12 Years a Slave Is Driving People Batty

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who won best actor at this year's WAFCA awards.
December 4, 2013

So, look: 12 Years a Slave is a powerful and important movie but not a great one. It is basically the antebellum south version of Forrest Gump, a film that watches passive protagonist Solomon Northup stumble through the lowlights of slavery's horror—Whippings! Rapes! Slave auctions tearing families apart! The "good" owner who still has slaves and therefore isn't "good" at all! The bad owner who is a sadist!—before a beneficent white dude comes along to save him. It is, as Armond White noted, more akin to torture porn than great filmmaking.* Searing imagery alone does not a great film make.

That a film can be both "powerful" and "not great" is causing some distress amongst its fans, a distress that is manifesting itself in odd ways. For instance, you wind up with David Simon stripping 12 Years a Slave of its status as art, reducing it to a political tool, and writing it is "not intelligently assailable by anyone." Over at Pajiba, Dustin Rowles wrote the following about Michael Fassbender's performance as the aforementioned bad owner:

Michael Fassbender is so good in this, and so repulsive, and awful, and terrorizing, that I doubt very much that I will ever like Michael Fassbender in another role again. I will never be able to see him without thinking about what his character did in this film, and the snarl he adored while doing it. I want him dead, and I don’t even mean just the character. Right now, I want Fassbender dead.

I can't imagine Rowles literally would have murdered Fassbender for, you know, acting. But the reaction the film prompted in him is extremely unhealthy. And, frankly, it's destructive to art. We, the critics, often tell thespians to stretch themselves. Don't be the vanilla hero! Do something daring! Indeed, many critics suggested Brad Pitt would've been better off taking the Fassbender role instead of the saintly Canadian who saves our enslaved protagonist. But after reading Rowles' reaction—after reading the proprietor of a popular and intelligent pop culture site say that he "doubts very much that [he] will ever like Michael Fassbender in another role again"—I can understand why actors are hesitant to take on challenging, morally complex roles.

Then there was Enuma Okoro, who, in a piece entitled "Why I Wouldn't See 12 Years a Slave With a White Person," found that the movie affirmed a sneaking suspicion that she is little more than a token in the lives of her white "friends." Wrote Okoro:

Seeing the movie was hard. But the truth is I had developed my own race problem before the film was even released. And when I look back I see that it has largely come from the slow and painfully growing suspicion that I’m primarily a check-mark in the lives of so many well-meaning, educated white people. Black educated friend: check. African conversation partner: check. Black woman of safe but uncommitted romantic exploration: check. Black articulate friend I can introduce to my family: check. Black internationally reared cultural elite I can relate to without leaving my comfort zone: check. Black emotionally safe friend with whom I can make "black jokes" in the name of familiarity: check. The list could go on.

That's the saddest thing I've ever read. I honestly can't help but pity Okoro, if that's how she views her relationships. What a horrible way to go through life.

The award for craziest response to 12 Years a Slave has to go to Jonathan Chait, however. Chait claims** to have been so emotionally devastated that he laid in bed unable to sleep for five hours, tossing and turning and tearing up the sheets even though he saw a morning matinee and didn't go to bed until 10 hours later. Indeed, the movie so deeply and profoundly affected Chait that it reminded him that all conservatives are engaging in racist tropes every time they criticize the president.

Granted, it doesn't take much to make Chait think that conservatives are super-terrible race-baiting bad guys. For instance, did you know that Republicans who seized on Obama's "you didn't build that" gaffe were engaging in a racist assault on the president? Don't worry, Chait was all over it. Dog whistles and such.

And Chait heard another high-pitched whine in a recent column by Quin Hillyer, who dared point out that Obama comes across as a kind of haughty jerk. Primed by the scarring sensation of 12 Years a Slave, Chait let loose on the conservative columnist:

Hillyer believes all sorts of factually bizarre things. But most African-Americans, and many liberal whites, would read Hillyer’s rant as the cultural heir to Northup’s overseer: a southern white reactionary enraged that a calm, dignified, educated black man has failed to prostrate himself. ...

You can accept the most benign account of his thought process – and I do – while still being struck by the simple fact that Hillyer finds nothing uncomfortable at all about wrapping himself in a racist trope. He is either unaware of the freighted connotation of calling a black man uppity, or he doesn’t care. In the absence of a racial slur or an explicitly bigoted attack, no racial alarm bells sound in his brain.

While Chait very kindly excuses Hillyer of overt racism—"I feel certain Hillyer opposes slavery and legal segregation," he grants—he's still befuddled that any Republican would dare criticize the president's attitude in the face of Obamacare's overwhelming defects even though they know they'll get called a racist for doing so. Intent doesn't matter. All that matters is how some random aggrieved person reacts to your words. This is a remarkably insidious way to view the world. It should be noted that these assaults aren't limited to conservatives—check out this insane attack on leftist cartoonist Ted Rall, who had the audacity to draw Barack Obama unflatteringly in a caricature. After all, no one would dare draw a white president in a mocking fashion, now would they? Systems of power, and such.

Anyway. I'm curious to see how 12 Years a Slave's partisans handle the tepid response to the film at the box office (Django Unchained grossed more in its first four days of release than 12 Years will in its entire run). And I'm even more curious to see what happens if critical groups follow the New York Film Critics Circle in denying 12 Years a Slave best picture. I hope the responses will be slightly less insane. But I'm not terribly hopeful.

*I'm reminded of something that John Podhoretz wrote about Pan's Labyrinth—a film far superior to 12 Years a Slave—a few years back: "Pan's Labyrinth may be unforgettable too, but so is a mugging."

**I write "claims" here because, honestly, there's so much posturing and signaling on behalf of white folks with regard to this movie that it's hard to tell which reactions are legit and which are designed to show how super serial they are.