Naked and spectacular
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Quinoa Blessed
2017

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2017-09-02

12 Years a Slave [2013] by Steve McQueen

Violence without insight
The film's brutal and noble depiction of American slavery being unjust seemingly makes the film impervious to criticism. I happen to agree that slavery is an abomination, but I don't think that is a question being discussed in America or the world at the moment. As far as I know, it is a question that has been answered already. But the Academy can't help but pat themselves on the back because they have, for the first time, given their Best Picture award to a film written and directed by black filmmakers. Instead of feeling proud, I may instead wonder why they haven't been giving awards to filmmakers of diversity all these years. I suppose they are an American institution and they focus on American films and films that engage with the American sensibility. In this case they have chosen to acknowledge an issue which has largely been sorted in the American cultural mind.
I suppose it is a long process rewriting history to include the stories of the marginalised. This is a process that needs to happen, and for many people this is a process that needs to happen in large-scale accessible films that will be seen by many. Thus the film has its place.
However, the film doesn't offer any depth into the situation. There is no insight achieved into how this could happen, what toxic ideologies justified this culture on a political or a personal level. There was no attempt to place this man's experience into any large context at all. It was merely a depiction of the nobility of waiting for justice. For 12 years he worked as a slave and barely dared confront the legal injustice of his situation, let alone the moral injustice of it. He nobly waited for 12 years and eventually justice was done and he was able to return home to his family.
Titles at the end of the film not only tell us that the kidnappers were not brought to justice, but that the protagonist's salvation was extremely anomalous. Most free black people sold into slavery illegally were never freed. But that is not an inspiring story of overcoming adversity. That is a more accurate rewriting of American history to include the stories of marginalised, but not one that reinforces American values of waiting for things to get better, waiting for justice to have an opportunity to be done.
The violence of this film did not offer us a rewarding and insightful commentary on the grotesque cultural and political landscape of America that allowed slavery to flourish for so long.