‘12 Years a Slave,' 'Schindler's List,' and Ultraviolence

October 18, 2013

David Thomson's take on Schindler's List in his massive collection of mini-reviews Have You Seen...? contains a line that has stuck with me and subtly shifted how I see Steven Spielberg's epic tale of the Holocaust. Thomson is mostly admiring, until we get to this:

But then, alas, some clerical fussiness flags that little girl's coat in red,* so we will not miss it. That small touch exposed the uncrushable chutzpah of the most accomplished and "mature" filmmaker in America in 1992. With that one arty nudge Spielberg assigned his sense of his own past to the collected memories of all the films he had seen. All of a sudden, the drab Krakow vista became a set, with assistant directors urging the extras into line. ... In that one small tarting up (not nearly enough to deter Oscars, of course), there lay exposed the comprehensive vulgarity of the venture.

I couldn't help but feel something similar toward the end of 12 Years a Slave. (Spoilers below.)

For two hours we have seen Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his fellow slaves brutalized in every manner possible: beaten with wood; whipped with leather; raped by a sadomasochistic master; nearly lynched; and repeatedly betrayed. Northup's journey is overwhelming and oppressive, an almost immersive experience.

And then, as if God himself sent him, Brad Pitt appears on the screen—sporting an Abe Lincoln chinstrap beard and spouting lines about the equality of man, no less—to save our slave. Were this not a true story, we'd all be screaming DEUS EX MACHINA! at the top of our lungs.

Yes, Brad Pitt's character has a name. No, I do not know what it is. I don't know what it is because all I could think is "Oh, it's Brad Pitt."

Look: This is an entirely unfair thing to have happen. It is especially unfair to Pitt, who is an underrated actor and deserves better. I will fully admit this and apologize for it. But when you're making a film that trades on authenticity and experience and makes plot a secondary concern, you do yourself no favors by putting the biggest movie star on the planet** in your film for a guest spot. It doesn't matter that he's one of the producers and helped get the picture made. It snaps the viewer out of the world you have created. As the little girl in the red coat does to Krakow for Thomson, Pitt does to that cotton plantation for me: all of the sudden what I'm looking at becomes a set, with assistant directors and grips and gaffers scurrying about just behind the camera.


In an entirely unsurprising turn of events, Armond White has bucked the critical consensus and panned 12 Years a Slave. And, equally unsurprisingly, he makes a number of good points.*** Writes White:

Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s 1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend "a conversation about race." The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.

Comparing 12 Years a Slave—a film that is being hailed almost universally as a masterpiece and a triumph and an "important" work—to disreputable dreck like torture porn is a master troll move. But it's not wrong, exactly. As I noted in my review,

It is hard to watch, a lesson in cruelty and in the degrading nature of slavery. 12 Years a Slave frequently feels like a catalogue of such lessons, and this is its biggest weakness. Northup’s struggle for survival seems like little more than window dressing, a narrative tool that allows the writer and director to delve into the horrors of slavery.

McQueen luxuriates in violence and wants the audience to squirm. And he does this at the expense of the story: Northup basically Forrest Gumps his way through the awfulness of the antebellum south, surviving but not doing much else. I'm more forgiving of this than White, but it's by no means an unreasonable complaint—and White is right to note that those who slammed The Passion of the Christ for its ultraviolence are making themselves look a bit silly by falling all over themselves to praise 12 Years a Slave for its viciousness.

*The scene, if you recall, takes place during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. As Liam Neeson looks on and machine gun fire rings out, a little girl in a red coat walks the streets. The only splash of color in the black and white proceedings, she symbolizes the innocence being destroyed. We later see her, red coat and all, in a pile of corpses. 

**He and Sandy are pretty much 1 and 1a at this point, following the massive worldwide success of World War Z and Gravity.

***People who simply dismiss White as a contrarian troll mystify me. It's obvious they haven't actually read his work; even if you disagree with him you can't deny he's smart and knows a ton about film.

Published under: Movie Reviews