David Simon, the creator of The Wire and the author of two of the best pieces of book-length journalism ever written (Homicide and The Corner), really liked 12 Years a Slave. I mean, he really liked it. He liked it so much, in fact, that he thinks it's literally beyond criticism. Wrote Simon:
[O]nly two kinds of folk will emerge from theaters [after seeing 12 Years a Slave].
The first will be at last awakened to the actual and grevious horror in which the black experience in America begins. Efforts to achieve this in the past — The "Roots" miniseries on television, or a few halting and veiled attempts in feature films to imply the desperation of terrorized human chattel — came down the road a piece, but none dared the entire emotional journey. For ordinary Americans willing to confront our history without equivocation and vague allusion, this film will prove a humanizing and liberating journey. This much truth can grow an honest soul.
And for those still desperate to mitigate our national reality at every possible cost, this film will be an affront. It is not intelligently assailable by anyone. [Emphasis mine]
He then goes on to talk, at some length, about the intellectually dishonest people who would criticize this film because dead white men and the Constitution, or some such.
Allow me to be blunt: Simon's attitude here is anti-art and anti-discourse-of-art. When one says that a work of art "is not intelligently assailable by anyone," he is not considering the work of art as a work of art but as a means to an end. Because he views 12 Years a Slave as useful to his political agenda, David Simon has labeled dissenting discourse verboeten. In doing so he has stripped 12 Years a Slave of its status as art and rendered it little more than a bloody shirt to be waved in promotion of a cause.
Look, 12 Years a Slave is a powerful movie. I think very few would deny that. (I certainly didn't.) But it is equally undeniable a flawed film, perhaps fatally so. I'm by no means alone in this assessment. The whole point of arts criticism is to hash out what works and what doesn't, to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of a given work. Simply declaring criticism of a work off limits because it advances your political program is, well, fascist.
"Utility is a treacherous standard in art," Stanley Kauffmann wrote about On the Beach in 1959."The film must stand or fall by its effect on the viewer, whether he is American or Russian or Tasmanian; and that effect, as detailed above, is seriously qualified by mediocrities of writing, acting, and direction."
It's probably my favorite quote from Kauffmann (as you may have guessed, since I've quoted it previously). When one judges art solely by its usefulness to the cause—be it averting nuclear war or scoring cheap points against your ideological enemies—you are effectively rejecting aesthetic standards in favor of some gauzy notion of political import. It is a standard that substitutes usefulness for artfulness. It is, at heart, philistinic.
I imagine that Simon disagrees with Kauffmann's line, and not just because of his essay on 12 Years a Slave. Anyone who doubts that he favors utility above artistry need only watch the fifth season of The Wire, which was more interested in angry score-settling than interesting plot developments. It is distressing to see someone as good as Simon devolve into little more than a politically motivated hack. But, perhaps, not surprising.