12 Years a Slave

I, my good sir, DO have a television.

It’s so inept that it must be art, a conceit upon which Mr. McQueen will no doubt ride for the rest of his life.
Reported on 11th of October, 2014

Editor’s note: yes, 12 Years a Slave came out a million years ago, and, being the Best Picture of 2013, everyone’s forgotten about it. Nevertheless, and having finished the doctorate, I’m slowly rolling out the 2013 article, and here is one of the featured bits. It had been sitting there, and was sad. Now it makes everyone happy…about slavery!

There’s a moment in a David Mirkin years Simpsons episode where Moe admonishes Homer for quitting drinking, saying, ‘You’ll be back!!! And you, and you’, finally turning to the camera with a final ominous ‘And you’. At which point PBTR that he’s not talking to the audience, but to Barney. Ah, retelling a Simpson’s joke. I’m like a frat guy at a frat party at a frat house. But I’m making a frat point, which is that direct address to the audience on a serious subject was already enough of a cliché in 1994 that the Simpsons could parody it. Which explains that when Mr. Steve McQueen chose to include Mr. Chiwetel Ejiofor looking at the audience accusingly in 12 Years a Slave, the audience was in no way confused when I exclaimed ‘Of course I’ll be back. If you didn’t close I’d never leave!’

Is that something you want to say about slavery?

Compared to the rest of the film, sure, why not?

12 Years a Slave

7 March 2014 @ The Cineworld Brighton

-$12.04 or, if one must be jejune, and one must... 
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


This stunningly inept moment sums up this film quite well: a confused mix of compelling material, squandered moments, lovely visuals, hideous and poorly lit visuals, lyrical observations, genuine clunkers and not small helping of mediocrity. With no awareness that looking at the audience accusingly might be a cliché, Mr. McQueen seems one of those types that ‘doesn’t have a TV’, and it shows.

On one hand, I’m disappointed that Gravity, the first good film in twenty years that might have won the Oscar didn’t. On the other hand, 12YaS is classic Oscar material. Rereading my notes almost a year later, I got one of those nice I was right moments where I correctly predicted its win. Comparing it to the unfortunate Goodfellas beat out by Dances With Wolves incident of 1990: ‘It’s a weird mix of good ideas, visual flourishes, “«’Acting’»” over embodiment and genuine clunkers. In short, best picture of the year’. If you have to be depressed, be right.

But the best way to teach something is to lie. To give an example of what I mean, I will tell the truth.

The film should work and it for the most part doesn’t, for two important reasons. The first is character, which there really isn’t. There’s many a moment when the various scene nibblers (Mr. Paul Dano, Mr. Sarah Paulson, Mr. Michael Fassbender) say things like ‘I said “Eat!”‘ (see ‘nibbling’, above) ‘It’s that godless lot. They brought the plague!’ At such times, I was filled with the desire to hand them a white cat to stroke. You may think, you couldn’t do that, it’s impossible. Physically I could; I’m a supervillain myself, and moving back and forth between the fictional and real universes is one of my many powers. Otherwise, how could I have made it through Alex Cross or any of the Twilight‘s? No, I didn’t do that because the white cat, even as a parody, is tacky joke cliché of a forty-year old cliché. I, on the other hand, watch TV.

I think there was an internet ‘debate’ about whether or not TV or movies were better, and I strongly posted my comments, and gave it a thumbs down, and there was a meme or something. But the thing about TV, they generally don’t squander the acting. It’s not always great, but the camera knows to go to medium when it needs to. There’s a spectacular moment of incompetence when Mr. Ejiofor is confronted by Fassy (making an exception to the formal address rule for Mr. Fassbinder, see below). See, Mr. Ejiofor has tried to get the word out that he is in fact a free man through Mr. Garret Dillahunt, who naturally enough sells you out, which…

…okay, it’s aside time. I get that you haven’t seen TV, but can you at least hire a casting director that has? You’ve asked for a guy who will cause the audience to be shocked, shocked I tells you, when he turns out to be the bad guy. What, was Leland Orser turning out to be a serial killer? Was Cary Elwes, well, also, turning out to be a serial killer? What about Noah Emmerich? Too busy betraying the government and his best friend? Was Danny Huston, in a twist, playing a serial killer who turns out to be a nice guy killer of serial killer nice guys? Not even Merv Griffin, huh. Can someone, please, cast Mr. Garret Dillahunt as anything, anything, but the guy were supposed be surprised by. It’s something that, well, actually it’s something that a TV show would do…



Mr. Ejiofor (who apparently likes to be called anything but ‘Chewie’, but I liked him so much in Serenity he gets a pass) having been sold out by the surprise twist of the century, is confronted by Fassy (who, having been in Promethius gets a lifetime ban from being called anything else) about his attempt to be free. It is filmed, bizarrely, in profile, at some distance, in near darkness. Thus, possibly the most dramatic moment is squandered. I have to give this one to Mr. McQueen. It’s so inept that it must be art, a conceit upon which he will ride for his entire life. And I can’t wait for comes next. To be praised for this mediocrity means that the next one will be nuts, and I will be there in row 2 at the Curzon Victoria (even I wouldn’t sit in row 1).

And they switched to Baskin Robbins. Makes me want to see it in an art theater.

And they switched to Baskin Robbins. Makes me want to see it in an art theater.

The second took me a bit longer to figure out. When Mr. Brad Pitt appeared as the Abolitionist, it hit me. This is a film about Slavery. Not a film about one aspect of behavior, or about what on earth would motivate us to do it, but It. As such, it falls into the various biographical trap of showing what happens, as if showing something is the same as seeing it. It’s weirdly like Mr. Malcolm Gladwell’s opt repeated 10,000 hour rule, that we show something over and over, we will learn. Its presumption is the idea that we are open to learning, or in the case of 12 Years a Slave, awake.

But the best way to teach something is to lie. To give an example of what I mean, I will tell the truth. In one of my many embarrassing encounters with black folks as a white guy, one day, years ago, my girlfriend at the time and I were visiting Indiana. We wandered into, as one does, a black book store, with that adorable dawning realization for classic sitcom mining that, as a white dude, I knew nothing about any of the authors. But, being a sci-fi nerd, I attempted to save myself and ask ‘Do you have any Octavia Butler?’ The proprietor knew I was reaching, but he didn’t want to be in a sitcom any more than I did, and showed me to the back.

Who is Ms. Octavia Butler? Well, she’s the one who came up with the alien birth shit that Mr. Dan O’Bannon and Mr. Ronald Shusett stole for Alien. But she also wrote a pretty great book called Kindred about slavery, one which I’ve always wanted to adapt. It tells the story of an interracial couple in the 1970s, transported to the antebellum South for absolutely no reason, and how they quickly adapt to the respective roles.

It’s swell, but more to the point, it would make a hell of film. Why? Because it’s fake. And this is the difference between a real story that’s phony as crap, and a phony story that gets to the truth of the matter. For 12YaS, it’s all about the macarons. Macarons, now a huge-fad-everywhere-and-I-liked-them-first, are served in the film to demonstrate privilege. And that’s swell, if they had been invented before 1970. Which they weren’t. Now, I know a bit about American slavery, a bit more about slavery in general, which still exists in its various forms today. But I know a lot about pastry. So it doesn’t matter if the film is a shot for shot re-creation of reality (it should tell you a lot about me that I think that could actually exist), the film feels fake.

It needs more TV.


There were some good parts. His buddy who helps him plan a getaway on the boat leaving him behind as soon as his master appears is a nice bit of behavioral business.
Likewise the appearance of a seminole tribe, though largely squandered.
There might have been some others (there weren’t). I’ll just be generous to give the illusion of being fair.
Total Profits
He’s playing music while the mother is crying. Get it? It’s counterpoint of one thing counter another. Counterpoint!
I get it. The word ‘Nigger’ is shocking (oh my God! I said ‘Nigger’!). But in 1850, not so much used. Read a fucking book. Sorry, read more than one book. And also, actually read that book.
Question number 74 to casting: This film seems to ask the same question as Robocop: why wasn’t Michael K. Williams the lead?
The fact that its majority is lazy, cheap and dull filmmaking.
P/P multiplier for Oscar Winningness:(X 1.42)
Total Losses



Thoughts on 12 Years a Slave

  1. Fantomette la justicière says:

    “Macarons, now a huge-fad-everywhere-and-I-liked-them-first, are served in the film to demonstrate privilege. And that’s swell, if they had been invented before 1970. Which they weren’t. ”

    Seriously? American … history rewriting/ arrogance/ ignorance ? Ok, just misinformed. Does it mean that none of the rest of the review is true either?
    1970?? Come on baby!

    1. Scott Scott says:

      Since it’s true that if you’re wrong about one point, you are thereby wrong about everything for the rest of your life, I will attempt to prove that I am right, even though I’m wrong. To research!

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