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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