12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Despite the fact that it seems mean mouthed of me to criticise this film I will do that anyway. I had read no reviews of this film at all. I only knew that it had been made by the Turner art prize winner and that a West Indian friend of mine had been so moved that he had stopped the film halfway through unable to continue. So I went there with very high expectations.

I was disappointed from the outset. For me the film felt as if the director was still learning how to construct a film and that the elements of “art” filming (a mixture of imagery and sound reminiscent of video installation) felt out of place even though they did carry some powerful juxtapositions of sound and visual elements.  The film however was quite watchable as a story and the narration of the events was well worth doing and I am pleased that I have seen this film as I will never forget the story it told. However I went to the film believing that I would see some new and more potent representation of slavery itself and this is where the film fell short.

It repeated the old tropes of slavery and I do not mean this in a derogatory fashion as slavery is represented elsewhere. It is more that I did not feel the film explored slavery beyond the confines of the old tropes. The character of slaves was not opened out at all for the audience. There was no sense of who the people were other than as people exploited finding, occasional, solace in song. Here I did not feel the film went beyond other representations of slavery. The evil of slave owners and/or the kind slave owner is well rehearsed. The pain and the whipping is well known. Lynchings we know about. However I do not know who these people actually were or how they related to each other.

There was a momentary scene when the captured free black Americans from the North were first taken to the slave markets of the South. The camera panned over a group of slaves and number of the men in the shot were scarred, their skins dry and flaking. In that brief shot I had some brief vision into something that was “other”, a view of a slave community that I only recognised with a painful shock of recognition. This is what I had hoped for in this film. Not as a voyeuristic experience but as something which gave a shocking reality rather than an acted form to this history.

I found the film very sentimental and even in places cloying. As I say this seems extremely unkind considering the subject matter of the film yet as the film has been so hyped I feel it is justified to criticise.

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