After its Oscar success, 12 Years a Slave has found criticism once more. But is it deserved and, more importantly, who decides what art HAS to be anyway?
Not long after the Oscars aired, The Independent reported that two members of the Academy had come to vote for 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture without having seen it. It didn’t seem to matter to many of the commentators that two out of 6,000 is statistically irrelevant – two was enough. The film had won for no other reason than white/liberal guilt.
Some have dismissed 12 Years a Slave’s victory as nothing more than guilty white people trying to prove their own “good-eggness”
But what would they have rather won? The Wolf of Wall Street, a film in which it takes Martin Scorsese three hours to tell us that Jordan Belfort is a shit? Or Gravity, the cinematic equivalent of having stuff thrown at your head for 88 minutes? People always have their own opinions on what should and shouldn’t have won; what’s new is that there is a significant minority of people who would dismiss the victory of 12 Years a Slave – and indeed its whole success, critical and otherwise – as nothing more than guilty white people trying to prove their own “good-eggness”. This is an accusation as cynical and cheap as if I were to accuse anyone who was left unmoved by the film of being racist. It’s a particularly odd accusation, too, considering just how resistant Hollywood has been to films about slavery.
There is a shocking lack of movies about or even featuring this loathsome institution. The time period covered by the western begins in the 1830s and continues to the early part of the 20th century – a period of no more than 80 years. Whereas slavery existed in the US for around 340 years. There have been over 1200 westerns made, but only a handful of films about slavery. In his article, ’12 Years a Slave, and the problem with penance porn’, Bobby MacPherson says that we “still like to flagellate ourselves over [slavery] today”. Really? Well no-one’s told the film industry.
Since 12 Years a Slave is one of the first films to seek to honestly portray the reality of slavery, it carries on its shoulders a weight of expectation that no film could withstand. Everyone has something invested in it, so both praise and criticism are magnified. The critical responses can be reasonably grouped into three categories: praise, criticism and Armond White. White’s now infamous review is a litany of error, insinuation, hyperbole and personal attacks. Amongst other things, he questions the authenticity of Solomon Northup’s original memoir, calls the film “repugnant”, “warped, dishonest, insensitive fiction” and “flagrantly sadistic”. He also likens the film to torture porn, accuses screenwriter John Ridley of being a a “too-knowing race-hustler” and calls director Steve McQueen fraudulent – with criticisms this hateful, this unfair, this manifestly absurd it’s hard to know where to begin, so let me start here: Fuck you.
12 Years a Slave’s distance acts as a kind of dam against the reservoir of tears that would otherwise overwhelm the story
The only positive about Armond White’s review is his realisation of what he calls Steve McQueens’s “artsiness”, picking up on an aesthetic problem that has eluded others. “This is less a drama than an inhumane analysis” (other critics have called 12 Years a Slave a ‘museum piece’) – this sublimation of the narrative to the visual is perhaps what some viewers found problematic and why they weren’t as moved as they felt they should have been. Confronted with viewers who didn’t encounter the same problems, they seek to attribute to us the cheapest of motives in order to explain our love for the film.
But it was this very coolness that proved so effective. This distance acts as a kind of dam against the reservoir of tears that would otherwise overwhelm 12 Years a Slave’s story. When the dam finally breaks in the devastating last scene (in which Northup is welcomed back into the loving bosom of his family), it is all the more effective. The detachedness of the camera mirrors Northup’s restraint – he has to repress all his pain in order to survive. That last scene acted like a kind of spring-loaded bear-trap and left me shaking with tears. It was a moment of rare and powerful communion that taught me more than a history book ever could.
Significance vs story: Was 12 Years rewarded for the story rather than the storytelling?
But according to Bobby MacPherson, however, I was merely cleansing myself in the “comfy hot springs of [my] own guilt”. But I didn’t feel at all guilty – I was just moved, and in the end isn’t that enough? And despite what some may think, there is still a shocking ignorance in some quarters regarding the history of slavery. Former presidential front-runners Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann both signed a pledge that originally declared that African-American families had been better off under slavery than they are now. If this is at all indicative of a wider ignorance (as I sadly fear that it is), it will only take a few ignorant people to have seen 12 Years a Slave for it to have been truly educative.
Critics should not extrapolate from their own subjective opinions iron laws about what film should be. It can be art, entertainment or both
But this is not how art works, apparently. ‘Art’, according to Armond White, “elates and edifies” – in which case we can destroy all those Renaissance depictions of the Massacre of the Innocents, Goya’s etchings of French War atrocities, Picasso’s Guernica and much else besides. Anything that arouses pity, disgust, sympathy or any other human emotion in us is apparently not worth the canvas on which it is painted, the marble from which it is hewn or the celluloid on which it has been captured. Film/art can be many things – playful, serious, ironic, provocative, earnest, uplifting, tragic, educative, escapist. It can be art or entertainment and sometimes both. Critics should not extrapolate from their own subjective opinions iron laws about what art/film is or should be. I do not seek to deny, impugn or delegitimise anyone else’s reactions, and neither should they.
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All images: Entertainment One