12 Years a Slave is clearly a must-see film for every American, especially young people and slavery romanticizers of all ages, to inform/enlighten the ignorant and factually resistant to the unspeakable horror, suffering, and injustice inflicted on African Americans, and of the prolonged damage—materially and psychologically—this national Original Sin has bequeathed to Blacks and non-Blacks alike.
From an aesthetic standpoint, however, and even in regard to the film’s ultimate social impact, I have my druthers. As the horrors began to mount—human meat markets, family break-ups, beatings, lynchings, rapes—I was moved to tears, if not to uncontrollable sobbing. As the cruelty continued to mount and increase in severity, however, I began to “numb out,” became less and less moved, more and more detached. Overkill, in other words—one can stomach (literally) only so much!
Of course, from a Brechtian standpoint, such an “alienation effect” might actually be a plus—encouraging intellectual rather than emotional engagement and, at least potentially, leading to an assessment of the film’s broader socio-political implications, such as slavery’s aforementioned long-term, pan-American damage.
For the average viewer, especially those one presumably most wants to reach, I fear the more likely effect is less reassuring. For many sex/violence-saturated youth, the numbing effect may result less from 12 Years a Slave’s ultra-brutal imagery than from its paling in comparison to myriad video games, porno sites, and slasher flicks. For slavery romanticizers, cinematic overkill provides a ready excuse to dismiss the film as “Yankee” (British director and stars notwithstanding) propaganda. Not to mention the S/M set’s “getting off” on the proceedings—an unavoidable sidebar to any “gore fest,” no matter how loftily intended.
Additionally, though not in itself a critique, 12 Years a Slave is by no means the first anti-Gone with the Wind. Two years prior to the epochal mini-series Roots (1977), which couldn’t go as far due to its airing on broadcast television, Hollywood produced the quite horrific, sexually explicit, highly successful Mandingo, covering much the same blood-stained ground as 12 Years a Slave. The hit film and TV series spawned a trend in anti-slavery fare (e.g., Passion Plantation, 1978; Beulah Land, 1980; North and South, 1985). Solomon Northop’s Odyssey (1984), directed by the African American Gordon Parks, was even based, like 12 Years a Slave, on an actual slave narrative.
Despite the anti-slavery wave, film historian Ed Guerrero bemoaned, in Framing Blackness (1993), that “the film industry and the consumer imagination are not ready for any cinematic tale of slavery that strays too far from the framing confines of Hollywood’s crude fantasies and exploitative strategies.”
Whether 12 Years a Slave, along with Django Unchained (2012) and this year’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Henry Louis Gates’s PBS series The African Americans, signals a “more deepened and refined” indictment of slavery twenty years hence, remains to be seen, and adjudicated. The recent surge does suggest that perhaps we need a media reminder every few decades, as with the Holocaust, to maintain/revive awareness—however numbingly—of these uniquely heinous events, and their seemingly ineradicable consequences.
VincentBrook teaches at USC and UCLA and is the author, most recently, of Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré Directors and the Rise of Film Noir and Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles. His co-edited anthology on the films and plays of Woody Allen is due out in December.