I’m going to compare 12 Years a Slave to another Oscar movie, but I don’t want you to read too much into it.  I’m making the comparison for a specific reason and I’m the first to say the similarities are limited.  But for me, the disagreements I’m having with people who really liked the film feel very reminiscent of the conversations I had about Crash.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Crash has many many more faults than 12 Years a Slave.  But Crash became a prestige movie due to its “exploration” of racism (along with the highly-regarded ensemble cast, etc.).  The film offered a brutal lack of subtlety as it hammered home again and again the oh so controversial point that racism is bad.  12 Years a Slave isn’t anywhere near as silly, of course.  The film, however, similarly hangs its hat on a single, extremely safe point: slavery is unimaginably awful.

Director Steve McQueen has a knack for eliciting a raw, sparse, visceral feeling.  Where Crash was overly slick, 12 Years a Slave feels more honest.  Which is a designation I hate to use.  But one I think is appropriate here, as McQueen never seems to use the camera for hyperbole or exaggeration.  The events of Solomon Northrup’s enslavement are terrifying, and McQueen adroitly realizes his job is to cleanly show them.  I think McQueen’s recognition for the film is well-deserved, and I wouldn’t argue against any nominations or awards he might receive.

I’m going to rag on screenwriter John Ridley for a little bit.  But before doing so, I want to make sure to note that he wrote a couple episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, so no matter what, John Ridley is kinda awesome.  The reason that Crash came to mind is that, for me, this movie does a good job reminding us that slavery was a horror and that being falsely enslaved is somehow even worse.  Those notions alone, however, do not a compelling movie make.  To Ridley’s credit, I should point out, that where Crash made me want to bang my head against a wall every minutes or so, the dialogue here is much cleaner and the story a million times less infuriating.

The main character, Solomon Northrup is oddly bland.  Chiwetel Ejiofor does a fine job with him, but the character isn’t particularly interesting.  The supporting characters along the way are instead considerably more memorable.  And largely one-note, to be honest, though having actors like Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brad Pitt goes a long way toward making them compelling.

I can maybe see an artistic argument for not counting off the twelve years, perhaps to show how the years ran together for Northrup or they felt like an eternity, or whatever.  But, to me, Northrup’s time in slavery didn’t seem anywhere close to a dozen years, instead feeling more along the lines of three or four.  Which, to me, suggests a weakness in the script’s ability to portray Northrup’s ordeal. And to me, that’s the problem.  The script is content with saying, “boy, slavery sure sucked, huh?”  And as it turns out, that’s enough to move some people.  I was stuck on the relatively flat story.  I wasn’t drawn in by the plot and did not feel particularly engaged with the characters.  I think I would have had the same emotional response if someone spent two or three minutes giving me a middle school version of why slavery was bad.

The emotional power of the topic of slavery is a double-edged sword.  It immediately elicits an extremely strong response, and allows the creation of heroes and villains needing no special backstory.  That emotion, however, can overwhelm the story, as it does here.  I suppose if the goal of the film was to show how brutal the institution of slavery was, then sure, well done.  But, to me, that’s insufficient.  Illustrating slavery may be a noble goal, but the movie needs to tell a coherent, interesting story in the process, and it doesn’t.

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