12 years a slave made me go two years back to the very first lesson that my SEO teacher sent me in the inbox when I took to being a copywriter: relevancy. This word that rules my professional and personal writing experience is glued to the low left side of my computer screen as a reminder, just in case the natural tendency to overdo takes hold of me. Relevancy makes you ask yourself “why?”, and “so what?”, essential when you address any kind of audience.
Going back to 12 years a slave, at the end of its 133 minutes which, truth be told, felt much longer, I had a hard time understanding why it is bound to win this year’s Oscar for Best Motion Picture and more worryingly, why the vast majority of critics sell it as a cinematic masterpiece. I do not set myself the ambition of understanding what Steve McQueen’s intention was as he directed the movie. But were some scenes really necessary or meaningful to build this blockbuster that deals with some aspects of slavery?
For instance, we could have easily been spared the long, hysterical and not quite credible cry of the woman slave-character who is parted from her children. The separation act in itself was sufficient for us, viewers, to identify as infinitely painful; did we really need the long audio abuse of an incessantly weeping lady as an overemphasis? Clearly, McQueen does not rely on subtlety (or on our intelligence to that) to make his point. He wants it highlighted, and with a red marker. The effect he tries to create comes out as quite the opposite: instead of sympathising with her, I almost feel relief when she is finally carried away and most likely finished with.
And on it goes. At some point in the movie, Solomon Northup, the main character and the man whose biography we’re witnessing, is sent to deliver a letter and accidentally comes across two “niggers” who were about to be executed. Now, executing black people was, tragically, not uncommon in the 19th century Americas in the cotton fields. But the way in which the scene is literally dropped out of nowhere in that particular moment is awkward, to say the least.
But McQueen has clearly his own take on relevancy. When a black man drops dead on the plantation, the surviving slaves engage in a very long song that accompanies the man to the grave and Solomon gets the benefit of a loooong close-up of himself crying his heart out. While I really wanted to cry with him, too, because that’s why I went to see this movie, my brain was fighting to attach significance to this yet another long sequence: we had not been previously introduced to the departed, ok, they sing well but then again they are black, and they are all sad as they should because one, it’s a funeral, and two, they are slaves. If there’s anything that justifies the length and even existence of this particular scene, I’m afraid I might have missed it.
Steve McQueen’s choices are confusing and the conversation is at no time satisfactory. Not even when Brad Pitt guest-stars for few moments. But movie critics are resolute: this is the next best thing about slavery (you know, that thing that lasted 400 years and involved a lot of whipping of which you get to see plenty in McQueen’s new movie). I had a hard time finding one who resisted the general trend of complimenting this movie as a wonderful cinema achievement. But I did: http://www.thecommentator.com/article/4619/12_years_a_slave_two_and_a_half_hours_of_boredom.
Steve McQueen’s takes are long and frankly boring. Ok, the movie makes an effort not to fall in the trap of being cheesy and melodramatic, as it would only come naturally with topics such as slavery. The problem is that this effort shows. Besides, it lacks historic and emotional involvement and that long-lasting effect that would make one want to see it again. Try as I might, I could not connect to it.
McQueen complains that there are not many movies about slavery to date. And he is right. This might also explain why people seem to be so readily fascinated with 12 years a slave. I’m afraid the appreciation comes more from the fact that it deals with the (still) taboo topic of slavery than from its purely artistic merits. It is not because the movie has chosen to discuss a shameful page of the American past that it should be labelled as outstanding.
I only see one reason why 12 years a slave should take all those Oscars it has been nominated for: maybe this is the American way of asking forgiveness for the centuries of black oppression. As if Mr Oscar could potentially wipe it all away. For all the ingredients that were undoubtedly there – a strong topic which echoes back to a dramatic past, a remarkable true story, a great cast – the movie could have been a memorable one. Instead, it is just another Oscar movie that will not shine thereafter.