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