Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave has been the object of praise since it first debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in August. But it's also been branded a difficult, brutal film. So, before it opens on October 18 we issue a plea: please, don't be afraid to go see this movie.
12 Years a Slave was greeted at the Toronto Film Festival last month with effusive praise, even though there were reported walkouts, and was quickly deemed an Oscar frontrunner. But as its theatrical release has drawn closer, awards season pundits have started to wonder whether Academy voters will be skittish about the film's difficult subject matter. "The Internet is buzzing with tales of Sunday’s partially-empty screening at the Academy and the hand-wringing of industry folk (anonymous, of course) who fret that voters might be turned off by its intensity," Variety's TV Editor Tim Gray wrote last night. "A piece of friendly advice to those who might be hesitating, from the biggest wuss West of the Mississippi: Snap out of it!"
The Wrap's Steve Pond reported that attendance was much higher for the Academy's screening of Gravity than it was for the 12 Years showing. "While members reported that the applause was robust for the film, particularly for McQueen and its principal actors, the film’s relentless violence also left some voters visibly disturbed," Pond wrote. Reporting on that same screening, Glenn Whipp of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "several Academy members indicated they had difficulty convincing their cohorts to join them at the screening. Excuses ranged from the banal ('It's not a Sunday night kind of movie') to the procrastinatory. ('I'm just not in the right frame of mind to watch that one yet.')"
Critics have also begun to knock the film for its depiction of the atrocities inflicted upon slaves. David Edelstein at New York argued that "McQueen’s directorial voice—cold, stark, deterministic—keeps it from attaining the kind of grace that marks the voice of a true film artist," while notorious (and often silly) contrarian Armond White equated it to horror cinema.
All this chatter about the difficulty of watching 12 Years a Slave does the film a huge disservice. Yes, 12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch. It's filled with indescribable violence and cruelty, but Solomon Northup's true story, on which the movie was based, is also filled with violence and cruelty.
As our Richard Lawson wrote in his review, McQueen's film makes these horrors in some ways terrifyingly ordinary in a deeply uncomfortable way. There is very little comfort to be found throughout the film. But it's important to remember that this is also a story of hope. It's no spoiler to say that, given the time frame alluded to in the title, there is a happy ending to Solomon's story. And it is Solomon's story, a true story — which seems to be forgotten amid all this fretting about the film's difficult subject matter. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a remarkably subtle and measured performance, one that deftly conveys a man's harrowing and emotional journey. It's not just about watching people be tortured—though, yes, that's a significant part of the film—it's also about seeing one man choose life, even when it would be easier not to survive.
You're certainly not going to walk out of 12 Years a Slave with a skip in your step or a smile on your face. You may not even like the movie. But you still owe it to yourself to see it. Some unpleasant things are well worth confronting, so don't let anyone scare you away.