12 Years a Slave – Overrated?


So now that the hype has died down and the film has been settled firmly on Empire’s 301 Greatest Movies of all Time list at an impressive 119 (just 9 short of Avatar), what a better opportunity than to assess the success of the film.

With a box office gross of $56 million, an 8.2 score and 150 place on IMDB and 3 Oscars under it’s belt, it would appear that Steve McQueen’s masterpiece is well worthy of it’s place on Empire’s list. But there have been queries about whether this film is as good as it’s reputation. Having recently seen the film on DVD, I will offer my verdict on whether I think the film is indeed a great contribution to cinema, or if like many others claim, it is overrated.

The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a wealthy black man in 1840‘s USA, who is stripped of his comfortable lifestyle and status when he is taken and sold into slavery. Forced to act as an illiterate labourer in order to survive, Solomon’s patience is put to the test with the loss of everything from his home and family, to his own name.

The plot is good, the characterisation is very strong throughout and the depth of the story is evident. With a topic like slavery or racism, and with a true story in particular, keeping the plot simple usually works to the film’s favour, enabling the audience to concentrate on the characters and the themes that are truly horrific and tragic but perhaps eventually inspiring. I cannot comment on the story itself as it is a true one, but the dialogue was brilliant (despite my difficulty understanding it). I say you can always tell the quality of a film by the dialogue – not too poetic so that it has meaning but NEVER over-used and cheesy. I was both absorbed and utterly convinced when listening to Patsy’s grievances. The only slight cringe moment I had was Brad Pitt as the ’good’ anti-slavery hero, who brings Solomon home with a ’I funded it, I can save the day’ approach. Although I understand that a depressing film does need some kind of audience satisfaction at the end, I’m personally not a fan of the Hollywood Ending, and was disappointed at the easy ride home with a bonus of reuniting the family to attend to my cringe-buds.

The acting – outstanding. That was one thing about the film that I could say really elevated it’s status to that of among the classics. Chiwetel Ejiofor was well suited to the role, with a powerful yet subtle ability to convince us of his history. Michael Fassbender was completely engaging and Paul Dano absolutely threatening and menacing, with a real evil persona portrayed. Lupita Nyong’o, a great performance – any more would have been too much, but any less wouldn’t have us holding on to the arm of the sofa for dear life (to stop us from being blowing away, that is).

But it is the cinematography and ‘arty’ style that has given this film it’s reputation. My first thought was that everything seemed a little too…bright. The grass a little too green and the costumes a little too colourful which took away the feel of authenticity and nostalgia associated with films recreating this era.


I appreciate the shots, they were smart and well constructed. There was meaning and message behind every shot which I really like because that’s what an image is meant to be about – provoking thought. Of course, there was the length of the shots themselves, which I’ve heard a mixed response about. Some have said that holding the shot for that bit extra gives an opportunity to think. I’ve also heard that it made the film boring. When I was watching the film in my living room, I felt very uncomfortable. I was suddenly very aware of my parents sitting on the sofa next to me, us all sitting in silence whilst watching a man half-hanging. Almost like the awkward sex scene moment with the family. I don’t know, maybe that’s what my reaction was meant to be, but it meant that I was completely distracted from a film and sucked-out of the southern states back to my English living room. I’ve come to the conclusion that McQueen just overdid it a moment too long. He made his joke and he killed it. Instead of slick and stylish it was awkward and difficult.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a little – I wasn’t sure about the supposedly ‘arty’ style that McQueen had tried to achieve but all the same, I appreciate that he was trying to do something different and expressive, and for that I approve.

Which leads me to my last point. For this semi-arty, captivating wonder, what music would support the dozens of buckets lined up for our tears… Hans Zimmer? I have respect for the composer who manages to create a wonderful atmosphere in every film he writes for, but the safe option was the wrong option for this interesting drama. We needed something inspiring but different, not just the same old string orchestra playing the same old four chords. It was okay, the atmosphere was still there but there was no recognisable theme that developed and there was no significant climax. But even critiquing Zimmer’s score doesn’t change the fact that the type of music did not fit the brief. We needed something slightly edgy, perhaps avoiding the traditional orchestral score like Danny Boyle is renown for, to support the style that McQueen wanted.

It is a slow moving, thought provoking drama. But it is also incorporates elements of an experimental art house film which is why, I think there is something that doesn’t quite work. Quality dialogue, impressive acting, Hollywood mise-en-scene, interesting cinematography, plain repetitive music, and a happy ending. It just doesn’t fit together. So I conclude that mistakes were made, and a specific style was not quite achieved. It wasn’t refreshing. It was only half way there, and that is why I think this film is unworthy of it’s reputation.

A good film, but by no means a revolution in the making of dramas. I do not think this film will be remembered and valued in 50 years time.


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