12 Years a Slave is one of those films that overwhelms in such a thematic way that many believe it to be a good, or even a great film, when in reality it is merely mediocre. There, I said it, now let's move on. As a critic, it is my job, my duty even, to explain to you, my faithful readers, just what makes the film in question something you should see or something you should avoid, sometimes avoid like the plague. As a human being, a person well adjusted into the current state of affairs known as a moral society, and as a practicing humanist, it is my job, my duty even, to take up arms against the historical atrocities, heinous acts such as war and slavery, genocide and destruction, that have plagued humankind since time immemorial. Within such a conflicting set of ideals and duties, many of my fellow critics have been swayed into believing that just because a film is about one of these said atrocities, then by default it is an important and ofttimes brilliant work of art. This phenomenon happened most notably with Schindler's List. The Spielberg film garnered undue praise not because it was a great film (it was not) but because it tackled a subject that so many find, and rightly so, appalling. Yes, that film had its moments, and some of the acting was quite spectacular, but too often it relied on the typical emotionally manipulative tricks and tropes of so many films that came before it, and in true Spielbergian style, ends up rather trite and ordinary. But even so, the majority of critics (yes, I am certainly in the minority here) praise Schindler's List as one of the greatest films ever made. If the film had been about some other, less harrowing historical event, anyone with any cinematic knowledge, could plainly see the film for the mediocre and middle-of-the-road beast that it is. Sadly, much the same fate befalls Steve McQueen's new slavery drama.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying 12 Years a Slave is a bad film (nor was I saying Schindler's List was). We'll let that kind of thing for the Adam Sandlers and Tyler Perrys of the film world. What 12 Years a Slave is, is an average piece of moviemaking, that granted, does occasionally rise above such middling offerings, but nothing even close to the outpouring of praise it is receiving from critics en masse. And again, just like the aforementioned Spielberg film, such an outpouring of love may very well be the cause of one's empathy toward the atrocities of slavery, often blinding the critical eye at seeing flaws and faults in a film. Aside from the white supremacist crowd out there (and I am guessing my audience doesn't include very many of them) most people will agree that slavery was one of the worst crimes against humanity the world has ever seen, but just because you make a film about such things, does not mean you have made a masterpiece - a word thrown way to willy-nilly around critical circles. Yes, the film has a few quite stunning moments (the hanging scene is remarkably harrowing), and some quite stunning performances, most notably star Chiwetel Ojiofor as the titular Solomon Northrup, manly McQueen muse Michael Fassbender as an evil sonofabitch plantation owner, and in a smaller role (mostly unnoticed in the wake of critics falling all over the rather stereotypical performance of Lupita Nyong'o, and her Oscar chances), Adepero Oduye as Eliza, a woman forced into slavery and forced away from her children (after the character's confrontational scene with Solomon, she is my pick for best supporting actress of this film).
The whole thing is made even sadder by the fact that McQueen's two previous feature films (2008's Hunger, and 2011's Shame) were both quite brilliant indeed. McQueen does manage to include a handful of visually stunning moments in his film, but it is not enough to save the film from its own mediocrity. Most of the film is just tired cliche after even more tired cliche, and shows us nothing that the hundreds of slavery films before it have already shown us. A film made in order to win Oscars, which kinda goes against the whole idea of artistic integrity. I know I am going to get a lot of flack for not really liking (though far from hating, mind you - though no one will remember that part of the equation) a film that is almost universally adored (the same thing happened after I first went public with my disdain for Schindler's List - but really, c'mon, that final scene when Neeson is freaking out because he could have done so much more is quite ludicrous), but flack or not, I stand my ground that 12 Years a Slave is merely average, maybe slightly above average if you squint hard enough, and is only being praised so highly because critics are afraid (whether consciously or unconsciously) that their readers will think they are dissing not just a movie but the whole idea of slavery being the horrible thing it just so happens to be. I am not afraid of such a thing. To make matters even worse, please now allow me to state one final thought. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained made a better and more artistic statement on slavery than this film did. So there.