Contrarian Reviews of ’12 Years a Slave’: Do They Have Value?

12 Years a Slave

At times the modern world of film criticism can be rather monotonous. Every writer with internet access has the opinions of endless critics at their fingertips. And despite frequent claims that writers are not influenced by the views of their peers, similar comparisons and judgments are duplicated from one review to the next. Sure, it is possible that the keen and educated film critic’s eye may be drawn to similar aspects of a movie, leading to similar conclusions. But if every review bears the same opinion, what is the point of film criticism? I may as well glance at a Metacritic score and call it quits.

Among the sea of rave reviews accompanying the release of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave can be found the rare pan. The value of these contrarian opinions cannot be underestimated. Even if only one pan shows up on Rotten Tomatoes, it may have the power to prompt an audience to be more active, adopting a critical eye rather than letting the positivity (or negativity) of the critical mass push them into a passive fog. That being said, not all critical voices can necessarily be trusted. Prompting conversation may be the only redeeming quality of the critic’s contrarianism.

Such is the case with Armond White’s response to 12 Years A Slave (read it here). The pinnacle of his argument is that 12 Years a Slave is not historical, but in fact perverse “torture porn”. In this sentence alone lies many fallacies. Firstly, when did it become necessary for films to accurately depict history? Since the very birth of cinema, American history has been exaggerated, twisted and often “whitewashed” (just look at every Western in existence.) And many biopics, even based on memoirs like 12 Years a Slave are not necessarily the ultimate truth. They are based on what we somewhat arbitrarily take as truth. That being said, 12 Years a Slave not only sticks closely to the memoir it is based on, visualizing Northup’s jarring straightforward prose, but it avoids any sort of sugar coating that is so prevalent in Hollywood historical films.

White’s characterization of 12 Years a Slave as torture porn is perhaps the most problematic element of his argument. The implication of this term is that an audience can obtain some sort of lurid pleasure from graphic images of violence on screen. Firstly, these images do not overwhelm the screen time. They are used in discretion and truly represent the horrors that were endured during this period in American history. They are not, as White attempts to claim, excessive or sensationalized. Many films that revolve around the theme of slavery even shy away from truly depicting the inhumanity, as to not upset their audience members. Take Spieldberg’s Lincoln. The entirety of the narrative revolves around the abolition of slavery. But does the viewer ever see one depiction of the said social injustice? No.

Another Oscar nominee from last year, Django Unchained, also centers on slavery and did just the opposite, concentrating on and highlighting America’s blood-stained past. One can make the case that Tarantino films such as Django could be categorized as torture porn, for better or worse. Sure, most of the violence in his work takes the form of vigilante revenge, but watch any Tarantino movie in a crowded theater and it becomes obvious that viewers derive pleasure from the sensationalized violence. Watching 12 Years a Slave proves to be a much more brutal and honest viewing experience.

Conversely, Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice protests that the film is too antiseptic, lacking any true feeling thanks in part to McQueen’s static camerawork and aesthetic beauty (read her review here). Unlike White, Zacharek’s complaints seem less aimed at provocation and are more a matter of taste. I personally found that the contrast of McQueen’s aesthetic choices, which were somewhat minimal and withdrawn, allowed for incredible and emotive performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender just to name a few. The lack of cinematic tricks, which often feel manipulative and melodramatic, made 12 Years a Slave all the more affecting.

However, Zacharek seems to prefer films like The Butler, which she feels are more “alive”. To me, a film starring Oprah, and ending with the real life protagonist meeting the first African American president, is a tale intended to tell us, “look how far we’ve come!” It is nothing more than a sugar-coated feel-good story. 12 Years a Slave is a no holds barred examination of how troubled America was, and possibly still is. There certainly is a need to celebrate progress, but what makes 12 Years a Slave so powerful is its total absence of celebratory patriotism. It shows the truth.

McQueen recently replied to criticism of his film’s aesthetic beauty at a luncheon hosted by Fox Searchlight Pictures, drawing attention to the fact that horrific things happened in beautiful locations. In this way, the perversity of humanity is emphasized. Since he wasn’t making a horror film, he didn’t feel the need to put a dark lens on every shot. Despite my protest to some of the negative reviews in response to 12 Years a Slave, it is undoubtable that they truly had an impact on the conversation surrounding McQueen’s film, even prompting the filmmaker to respond and defend himself. And isn’t that one of the joys of movies? Conversation and reflection? When audience members begin to treat movies as an art form rather than solely a piece of entertainment, the movie-going experience becomes that much more important in America’s cultural evolution.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. The movie is worth seeing. However, I must admit it is too-often boring, not well acted, and has weird plot lapses. Brad Pitt, as the Canadian good guy, is one of several examples of really wooden acting. [[Michael Fassbender as a sadistic slave owner is an exception.]] As for plot lapses, the first big lapse resonates through the entire movie: Solomon intending to leave home for ~12 nights, if not 12 years, and apparently telling no one needs some rationale never hinted at in the movie.

  2. RIchard M

    Is it okay not to like this movie? While I was watching, I whispered to my companion, after what I thought was a decent interval, “I’m bored.” The answer came back: “Me too.” We disagreed about Spielberg’s Lincoln. Then, my confession of boredom wasn’t reciprocated. Such is the magic of Daniel Day Lewis, I guess. I had long fantasized about a great Hollywood movie about Lincoln, one that would demonstrate his thrilling greatness, make it vital, and Spielberg’s film was not that movie. Here, though, we were in agreement — the film felt tedious.

    For you see, we know, here in 2013, that slavery in America was bad, very bad, profoundly bad, worse even for many than what the film depicts. So, there’s no revelation there. Without such, we are left with the standard requirements of drama: character and plot. The plot was simple and known ahead of time, and I had difficulty connecting with the character, with any of the characters. Do we get to know Northup? I didn’t think so. I felt like the movie was pretend.

    There was one great moment that threatened to cure my boredom: Northup’s reluctantly singing a spiritual along with the other slaves, in what is ironically an acute spiritual defeat. That moment was interesting. There weren’t enough others like it.

    Just as TV put Lincoln to shame — HBO’s Adams miniseries was the way to teach presidential history — TV put me in mind of what Hollywood could do in this area. PBS did an American Experience called The Abolitionists, a documentary film about the heavy hitters — white, black, male, female — fighting slavery when it was a live issue. That show was a little hackneyed, but it made the issue, and the historical sweep of terrible and great events, live for the viewer.

    Instead of a Northup movie, why not a film called Douglass? Hell, let’s make it four hours. It worked for Scarlett O’Hara — I wasn’t bored for a second — though, irresistible as she was, she didn’t really deserve the audience’s extended attention as much as Frederick Douglass, or, for that matter, Abraham Lincoln.

    Lincoln found it necessary to focus on the political minutiae behind the 13th Amendment, which may be the least interesting story to tell about Lincoln and his times. This movie similarly finds its way into the great mess of history through one smallish tale that isn’t even all that representative. Meanwhile, epics are reserved for fantasy or sci-fi.

    • Gemma Taylor

      From a film-goers perspective, I agree that this movie can feel at times tedious. It certainly could have been pared further for a more commercial pacing, but I think to watch this film like any other Oscar contending film would be to miss the point.

      I would agree that if the movie was purely about how bad American slavery was, that it would essentially be unnecessary aside from any compelling dramatic potential, but I think it speaks to something larger than that. I think it is more of an essay as to why any form of enslavement is detrimental to the people and the institutions of any modern democracy. Slavery is tedious, and it’s awful, and we know this, and yet it still persists (sex trafficking being the most prominent manifestation of this.)

      Additionally, the movie also speaks to the moral staining that slavery causes to both the oppressors and the oppressed. This is a profound idea that is overlooked by many cinematic portrayals of American slavery.

  3. Nice post!

  4. I appreciate the idea behind the article, but I think the manner in which the question is both posed and discussed is rather unproductive, or at least not the most productive.

    In my opinion, this is not the appropriate light with which to view film criticism. This article is predicated on the fact that some views are right and some views are wrong. Certainly, using “popular opinion” as the marker is better than no marker at all, but it doesn’t give much credit to the people who disagree.

    A true “contrarian” review is nothing more than trolling and it is not at all important. It’s completely valueluess. We well argued, well thought negative review has a great deal of value, or at least the same amount of value that the more common reviews have.

  5. Marce S.Paolo

    The trouble with so many accounts of slavery is that they ignore that slavery was a universal institution, and still exists in some parts of the world. (There is a recent account of a case in England, where three women had been held as slaves for 30 years.) This film only takes into account the enslavement of African Negroes, from which many other African tribes profited. The anti-slavery movement began in Great Britain, stemming from the work of John Locke. John Newton, who captained a ship with African Negroes to be sold into slavery, during a storm at sea, realized how evil this was, and became the leader of the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain. He composed the hymn “Amazing Grace,” as consequence. He became a minister, and the church where he preached has a bas-relief of him striking the chains of a kneeling African Negro.

    One famous slave was the Greek philosopher Epictetus, founder of Stoicism.

  6. Natalie Payne

    I think not indicating the passage of time was brilliant. The name of the movie is “12 years a Slave” so we know he eventually gets out the hell-scape. By not indicating the passage of time it keeps the audience in suspense at the seemingly never ending experience that is slavery.

  7. Without a doubt this is the most emotional, thought-provoking film of the year.

    It’s brutal, but beautifully executed. It’s disgusting, but highly recommended.

    And here I thought “Mud” was my number 1 film this year. Bullshit! This IS it! I don’t think there’s anything left to be released this year that’ll top this flick.

  8. I just returned from seeing this film and I have to say that it is one of the most powerful films that I have have ever had the fortune to see. The performances were harrowing and the story of Solomon, was heart-wrenching and inspiring. That one could endure such hardship and still retain his spirit is something that is truly beautiful. The best film of 2013 by far.

  9. Waiting for the blu-ray release. Can’t believe I missed this when it was screening!

  10. Jon Lisi

    First of all, this article is very well-written.

    You bring up an interesting debate that also gets into the ethics of filmmaking in general. Can you make a film about slavery, and if so, what kind of film should it be? The same can probably said about the Holocaust and other real-life events.

    I admire the film very much, but I do think it’s excessively violent and I don’t know what can be gained from watching a fictional account of slaves being beaten for a few hours. I can certainly see where White is coming from in this regard. But this is also a cinematic style, so that opens up an entirely different conversation.

  11. Nicola Kahler

    There is an argument towards film reviews that the reviewer should support opinions with evidence of how the film reflected the codes and conventions of its genre. It’s hard to filter through negative reviews of films in particular, as reviewer’s can tend to hate-rant without referring directly to aspects of the film. Saying that the film is “torture porn” is one thing, but without supporting evidence (or strong examples at least) it can’t really hold as an effective review. That’s just one argument though… I think that if the review provokes conversation it can’t be THAT detrimental to the film

  12. While I can’t leave my opinion on the movie, as I haven’t seen it yet, I will say this: After reading Mr. White’s analysis, I’m glad to now have a name for the “Obama Effect.” I feel like, for some reason, everyone is trying to make movies that scream, “Look how far we’ve come.” The problem is, however, that we haven’t come nearly as far as a nation as cinema would like us to believe. It’s ugly, but it’s the truth. I believe we still have a long way to go before we can start leaving mile markers and gloating about our current day.

  13. Sam Gray

    I don’t think you can just whitewash critical responses to certain films, even if the general consensus is that it is very good, as is the case with 12 Years A Slave. A review is a subjective expression of opinion, and while some opinions are more valid and justifiable than others, all are important regarding the discussion of audience response to a film (to some extent – one visit to an internet message board will tell you that not everyone with an opinion should be given a forum to express it).

  14. J. Bryan Jones

    I don’t think that having brutal examples of slavery is necessary in all films of the period. In Lincoln, there was no need for it and the film was political. So I don’t call movies that “shy” away from it wusses. In 12 Years a Slave, however, it serves a great cinematic and emotional purpose. Best film of the year.

  15. Well, cinema is subjective so I don’t personally think that anybody that dislikes the film should be dismissed as merely being a “contrarian.” That being said, Armond White is infamous for his provocative ‘reviews.’ He just does it to a elicit response.

  16. I disagree with White’s heckling of McQueen, if the reports are true, but I agree with his assessment that the film is “torture porn.” I am well versed in slavery and the history of the diaspora. And I have loved and studied film since I was a child, and this film just not that good. There were ham-handed sections McQueen clumsily edited to alert the audience “it’s time for you to cry now”–something I would expect from a first-year film student; and the only consistently strong performances were those of Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt; the stars: Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Fassbender–had some strong moments, but each had some huge weaknesses in their performances that I have to attribute to the director.

    In his interview with Dan Lee of Vulture, McQueen stated that the only time he had to take a break from filming was when Northrop shed the single tear after Patsey’s last brutal whipping (not HER crying in soul-wrenching pain, but Northrop’s reaction). Also, McQueen stated the character he felt the most sorry for was Edwin Epps because he was in love with Patsey. The fact the McQueen, as director and ultimate visionary of the film, could possibly believe that, speaks to why this film is twisted in so many ways. As I watched the film I felt it was very mysoginistic in its treatment of black women–and McQueen’s statements in this interview confirm my suspicions.

    I believe that people–particularly a lot of white people–want to indulge in this film as a “get out of feeling guilty about white privilege” card and ignore its lack of artistic merit. I’ve seen other films about slavery that touched me more. White’s assessment that this is part of a trend of films that present servile Negro suffering to soothe the Collective Consciousness’ unease with the first Black President of the United States is on target. And I also agree with White that the film didn’t show any of the transcendence of which we descendents of slaves are living proof. After all of that “torture porn,” why not SHOW Northrop once more a freeman speaking as an abolitionist, instead of just noting it in tiny print before rolling the credits? It disappoints me (but doesn’t surprise me) that this film is being touted by the Mainstream Entertainment Complex as the first “serious” artistic feature about slavery.

  17. Personally I am not a fan of 12 Years a Slave. I am a fan of Steve McQueen and believe that Shame and Hunger are both some of the best films made in a long time. That being said, both of those films, the stories and the writing are excellent, with Shame being extraordinary since Hunger relies on visuals and its stunning shots. While I think that technically 12 Years a Slave is a great film, the writing was lacking in a big way. Since the story focuses on a free man, with a life and family, who is thrown into slavery, there is a huge potential for emotional turmoil, but the film begins with Solomon as a slave rather than as a free man. Though it uses a flashback, immediately Solomon’s family is going on holiday. Suddenly, all too fast, he becomes conned and kidnapped, early into the film. So the writing is flawed in my opinion because it focused too much on the surface struggles of being a slave, granted it is a brutal and heart wrenching pain that I cannot imagine, but the entire film I felt that the emotional connection between Solomon and his family was not there, as we were not familiarized with his family at all. So the film did focus a bit too much on the idea of torture, though not torture porn as he suggests, but that idea was still more prominent than the loss of family and specifically Solomon’s family.

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