Since 12 Years a Slave made its debut — unofficially at Telluride, officially in Toronto — the debate surrounding Steve McQueen’s unsparing chronicle of American slavery has been less about whether or it not it’s a great film than just how great it is. With 31 reviews in, it’s overtaken Gravity at Metacritic as the best-reviewed movie of the year; Criticwire’s 39 reviews yield an A- average. There’s nothing inherently wrong with critical consensus; some movies just are great, in a way that few find reason to dispute. But consensus doesn’t clarify like debate, and when critics unite in praise, it’s always worth seeking out those who intelligently depart from the herd.
It’s no surprise that among the dissenters is Armond White, a once-great critic who’s become a tiresomely predictable contrarian; given that his review was the subject of at least half a dozen blog posts, it’s clear where the impetus lies. White’s review is characteristically rife with ad hominem attacks — "Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie" — and incomprehensible jabs: "It’s the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of The Help and The Butler." What could "aberrant warmth" even mean? If anything’s aberrant, in the non-judgmental sense of the term, it’s White’s eccentric views.
But as is sometimes the case, there’s a salient critique mixed in with White’s street-corner ranting, one that’s echoed by other, less spittle-flecked takes on the film: For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.
Without exception, 12 Years a Slave‘s critics point to McQueen’s fine-art background as the source of the movie’s faults. New York‘s David Edelstein cites the movie’s "painterly malignancy," while the Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek, who calls it "the movie for people who think they’re too smart for The Butler," says:
12 Years a Slave is a pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie about the horrors of slavery. Aside from a characteristically nuanced lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor — plus an oak-tree-tall supporting one by Benedict Cumberbatch as well as a breath of movie-star vitality from Brad Pitt in a very small role — it’s a picture that stays more than a few safe steps away from anything so dangerous as raw feeling. Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity.
At ArtsMeme, Robert Koehler echoes White’s scorched-earth approach, with similarly unsupported assertions. McQueen, he says "wrongly perceives the psychological and emotional underpinnings that guided the Southern slave trade," evidently assuming those misguided notions are sufficiently self-evident as to need no explanation. McQueen’s "ridiculous dramatic reduction of the slave experience makes the huzzahs the movie is receiving as the ‘first genuine slavery movie’ [NB: not a phrase anyone has used before Koehler] misguided. Solomon’s own dilemma gets lost in the movie’s concern for the masters’ sick and twisted psychoses."
Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt, via his own site calls 12 Years "slavery porn," who fails "to convey his main character’s inner life either as a free man (very briefly) or 12 years a slave." McQueen’s "educational horror show," he says, "refuses to transcend the gruesome particulars of slavery. Nor does it with a few exceptional moments say much about the human spirit."
It’s not clear how Honeycutt expects a movie about slavery to "transcend" its particulars, nor why that would be desirable. Indeed, slavery’s particulars are just what the movie insists on, with its grueling long takes and its insistent (if subtle) reminders that American slaves are an integral part of the global economy: A crane shot (which Vadim Rizov draws attention to here) that pulls back from Ejiofor’s character being led off a slave ship to show the dozens of similar ships docked behind it; a frame split between the blurry figure of a whipped slave and her comrades at work sorting cotton.
At Slant Magazine, Ed Gonzales echoes and amplifies Honeycutt’s complaint, charging that the movie "cheapens Solomon’s experience by presenting it as an educational string of episodic horrors." He also bring in McQueen’s art-gallery past, saying that the director "is largely content to craft images and sounds that strongly convey atmosphere and evoke great horrors, but are less visualizations of human feeling than artistic posturing."
The most considered attack on 12 Years a Slave comes from Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot. Even as someone who esteems the film highly, I find his individual observations impossible to gainsay, though I see strength where he sees miscalculations:
Three movies into his second career as a feature filmmaker, McQueen has leveraged his obvious skills as an installation artist into becoming the modern master of a certain kind of set piece — the literal show-stopper, in which the movie grinds to a halt to beg our applause. It’s indeed disturbing to watch Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup choking underneath the noose placed around his neck by a brutal plantation foreman (Paul Dano), but it’s also infuriating in a way that exceeds its narrative function. McQueen may intend the sight of a dangling black man as the centerpiece of his grim historical drama, but it’s actually a symbol of his artistic exhibitionism. Powerful as this image is, it conflates the agony of the character with the bravery of the man unflinching enough to put it onscreen.
It’s worth noting that the image Nayman singles out closely resembles one of McQueen’s actual gallery works: 2013’s "Lynching Tree," which famously served as the backdrop for Kanye West’s live performance of "Blood on the Leaves." I think there’s power in that level abstraction, as well as a commendable unsentimentality that prevents 12 Years a Slave from becoming simply one man’s story. But the objections the movie’s more articulate critics raise deserve consideration. Great films don’t need to be protected from criticism; they grow stronger withstanding it.