“12 Years a Slave” Review: With Zero White Guilt, Asian, it is not as good people say!

Hello. This is a Korean in America. The “Slavery “movie Genre has become the center of interest in the last few years. We had the satire “Django Unchained “ last year. We had the “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” this year. With the increasing presence of African Americans behind the camera, it is likely that the subject of Slavery and Racism continue its resurgence in the future.  Today, let’ talk about the new “Slavery “ Genre movie “12 Years a Slave” which has begun expanding its theatric release.



Introduction
My first real contact concerning this movie was the hype from early reviews saying it was a strong Academy awards contender and it was an important film that you  need to see. So, my expectation was that it would be in the vein of “Schindler’s list” or “Life is beautiful”. They were both very emotional movies that I will always remember seeing but do not particularly want to see it again. “12 Years a Slave” does not live up to my expectations. It does not even seem to be on par with “Passion of the Christ”. 

This was a shame since I would have liked to see a movie of that caliber about this type of subject.



The plot
This movie covers of real life inspired story in which a Free-born African American living prior to the civil war is kidnapped and sold into slavery down south. He spends 12 years in the south as a slave before getting saved by a friendly white person.


That is the entirety of the plot in a nut shell.   “12 Years a Slave” is a vignette movie. A vignette movie is a collection of vignettes or small events about a subject matter whether it be a person or an idea over a period of time. These vignettes are wrapped together with a minimal narrative plot. With 12 Years a Slave”, the previous paragraph is the whole narrative plot.

The nature of vignette movie
A vignette movie is not easy to pull off because of the lack of focus given by not having a narrative drive the story. Not only does most of the vignettes have to be interesting and have things to say independently, at the end of the movies, the collection of vignettes have to lead up to something… something most likely profound and impactful. This requires an in-depth degree of understanding about the subject matter covered by the movie. Without it, it’s just a collection of small stories and nothing more. This is what happened with 12 Years a Slave”! The director, Steve McQueen, has nothing to say other than that slavery is bad.

Someone failed to say that, “that ship had sailed a long time ago, Brother! No one is saying the concept of slavery is great nowadays.


Missed Opportunities
Someone may mention Racism is still relevant. And it is! But, slavery is not the same as racism. “12 Years a Slave” does not really touch on racism. It is wholly focused on slavery. This is a real disappointment since the protagonist is a “Free-born African American” prior to the civil war. It is a treasure trove of opportunities to go into how racism was intertwined and influenced slavery.

This does not impact the movie at all!


What we got was a Free born African American who is basically a African American of the present. He is rather entitled, carefree, and hapless individual which is rather unbelievable for someone living during that time period even though he lived free in the north.

In other words, he is a modern person. And not someone of the time period.

To be brunt, the Free born African American protagonist is not much of a character. Through the movie, we see him go through his 12 years of enslavement. However, we do not get to know much about him other than he has a family he wants to go back to. He doesn’t really build relationships with either other slaves or the slave owners. We do not really see what he likes or what kind of personality he has. Rather, we only see him suffer passively.


He is basically the modern audience’s avatar! He is just an avatar that is designed to put the audience in the place of the character. While this is not a problem on its own, it means that the meaning of the movie has to come the protagonist’s surroundings and not within the character.

The subject of slavery
As a subject, slavery is not an interesting topic to cover since it is now a somewhat evident fact that slavery is bad! During the late 90s and early 2000s, movies moved on the white slavery trade resulting from the collapse of the Soviet block. Now, even those subjects are not forgotten by the public. So, at this point in time, when you want to cover the subject of slavery, a film maker has to come up with something new to say about the subject.

However, the director, Steve McQueen, fails to do it. He has nothing more to say other than it is bad!

The purpose of all the vignettes in the movie is to show how bad living as a slave was. They are never about escaping from slavery. Our protagonist does not actively do much in those terms. The vignettes only do two things.

They show the audience what the environment of living as a slave was.
They show how our protagonist, the audience’s avatar, responds in those situations.

In other words, 12 Years a Slave” is basically a non-interactive amusement park ride like movie. You are just strapped into your seat and made to experience being a slave.

The Cons.
This, in itself, could have been interesting if not for a few things. First, the vignette style of storytelling does not seem to be well suited to this purpose. This is especially true when the time period of the movie spans more than a decade. The experience feels very fragment and unfocused with there only being a few very impactful scenes scattered sparsely throughout the movie.


Second, it is obvious from the dialogue that the director had more lofty ambitions. Whenever, there is any significant dialogue scene, the acting style shifts to a more “Educational preaching” old-timey stage play style. Not only can no modern movie pull that style off without being extremely campy but it is also a drastic divergence from the rest of the movie where there is little dialogue and there is a more physical and silent style of acting. In other words, the movie just stops for those dialogue scenes.

In addition, what does the audience get from the movie stopping dialogue scenes?

Nothing!

There is no insight into the experience of being a slave!  For the audience, it is just a disruption to their experience.


Third, there are no African “characters” in the movie. Most of the African characters are non-characters. You don’t know who they are and how they are feeling. They are just background elements within the environment.  Our protagonist does not really interact with them or talk with them. You do not even know their names.  The only exception is Eliza who is the Master’s mistress. Thus, the whole movie is carried by our protagonist’s responses. It is not even his actions since, as a slaves, he is not at liberty to act. This is a huge restriction put on the storytelling.


Fourth, none of the white characters work in the movie. It is obvious that the Caucasian actors playing the slave owners seem very uncomfortable with the subject matter. It is not like the movie has bad actors. You have top notch actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender giving the worst performances of their careers. Michael Fassbender is main villain of the movie but he is just off and his  character understanding is superficial. It makes me miss Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler's List”.

It is the director’s job to create an environment in which the actors can get comfortable with their roles and provide acting directions. The director, Steve McQueen, failed in his duties.
It also does not help that the characters are written like caricatures but not even period specific caricatures. They seem like a mesh between modern sensibility and campy non-specific period piece caricatures if you get my meaning. As a result, they pop out like they were part of a popup book.

Finally, the majority of the film is not very brutal. There are a few scenes with hangings and a very impactful whipping scene.

Yes, these few brutal scenes do have impact.

But, because of the fragmented vignette style, the impact is not lasting.

Throughout most of the movie, you do not really feel the oppression and brutality in the air like some claim. Rather, it is sometimes goofy. This made me think that my school life during my childhood in South Korea was more brutal than 90% of the movie.
Have you seen a lot of darker Korean movies coming to the American shores? Most of them are more brutal, twisted and tormented than most of what you see in “12 Years a Slave”.


The Pros.
The best thing about the movie is Chiwetel Ejiofor playing our protagonist. He gives great performances when he is reacting to his environment without much dialogue. When there is a dialogue heavy scene, not even Chiwetel Ejiofor’s acting talents can save that scene.


Another good thing about the movies is that, among the collection of vignettes which seem mundane in general, there are some vignettes which are very emotional for an isolated small story. However, even great vignettes do not add up to say something impactful at the end.


After thoughts
This is the real fault of 12 Years a Slave”. It is not much more than just scattered fragments of a person’s experience of being a slave without any overarching point or theme other than condemning Slavery.

It is so fragmented that it is even difficult to call it a journey. 

In other words, while the protagonist experiences stuff, he does not really go through stuff.  I cannot say I think he gained much insight from his experience other than just feeling older and worn down. Considering that he ended up writing a book about the experience and he became an abolitionist, this should not be the feeling the audiences get from the movie.

The conclusion is that “12 Years a Slave” is not as good as people say it is. It is rather a mess.

The insight provided by the film is superficial.
The film has nothing more to say other than slavery is bad.
There is barely a plot and the protagonist does not have agency.
Most of the characters do not work.
A lot of the vignettes are not memorable.

White guilt
So, why is it being called a great movie by most of the critics?


The performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor is a contributing factor. However, while a single actor’s performance may increase the attractiveness of a movie, I do not think that it would generate the knee jerking response it is getting on its own. “12 Years a Slave” is an amusement park ride movie where the protagonist is an audience avatar.  What you get from the movie is dependent on how much you identify with the Chiwetel Ejiofor’s protagonist even though the character itself is a non-character.

For African Americans, this would less of an issue once you can get over the faults of the movie.  This applies to Caucasian Americans also. However, in their cases, they also identify with the slave owners on a subconscious level. This is where the white guilt kicks in to facilitate the smoother overlooking of the faults of the movie. 

In my case, I do not have the personal connection to the subject matter to help identify with the Chiwetel Ejiofor’s protagonist. In the matter of fact, the non-character aspect of the character becomes a liability rather than an asset to the process of overlooking the faults of the movie in my case.  So, I end up looking at the movie on a more objective level. And the evaluation is…

It is not a particularly interesting movie even when seeing just its components.
It is a rather lack luster movie in general without any interesting characters.
It is a failure for what it is trying to do…. Being a vignette movie.

Score: C+

Proofed

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8 comments:

  1. What a great review. You had me at "a modern audience's avatar" and "pop up book". Others apparently are just giving this movie kudos for "bravery in subject matter" but it seems to be just the latest trend of "black historical based exploitation" movies. Ironically all it does is continue to trap African-American actors in the roles, of mistress, slave, servant, and victim. Ho hum.

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  2. A Korean in AmericaNovember 12, 2013 at 3:34 PM

    Personally, I would have liked they really go for it! In regard to brutality or try to have more insightful characters.
    Decide on a direction and really go for it.
    I would rather have pure silly than half ass serious.

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  3. A gritty movie that rivaled "Roots" in my opinion is "Beloved" by Oprah Winfrey. It told one woman's slave story from a tormented mother's perspective. Unfortunately at the time the public was not ready for this mainly because their "beloved" talk show icon Oprah made a risky foray into a taboo subject. "White guilt" as a popular Hollywood theme had not taken root in 1998. Maybe she should re-release it on the big screen but her brand is fragile at present.

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  4. I completely disagree with you in
    how this movie was handled. It is not so much the brutality in the treatment of
    the slaves but the humiliation. They were treated as property, nothing more. To
    the white slaveowners, they are not human, their status way below the stations
    of any whites at the time. Many used fear and intimidation to get the most out
    of their slaves and if the slaves step out of the line they can be punished brutally. Yes, it is not terribly brutal, but you can’t
    look at these slaves and say they had an easier time then you did.

    You say that that the point of the movie was to condemn slavery. Well what
    other way can you show slavery in America? In fact, comparing this to what I've
    learn about slavery in America, it is pretty accurate. There were slavesowners
    who were kind to their slaves and there are others who were not. Some slaves
    accept their way of life while others took some agency. It is impossible to
    show everything in great detail without making the movie drag for the audience
    and lose the main focus of the film, especially when we are supposed to follow Northup's
    experience as a slave, which is just one story out of millions that are lost
    forever.

    Finally, to connect yourself with
    a movie such as this is not to connect to Northup as a black man, but as a
    human being. And the best way to do that is to put yourself into his shoes and
    try to imagine how you would react to the many different situations that he
    went through, nearly all of them extremely difficult that would test his
    humanity.

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  5. A Korean in AmericaDecember 3, 2013 at 1:04 AM

    Thanks for commenting.

    I see the point of your opinion. And, on the facts of slavery part, I get it.

    But you are imposing your previous thoughts on to the movie rather than the movie doing the work.
    It is Preaching to the choir rather than delivering a objectively great sermon.
    In this case, you are the choir and I'm the casual visitor.

    The movie does not actually present the story in a tight or very interesting fashion for someone outside it's historical setting which I'm not in.



    P.S. Our country is a single race people and we had slavery til somewhere around 1902ish.

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  6. Yes, I admit, me knowing enough about slavery before watching the movie most likely colored my opinion on it. However, I could say the same thing about you on your lack of knowledge on the subject because you feel the movie is not discriptive enough on slave life in Antebellem America. That is probablly why so many people had such a strong reaction to this movie because they knew about slavery in the country but, for the majority, they were mainly told in school that slavery in America was bad and that's about it. They did not realized just how bad slavery was. For someone who live outside of the country may have a tough time to find any connection with it just as an American would have a tough time connecting with a forgien film without knowing much of that country's history or culture, as you have said.

    I know I sound like I'm praising this film to high heaven. I feel it works on all levels, but I think it's more important than phenomenal. We need more films like this that could potentially be much better. Reguardless, I still think it's a great film.

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  7. A Korean in AmericaDecember 3, 2013 at 8:58 AM

    I got it but I think that I film does need to stand on its own interdependent from what people bring with them. while the subject may be very interesting, the film making skills shown on screen is is not on par with the subject

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  8. Brian touches on this point I am going to make - that what many people miss in their understanding of slavery and the CURRENT legacy that it left was the psychological damage. I feel whites and foreigners of all colors have difficulty in understanding aspects of the African- American experience because they cannot connect how truly devastating multiple generations of this type slave trauma is to the current issues affecting African-Americans. I am a black foreigner who is a descendant of slaves via the Caribbean and it really took this movie for me to appreciate the lasting psychological impact of slavery on current generations of African-Americans.

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