Why the discussion of 12 Years A Slave needs to refocus

Feature Jonathan Peters 16 Jan 2014 - 06:17

12 Years A Slave is talked of in terms of awards potential. We should focus on what it says about human nature instead, Jonathan argues...

The 2014 awards season is shaping up to be a two-horse race between Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.

They are undoubtedly two of the best and most important films of the past year, advancing cinematic art in very different ways. Cuaron’s space thriller is an awe-inspiring achievement, with 3D visuals that justify the existence of the technology at a time when retailers appear to be withdrawing support for 3D televisions. McQueen’s film is unparalleled in its depiction of an era of American history often ignored by mainstream Hollywood (simply watch the opening credits of a classic like Gone With The Wind for a utopian presentation of slaves toiling passively across a beautiful vista).

It feels like the film industry has been building up to a movie like this for some time – last year, Tarantino’s Django Unchained was a pulpy action adventure with slavery as a backdrop, whilst Spielberg’s Lincoln told the story of abolition from the white politicians’ perspective.

Now 12 Years A Slave tackles the issue directly, with no comedy, and the screen time spent entirely with the victims. It is a brutal, unflinching portrayal of the torture inflicted on slaves in 19th century America.

Which is why I find it slightly disconcerting when every time the film is mentioned by the press, the conversation turns instantly towards the number of Oscars it will inevitably receive. How Chiwetel Ejiofor looks primed to upset some major Hollywood players like Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio and take home a nice golden statuette for his mantelpiece. 

This is a film that exposes unjustifiable evil, laying bare the darkest depths of humanity for audiences to witness. Yet no one seems to be asking what it teaches us, what we can learn in terms of historical facts and also about human nature from the film. Ejiofor commented recently in an interview with Radio Times on his dismay that the presentation of "a man’s life over 12 years of unbelievable anguish" was being dismissed so quickly in favour of Oscar speculation. Given how unshowy his performance is in the film, he appears to mean it, and it proves difficult to disagree with the sentiment.

It isn’t hard to imagine that a filmmaker like Steve McQueen, who previously made harrowing dramas Hunger and Shame, developed the film in order to open up the conversation about slavery, rather than to emotionally manipulate the viewer and as a result bag as many awards as possible. 

To return to Gravity, which is a film designed for mass audience appeal, its primary purpose to entertain, and while doing so push technological boundaries. We are not asked to think about any larger issues when we leave the cinema, so it is acceptable to then talk about what awards it should be bestowed with.

On the other hand, 12 Years A Slave challenges the viewer to consider both the individual life of Solomon Northup, and use his story as a springboard for a serious discussion on slavery.

Reviews of the film should reflect that, rather than beginning, as one article - and plenty of others did - with "well, that’s the Oscars sewn up".

12 Years A Slave is in cinemas now.

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How exactly is the Awards Season shaping up to be a two-horse race between 12 Years A Slave and Gravity when American Hustle was the runaway winner at the only major awards ceremony so far, The Golden Globes!?!

if I recall corectly, the majority of awards went to magnificent actors.

The Oscars are a joke anyway. They have been utterly meaningless to me ever since Moon. Remember Moon?

How can anyone compare films which are so different in scope, tone and intention, and then objectively judge which is best?! When George C Scott was awarded Best Actor for his role in Patton he refused to accept it on grounds that he didn't consider himself in competition with other actors. "The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade" he told the Academy.

Den of Geek needs to refocus. It may be the greatest film ever made, but with a total lack of SF, fantasy or horror content, what is it doing on this website?

Fantastic article. That's exactly the thing with Shame, it was an unmitigated gloom-fest and deeply moving, but not in a manipulative way. The images you see and editing don't tell you what to think about each character, but rather teach you how each character is feeling/what their mind is doing/what they associate images and themes with. That's what makes Shame such an honest portrait of sex addiction, you're forced into Fassbender's character's mind which is repulsive, but also means that you empathise with him.

This is what I anticipate 12 Year a Slave to be. Exempt of the conditioned, stylistic drama of Django and 'look-how-uncivilized-we-used-to-be' smugness of films like 'The Help'. Rather than a portrait, it will be a landscape depiction of the conditions that slaves and slave-owners found themselves in which allow them to act the way they do. And we will be subjected to the brutality of the outcome with an unflinching gaze. We won't be invited to judge, but observe. That's why I'm so excited to see McQueen depicting this topic.

Its still a movie. This site still covers movies

Mark - absolutely agree, time and time again we get analysis/comments of films that are absolutley not geek material. Especally when there is nothing out of the ordinary about the analysis. DoG's opinion "12 Years a Slave is a worthy serious film" How controversial or unusual is that? I would hazard that Django was far more enlightening for the viewer in updating their concept of slavery, that 12YAS, which everyone knows what to expect and will say nice things about but not actually see - read India Knight's article in the Sunday times last week on this point. There should be the equivalent of a swear box for DoG, whenever we identify a non geek article/analysis DoG must promise to do an appreciation of Terrahawks (mentioned twice in Eastenders recently in relation to the Shirley character) or tell us what that seventies series about two marinonette teens with two pandas was all about

Django was more enlightening??!? Apart from, you know, things like the Mandingo fighting being entirely fictional... Seriously, learning history from Tarantino is like learning to be a car mechanic using Playmobil. As for the site not covering it, how many of the underappreciated films have been true 'geek' material? It's possibly to be a movie geek, and for them the debate about how Oscar worthiness is over-shadowing the discussion of the films issues is of interest, even if the film itself hasn't been reviewed on the site.

And here I thought being a movie geek counted!
Great article!

Even more revealing is the treatment of comedies - they very rarely get any awards notice despite it being a phenomenally difficult genre. In a way, it's a shame that they don't simply give a list of nominations and not bother with a winner (though that would ruin debates over whether Network should have beaten Rocky to the 77 Best Picture Oscar...)

So there can't be Oscar Geeks?

Bravo, Den of Geek. Another perfect article.

I hope it does - I love the under-appreciated lists!

Very true! I'm sure Jim Carrey missed out on an Oscar nod for The Truman Show because it was a comedy and thus, a lower class of film. I like the idea of 'here are a list of some very good films that are all lovely in their own unique way'

I do remember Moon, it was, and remains, one of my favourite films, excellent all round, they should be ashamed of themselves for giving Sam Rockwell a blank.

I've always seen the site as one written by people who are geeky about their subject matter. That's the criteria when we put an article together. If you're geeky about Out Of Africa, for instance, you're welcome to submit a piece about it. If you're not geeky about Star Wars, then it's best you don't. That's the kind of approach we take, and always have.

Inevitably, 70% every day of what we did surrounds genre movies as a result of that, but we've never felt pressured by some invisible barrier. If there's something, as geeks, we want to discuss, we tend to discuss it. The recent run of underappreciated movies features, for instance, wouldn't have happened had strict genre criteria been in place.

I'm wary, of course, to keep the site in balance. But I thought this was a very pertinent article, expressed strongly by a new writer to the site. I'm thrilled that we've been able to run it.


I think this is an important discussion. but it's scary to me also how you're saying we're arguing wrong and how that needs to stop. it's awards season and this was one of the films nominated. I think people are smart enough to separate the discussion of slavery and awards; and people have already had discussions about the importance of this film in terms of showing slavery for the horror that it was.
The Oscars and other awards are just the icing on the cake, showing that a large group of people took notice of this film.

As a black man......what? I mean i get what you are saying, but the film is supberb and not only that its FAR better then movies like "Lincoln" and deserves every bit of praise its getting.

Even other movies with a similar them just suck, but there hasnt been a movie on the same level as this that tells like this story an unifies black and white american audiences since "the Color Purple".

Good movies deserve the credit they earn, not a pass because of their subject matter. (yeah, i am talking about Lincoln, The Help and The Butler).

Django belongs here because I personally think that Western and Pirate movie are genres that fit very well with the flavour of the site. Serious historical drama? Not so much.

What is there to discuss? Slavery is universally considered to be a bad thing in Western culture - its hardly a contentious issue for debate.


Which is why the Golden Globes are fairer that the Oscars, splitting drama and comedy into separate awards - they are pretty much impossible to compare. Whats a better film, Groundhog Day or Schindler's List? Impossible to sanely compare them.

Names one film that wasn't recognized: gives up hope on annual award show

lol, ok then.

I fear the movie will be generally ignored at the Oscars. Why? My cynicism tells me because Hollywood will feel that, with all the awards they gave Lincoln last year, they've shown that they hate racism.That, and the fact that 12 Years a Slave was done by the British. It's one thing to have criticism come from inside the house, but this might go beyond the pale...

I couldn't agree more with this article as the film paints a very clear picture about the pure evil of slavery in the way Lincoln and Django don't.
Its fantastically made and has made me want to seek out McQueen's other films.

Fair point Simon. Analysis is fine but sometimes we get reviews of films which have no geek elements when there are more interesting films around. When I hear of a new movie I look forward to reading what DoG thinks of it and when a more conventional film is reviewed instead there is disappointment. Keep up the good work. By the way the series with the pandas and puppets is a "lost" Gerry Anderson project "Candy and Andy". Look it up , truly the stuff of nightmares

That's the point. It's an indescribably great movie but critics only seem to be viewing it as Oscar-bait rather than a thought-provoking reflection of a harrowing part of a man's life.
They hardly talk about that, it's just "It'll win some Oscars, there, done."

There are films that we've been desperate to cover, that we simply haven't been able to get access to sadly. We share your disappointment there, but we do do our best! - Simon

No worries, you must be doing something right because my first thought , when hearing of a new interesting and/or dumb movie, USED to be "I wonder what Mark Kermode thinks". Now its "I wonder what DoG thinks.."

Nothing really in terms of content - but the debate about how the film is being talked about, that the idea of a film being Oscar worthy is more important than it's content, that is why the article belongs on here as it's a valid discussion for Movie-Geeks. You could have a article about District 9 for similar reasons, questioning whether sci-fi needs to deal with apartheid by analogy, or if that should be left to straight drama (though admittedly, since District 9 is a sci-fi thing, it's more of a natural fit for the site than 12 Years a Slave)

I wasn't disputing Django featuring on here, just that it was in anyway enlightening. It could politely be termed the Braveheart of slavery...

Judging by your other comments, you seem to not really enjoy the time you spend on here. If that's the case, maybe you'd be better suited to AICN. Everyone on that site hates it there.

12 Years A Slave is a truly harrowing film. It left me wrung out and exhausted at the end. Powerful cinema.

Im sorry (weil not really) but what the hell is this article saying??? That we must first and foremost condemn slavery and be apologetic for the acts of people in no way related to ourselves before we discuss the quality and award worthy aspects of this film?

Are you for real? Seriously?

What are you on about man, we dont need to discuss slavery, we know all about it.

One film that wasn't even Oscar worthy; it was fairly good but didn't realise its potential in many ways, like various plot points that weren't sufficiently explored.

I agree. But opinions are always going to be different. People complain about the Oscars always snubbing good movies, but the Oscars is just made up of a bunch of people with opinions like ours. It's a cinematic democracy, just let it run its course and enjoy the show. They will not always agree with you, but that's ok, they don't have to.

Sam Rockwell is too talented to be ignored forever. He'll get his due eventually. And if I remember right, the category that year was pretty crowded.

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