that slavery is evil, but if they haven’t really thought of how evil, maybe it’s good that this movie shows them? I suppose there is something to be said in not holding back the more graphic elements of something like this.

But there is also something to be said for subtlety in art and storytelling, and often that is more effective. I’m not a filmmaker and I’m hardly in a position to make a better movie. Still, I do feel like a little more subtlety might have had a greater impact. Otherwise, you risk the possibility of viewers developing some kind of immunity to what you’re trying to show and tell.

In my case, I have to confess, I was so worn down by the unceasing brutality in the movie (there is certainly no comic relief to be found) that I was looking for any kind of distraction. Benedict Cumberbatch wearing boots and a waistcoat was an even more welcome sight than anticipated. Even if he was a slaveowner.

The hat does nothing for him, though.

The hat does nothing for him, though.

Plus, in a film like this, a more unrestrained approach puts the filmmakers at the risk of more savvy moviegoers (that is, heartless bastards like myself) watching it and going, “WE GET ITYou are unflinching and artistic. No need to (you’ll pardon the phrase) beat us over the head with it.”

In the end, though, I don’t think it was the movie’s raw cruelty that I had the biggest problem with. I think a lot of why I didn’t like it comes down to storytelling/technical issues.

If I watch a movie and hate it, there’s a 99% chance that I did not like/connect with any of the characters. I’m not the most empathetic person, but I like characters. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the plot or how gorgeous the cinematography, if I don’t care about/like at least one character, it’s all lost on me. Heck, I love Shakespeare but I don’t like Much Ado About Nothing because I don’t find any of the characters all that likable or sympathetic. And as a chick with an admitted liking for villains, you can imagine how easy that should be.

But that didn’t happen in this movie. Of course I sympathized with Solomon and I hated what he went through. But we don’t know much about his life as a free man (we get a few tidbits to start), and we don’t learn much about him in the more than two hours that follow. We see what happens to him, and the people around him, but it all did little to really connect me to him. This might just be me, but if I don’t have that connection, I can’t really care. The movie is the things done to him—I would dare to say that Solomon himself is not an interesting character. It’s similar with most of the others: Solomon’s wife, the other slaves, the plantation owners, the men who kidnapped him. And some characters, especially the most evil, are just caricatures. And while there is a lot of close-up, intimate cinematography, it doesn’t give much insight—it only adds to the viewer’s discomfort. I think there are some side characters, relationships, and conflicts that are potentially more interesting, but they aren’t well fleshed out (but also aren’t the point).

Another problem with the story is that the title is the only reference we have for the passage of time. As most of the action takes place in the South, you don’t get the same type of seasonal-establishing shots as you would with a glimpse of autumn colors, or a snowstorm. The movie provides the year at the beginning, but at the end, the only way we know it’s been exactly 12 years is because the title already told us. This might make the viewer feel a little lost.

There are a few other problems with the story’s flow. The narrative gets into a bit of a rut. There are a couple flashbacks that serve no purpose. Flashbacks with more substance would have been good. It might have been nice to break up the story with some sequences involving, say, Solomon’s family wondering what happened to him, or conversations between slaveholders and their wives, or a scene that explains Solomon’s kidnappers. I suppose any of that would have been inconsistent with the Solomon-central perspective, since it would have to involve scenes in which he was not present, but as I said, I’m not a professional filmmaker. It also might not have been historically faithful, but from what I heard, the movie as it is already takes liberties. There was also more sex and nudity than I was expecting. One scene was completely unnecessary, unexplained, and out-of-place. As with the violence, a little could have gone a long way.

I was expecting a “based on a true story” film to be a little more uplifting in the end. But all I got was “OH THANK GOD. Now I can go home.”

In full disclosure, I went to see the movie when my weekend was already off to a bad start. Then I got some really bad news via text message halfway through it. That just … didn’t help.

Protip for the fangirls: If you’re planning to see the movie solely for Benedict Cumberbatch, he has less than 10 minutes of screen time. If you’re planning to see the movie for Brad Pitt, he has about 3 minutes.