Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

Why I think “12 Years a Slave” is a Terrible Movie

on October 31, 2013

 Movie Theatre

Oscar buzz be damned; I hated this film.  I realize that A LOT of people feel just as passionately about it the other way, and that my opinion is just that – an opinion.  But I have good reasons for being pissed off that I lost two hours of my life watching a movie that could have been transformational, but was, for me, a purposeless excursion into voyeurism.   Allow me to explain.

If you break the movie down into its component parts there is a lot to recommend it.  Truly fantastic performances by the entire cast, excellent direction, beautifully photographed. The characters weren’t as multi-dimensional as one would hope, but it’s difficult to create empathy for a slave owner (and Benedict Cumberbatch comes as close as anyone I’ve seen), and possibly too easy to create empathy for the slaves (in one scene a woman cries uncontrollably for her children from whom she was separated, and it rang a bit hollow to me).  Michael Fassbender was mesmerizing in his meanness and madness as another of the main character’s (Solomon Northup) “owners”, and his performance was a real joy.  And Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Northup is so deft an actor that we see his inner journey plainly on his face; he has no need for words.

Why then do I say I hated this movie?  Not for what it is, but for what it could have been, and wasn’t.  I don’t understand why the filmmakers would choose to make the entire movie about the titular twelve horrific years of slavery endured by Northup and not spend any time showing us what he did AFTER.  Yes, it was unthinkable what happened to this educated, talented, respected man, but come on – we get it!  You’re not telling us anything we didn’t already know, so the only reason I can think for making that choice is that the movie is some sort of vehicle for Brad Pitt who produced it and whose character (who appears in two scenes) waxes eloquent on the evils of slavery and ultimately takes the action that leads to Solomon’s release.  The final scene in the movie is Solomon’s reunion with his family, which is, not unexpectedly, tearful and moving.  Yawn.  Sorry, but yawn.

After the screen fades on the family group hug, a couple of paragraphs appear to tell us that Solomon Northup spent pretty much the rest of his life writing and speaking about the horrors of slavery and pursuing the abolition thereof.  We are told that because of his personal experience the anti-slavery movement gained more traction than had been the case prior to his abduction.

This, to me, is the real story.  Not the suffering – the redemption.  I didn’t want the movie to dwell on the misery; I wanted it to show us how Northup transformed it into something real and lasting.  Show us that his suffering had purpose, that it meant something.  I feel like the movie makers, even in their attempt to honor this man’s story, have failed spectacularly to do what they clearly set out to do.  Yes, he survived his ordeal, and that was a feat of itself.  But, with respect, it’s just the beginning.  Think about Nelson Mandela, another person who was unjustly imprisoned and horribly mistreated.  If his story ended the day he walked out of that prison, if he had just returned home and lived out his days in obscurity, his ordeal would have been quickly forgotten.  The power of Mandela’s story, as well as Northup’s, is in how they didn’t let what happened to them stop them for fighting for what was right.  Neither of these men allowed the memories and the anger about the years they lost overwhelm them; they used it to forward a great purpose.

That’s what I want to see.  That’s the lesson here.  That’s the real story.

I recognize that the movie is based on the book Solomon Northup wrote about his years as a slave.  I’m not suggesting that those years be ignored – indeed, the enormity of his achievement would be diminished if the depth of his suffering was not portrayed.  But to leave us at that moment, before the healing begins, before the recognition that those years didn’t have to be a total waste, that something good could come from it – it felt empty.  That moment, though touching, was not a happy ending.  The movie just ended, and I felt cheated.

So, yes, I hated it because it could have been inspiring, but instead, it was just depressing.  If you want to see a good movie, go see “Rush”.


Thanks for reading my blog!  If you want to know more about me and my journey, check out my book “Everyday is Saturday” on Kindle.  The book is part diary, part memoir, about the first year after I was laid off from my dream job.  I think it has something to say to anyone who is struggling with change.

photo credit: gtall1 via photopin cc


2 responses to “Why I think “12 Years a Slave” is a Terrible Movie

  1. Davis says:

    I am not sure how I happened on your blog. But I really like your considered approach to your topics – I too am bored by canned predictable responses which are down a (political) line and do not reflect thoughtfulness. Your blog is refreshing. Thanks.


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