12 Years a Slave, the Oscars and significance vs. story

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Was 12 Years a Slave rewarded for its ‘worthy’ story rather than worthy storytelling?

It was the Oscars last Sunday, didn’t ya know? Oh well why would you? It’s not like everyone was banging on relentlessly about it, and about how the tragic tale of freeman turned kidnap victim Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave, simply must win Best Picture. At this juncture, it’s important to state that (obviously) slavery is one of the worst ills imaginable, its very existence a cruel indictment on humanity as a whole. And therein lies the crux of the argument: people’s desire to reinforce their own inherent ‘good eggness’ by pointing that out. Basically, 12 Years is an earnest and brutal portrayal of the slave economy in the pre-Civil War Deep South, adapted from a true story and featuring a heavyweight cast – so how could it fail to move me? But it did.

We need to invest in characters in order to care, but we don’t learn a thing about Solomon Northup throughout 12 Years a Slave

Oh, people were moved; critics, radio and TV presenters and columnists liked it, but what do you know about Solomon Northup at the start of the movie? He’s a freeman, a violinist and he has a family whom he loves. What do you know about him at the end of the movie? He was a freeman, then was a slave, he still played the ‘fiddle’ and after 12 years was reunited with the family he loves. But you can probably work that out from the poster (well, apart from the fiddle bit). In its composite parts, this is a tragic story. However, film is entertainment, lasting longer than the length of your average sad anecdote; hence we need to invest in the characters in order to care. We don’t learn a thing about Solomon Northup through the entirety of 12 Years a Slave and, come to think of it, we don’t know anything about those around him.

Solomon and his fellow slaves wear pained and frightened expressions, but that’s not a clue as to their character. They’ve had their freedom and their humanity stripped from them, but we never get to know them as people. Many critics have said 12 Years is Steve McQueen’s final triumphant transition from artist to visual storyteller, but the film suffers from the same flaws as his earlier work, in that the focus is too much on how the film looks and not how his characters are as people. There are no incidental conversations, no insight into the minutiae of daily life beyond the obvious brutality and the vast Second Act – with its seemingly endless pattern of brutality and suffering – but no narrative dynamism for your engagement.

McQueen’s film isn’t perfect: But is 12 Years a Slave just ‘penance porn’?

12 years a slave

Even the finest history books are fused with a narrative to make the statistics and the hardships they allude to come to life. Antony Beevor’s stunning Stalingrad comes to mind. In 1942, the invading German army were trapped in the city of Stalingrad, freezing to death, with many forced to eat their fallen comrades to avoid starvation. But to make a film out of it (as Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk has), you’d need a little more story. It’s no good showing soldiers suffering horribly for two hours – to invest in what is essentially a piece of entertainment you need characters that you know and care about.

When a filmmaker takes a tale from the world of fact and interprets it through the medium of film, there are criteria to be met

There is a myth that pervades Oscar season that the ‘worthy’ films win. When people say this they mean, ‘if it’s about something horrible or important, it’ll do well’. They’re thinking of movies like Schindler’s List (Best Picture in 1993) or Philadelphia, for which Tom Hanks beat Liam Neeson and the mighty Daniel Day-Lewis to the Best Actor Oscar, also in 1993. But generally the Academy does a pretty good job of rewarding films that the public have loved; though if that had been the case this year then Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (having taken $375 million worldwide at the time of writing) would have beaten 12 Years a Slave (on its way to $160 million worldwide, despite being released two months before).

Of course, the importance of a film isn’t always represented in box office returns, but the difference with Schindler’s List, Philadelphia or Dallas Buyers Club, which was also a Best Picture nominees this year and told the tale of another group of people going through tremendous suffering (the AIDS virus in this case), is that they seek to tell heart-rending, powerful and culturally significant stories through just that, a story. When a filmmaker decides to take a tale from the world of fact and interpret it through the medium of film, there are criteria to be met, so that the message is not lost. Essentially, get to know the characters and the truth will hurt even more. Maybe the Academy was too busy fulfilling its own mythology this year and, as such, rewarded a misguided telling of one of the most important stories of them all.

 

An alternative opinion: 12 Years a Slave is an art work like no other

 

All images: Entertainment One

 

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