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A Charlie Bielinski Pop-Ed: '12 Years a Slave' the Film of the Decade? I Call Shenanigans.


"The film of the decade" is how Jay Antani of CinemaWriter.com describes 12 Years a Slave.

If I had written a review about the film that was summed up in a blurb that was featured on the Rotten Tomatoes website, what lines would they pick to feature?

"A good film that shouldn't crack critics' top-ten lists but will because of its brave and courageous look at slavery."

"A film that will be considered in the Oscar race because if it isn't then somehow it will be a tragedy of epic proportions when the Oscar-winning film is honored and this film isn't one of the nominees."

"An amazingly important film that will be remembered as only amazing because people are afraid to make any kind of a negative comment about it and only do so by first praising it's importance."

After looking at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, variations of those three comments, although obviously not written exactly in that manner, seem to be the popular consensus regarding 12 Years a Slave. And this discovery has gotten me to consider what exactly qualifies the film for inclusion in the Best Picture discussion.

The film contains performances that should be included in the acting categories. Chiwetel Ejiofor, so good when I first became aware of him as an actor as The Operative in Serenity (a Joss Whedon reference for those of you expecting just another comic geek column), is remarkable as Solomon Northrup. He is able to, with or without speaking, display a full range of emotions. Confusion, hope, rage and frustration, along with a myriad others are on display.

However, that creates one of the first problems with the film. There are scenes where director Steve McQueen refuses to pull the camera away from the actor as Ejiofor displays these emotions despite the feeling that the scene has ended. Honestly, at times, it felt like The Californians sketch from Saturday Night Live, where the actor has delivered his line and the camera begins the push to a close-up and once there, it holds as the actor does some funny facial expression.

"How dare you compare this important film to Saturday Night Live! What are you thinking?"

Well, allow me to explain in more depth.

That is simply how I felt the multiple times that this occurred in the film. The first time, I didn't notice it but each successive time it happened, I began to feel as if McQueen was somehow standing behind me whispering in my ear, "This is important and that is why you must continue to watch and I will not allow you to turn away." Never was this effect greater than when Northrup is left hanging, barely touching the ground, after an encounter with Tibeats (another great acting performance from Paul Dano). Yes, I am writing about the film and did not direct it, however I can confidently say that I would have understood that Solomon was left in that position for the entire day without the scene continuing.

Sir, you have missed the point.

Have I? I don’t believe I missed the point that Solomon, despite the "kind" treatment from his owner Ford, is still only property and no one will be quickly coming to his rescue to free him from this position. McQueen allowing the scene to continue past the point when it seems to be over is not some artistic choice that should be applauded and included in the Oscar reel. It manipulates emotion rather than allowing the emotion of the viewer to develop freely. Haven't yet made up your mind that slavery was horrible? Allow me to keep the camera on Solomon as a number of nameless supporting characters watch him suffer.

I know that I am now at the point of this brief article where some readers — who likely haven't even seen the film — are questioning how I can write such things about such an important film, "the film of the decade" as it was described earlier. I should probably, at this time, clearly state my point. 12 Years a Slave is a good film, but simply because of the subject matter it should not automatically be elevated to Best Picture status.

When I walked out the theater after viewing the film, I immediately began thinking of the other portrayals of slavery that I had seen on film. There are very few that deal with aspects of slavery and almost none that depict slavery throughout the film. Two recent films include the topic. Lincoln discusses slavery throughout but it is not seen, and Django Unchained is slavery in Quentin Tarantino's world. As I was sitting in my car, my thoughts kept going back to Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning performance from Glory and specifically to the scene where he is caught after what is at first believed to be an attempt to run away from his unit.

Private Trip is flogged in front of the men, and the entire bloodless scene lasts about two minutes. As the camera moves in on Washington's face, the audience can see — because of his performance — his initial defiance very quickly turn into indescribable anguish at experiencing this act that he thought he was free from. The audience sees the first two hits and then the remainder are only heard as the camera focuses on Washington's face.

As for the whipping scene in McQueen;s movie, McQueen himself states that if he had shown the scene, all ten minutes of it, in "film time — it would have taken the air out of the pressure cooker." He continues that he did not consciously make the choice to do so as a technique but rather because the "scene demanded it." During the same interview, 12 Years a Slave's cinematographer stated that, "at no point are you reminded that you are watching a film" and that "the effect is heightened by the fact that you are given no escape."

Really? I call shenanigans.

These comments were all made during an interview I watched on YouTube, and it is very evident that McQueen and his crew are well aware of the film's most prevalent criticism, that of his use of the long shot. He even sarcastically dismisses the notion that he makes the calculating choice to use extended-time shots in the film. His explanation and the explanation of his cinematographer for the use of such shots is then that they did it because they needed to.

Why?

Because the scene demanded it, is the response.

Yes, but why?

Because it was about the scene, is the continued assertion.

The honest answer, like some of the fake tag quotes I wrote about earlier, should be that it is about making the audience feel uncomfortable and bear witness to true evil and horror. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the film holds on a couple of beats too long in each attempt.

That is just one reason why, while 12 Years a Slave is a good film about a topic most wish to avoid discussing, it should not be included in the discussion for Best Picture. And, it most certainly is not the film of the decade.
A Charlie Bielinski Pop-Ed: '12 Years a Slave' the Film of the Decade? I Call Shenanigans. Reviewed by Charlie Bielinski on 11/18/2013 Rating: 5

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