5 Unfiltered, Unprocessed Reactions to Viewing '12 Years a Slave'
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5 Unfiltered, Unprocessed Reactions to Viewing '12 Years a Slave'

By Dustin Rowles | Seriously Random Lists | November 19, 2013 | Comments ()


Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave finally arrived in my part of the country last weekend, so I was able to see what all the fuss was about, and whether I thought the film deserved all the Osar consideration it is already receiving.

It does.

I encourage you to go read Daniel’s smart, and thoughtful review of 12 Years a Slave. Few on the Internet can deconstruct and assess a film as well as Dan, which is why he is assigned most of the prestige films on the site. Instead of ripping the guts out of a film and analyzing them, as Dan does so superbly, my reviews tend to wrap my own emotional experiences with the films around bare-bones plot descriptions, why is why I am typically assigned the shitty movies and/or romantic comedies.

I know my place, and I am comfortable with it. Still, I do think there is often some value to one’s knee-jerk emotional response to a film, and I had a very visceral reaction to 12 Years a Slave, as I suspect anyone would. They were not fully-formed coherent thoughts backed by evidence from the film; they were simply unprocessed gut reactions regurgitated without filter.

1. This is one of the most unpleasant film experiences I’ve ever had. Everyone should see this film, but only a sick, depraved person could watch it twice. Who needs to spend another $12 anyway to revisit scenes that will be permanently seared into their brains? And you’re telling me that scenes had to be cut in order get the movie an R rating? You mean, it was worse than this? How? HOW?

2. Michael Fassbender is so good in this, and so repulsive, and awful, and terrorizing, that I doubt very much that I will ever like Michael Fassbender in another role again. I will never be able to see him without thinking about what his character did in this film, and the snarl he adored while doing it. I want him dead, and I don’t even mean just the character. Right now, I want Fassbender dead. I’m not feeling a lot of love for Sarah Paulson, either. I’ll never confuse her for Monica Potter again, that’s for damn sure.

3. I’m very confused about how to feel about Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. He’s a slave master, but he doesn’t personally beat anyone, and he has some sympathy for the plight of the lead character, Solomon Northup. On the other hand, not enough to actually sacrifice his property. Is there a grey area when it comes to slave ownership? Am I suppose to appreciate that he was one of the better men of his time, or should I disregard him because evil is evil. It’s so hard to disregard Cumberbatch. THOSE CHEEKBONES. But GAH. I don’t care if he felt guilty about owning slaves, HE STILL OWNED THEM.

4. How could anyone see this film and argue that somehow white people have paid their reparatory debt? Come back in another 170 years and make that argument. The stain of slavery still persists, and we have a lot of sins to make up for. How is it possible that this level of brutality was legal? We put people away today for treating their pets this poorly, and it was sanctioned in the 1840s. In the grand scheme, it’s not that long ago. Don’t tell me that the inequities perpetuated by historical wrongs this egregious have already been resolved.

5. I am not a religious man, but it’s movies like these that make me wish that I was, because if I believed in heaven, it would mean that I believed in hell, and it’s very satisfying to think that the people who perpetrated these atrocities are burning in eternal hellfire. They deserve longer than eternity. Also, I have never wanted anything more than to see Django peek around the corner, and blow all these f**kers away.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • ThirteenthLetter

    Gonna say that maybe you should look into therapy, if a movie made you want the actor dead. You need to get better at telling reality from fantasy before you hurt yourself.

  • Fleetwood Mac Sex Pants

    I had the great honour of seeing this at the gala premiere presentation at TIFF this year, with the cast, director and producers present. It was one of the great cinematic experiences of my life, and I'm still not over it... you could have heard a pin drop in that theatre during the final scene, except for the intermittent sounds of muffled sobs coming from all over the theatre. There were patrons, men and women, openly weeping throughout the film - and many who had to get up and leave the theatre during one of the film's most brutal scenes, towards the end of the film. It felt unbearable to watch but also unbearable to leave, for me, and I went into a full on ugly cry during the final scene - didn't get calmed down for some time after. It was a privilege to stand and applaud with the rest of the audience (for several minutes) after the film was ended. Brad Pitt was there and said (I'm paraphrasing) that of all the films he'd ever been involved with, either acting or otherwise, this one was the one that made his entire career feel worthwhile.

  • Emm82

    I can't imagine even looking at this film for one minute & thinking it's to be enjoyed. It's not, and it damn well shouldn't be. I haven't seen it yet but I will - I'm not ready!

  • Anne_Hedonia

    Wanna hear something really shocking and awful? I read Solomon Northup's book before I saw the film – and the real events made the film look like a happy Sunday picnic in the park. It was actually a bit disconcerting, watching it, because the movie made slavery (and Solomon's experience with it) look so much BETTER. And I know that is probably the last thing anyone who saw the movie wants to hear. But sadly, it's true. You can find the book online, in pdf format, for free (I won't link for fear of angering Pajeebus). Aside from the horrors and inhumanity of slavery, Solomon Northup also did an amazing job of describing the agricultural practices of cotton and cane plantations; it's as fascinating historically as it is dismaying on an inhumanity level.

  • ljridley

    This is completely off topic, but you shouldn't worry about linking to the book. It is out of copyright. Newer editions may have copyright on them because of the front matter, end notes, images, and so forth, but the copyright expired long ago on the text itself.

  • Sethcohen26

    the movie is so overrated for me, guess all the hype made it seem like it was the best thing ever.

  • Jifaner

    Dude, I'm with you on the fact that our society is still recovering as a whole from the awfulness of slavery and segregation especially, and I'm fully aware that racism stubbornly persists, but I feel no guilt and I owe nothing other than being a good person and citizen and raising my children to be the same. My family were poor Irish and came over at the turn of the century. I don't even have familial ties to slavery to feel bad about. Besides, we ALL know it was awful and horrible, yet slavery has always existed in every culture that I'm aware of and continues even in this "enlightened" age. Dead white Americans don't hold the market on epically shitty moral failings.

    ETA: I don't want this to sound like I think the history of slaves in the US isn't important. I do and it is. I don't think we teach it well and I don't think our society really understands how those effects ripple through time. I just don't think we need to walk around feeling horrible about it.

  • kirbyjay

    Reparations? It's interesting to note that the slave market in Africa was run by Africans. It was black people catching and selling other black people to white people who sold them to other white people.
    Just like drugs. Who is more responsible, the ones who sell or the ones who use?
    It all sucks. Slavery, the holocaust, wars, homophobia, misogyny, animal abuse, terrorism. All we can do is try to be better.

  • Ben

    'White people' (Or white US Citizens, wich is what you mean) aren't responsible for any repertory debt. Is there anyone alive here today that owned slaves during the slavery era of the US? No, are there any former US slaves alive needing reparations payed to them? No.

    So how exactly do you expect reparations to be made?

    Focus needs to be made on addressing the racial inequality that exists today and how to fix it instead of focusing on the past problems.
    Slavery happened, it was bad. Short of building a time machine you can't really do anything about it though.

  • lonolove

    Good thing you weren't at The Nick when I saw it, Rowles, as I'm sure my unrestrained blubbering would have hindered your experience. Just...that scene with Patsy, man. I just burst into tears.

  • NimChimpsky

    Yeah, having never owned a slave nor condoned the practice, I don't owe any 'debt', particularly since no slaves are alive to owe one to. Even if I did, I sat through this film for two hours and felt bad about what some dead people did to some other dead people. I'm square.

  • http://www.examiner.com/search...
    My thoughts on the film and how the present culture we live in was formed by slavery. very similar to your take.

  • As far as Visceral Reaction #4 goes, I would say that I reject the concept of collective guilt entirely, and it's not because I'm a horrible racist that wishes the fuckin' darkies would just shut up about it already. I reject it en toto -as a concept- for everyone, everywhere.

    It does nothing good, regardless of which people group, historical atrocity, or event you want to apply it to. If we're going to start calling people to account for the sins of their ancestors, who among us would escape? And if we're going to start to call people to account for the sins of their ancestors, should we not chalk up their virtues to that account as well? Why should only the sins count?

    Can I acknowledge the horrors of the past? Certainly I can. Anyone who has read history without the strictest of ideological blinders can do that. Slavery was a thorough going evil and a moral cancer in this country, which is why we fought a terrible war to end it. The Confederacy was wrong to support it and deserved to be overthrown. But I don't feel guilty over slavery anymore than I feel guilty for the Holocaust, or the Crusades, or the Rape of Nanking.

  • I agree with you about the uselessness of guilt and the injustice of holding any group personally accountable for the sins of its ancestors.

    However, there is a legitimate case to be made for the idea that the inequities created and perpetuated by slavery - and the hundred-odd years of legally sanctioned racism that followed it - still exist today. We may not be criminally responsible for the cause, but I think we're still morally bound to address the effects.

  • "We may not be criminally responsible for the cause, but I think we're still morally bound to address the effects."

    That's a fair point, and I think that's where modern society bogs down most of the time as opinions differ as to what constitutes a legitimate effort to address those effects.

  • JenVegas

    I have a friend who has been confusing Sarah Paulson for Monica Potter for YEARS and refuses to believe me when I tell him he's doing it. Maybe I should send him to see this.

  • Kim Voeks

    Oddly enough, I was not particularly moved. Perhaps I expected too much, but it was so straight forward, that I couldn't get emotional about it. In some ways, it was like Django Unchained, in that it was about the "exceptional n*gger." It's so clear that Solomon isn't like those others, that the audience sympathizes with him over the less sophisticated slaves. It also takes the stance that slaves weren't a community in that they didn't have any bond or community or sense of passive aggressive destruction. If I felt anything, I felt for Patsy. Lupita Nyongo is amazing. The beating was tortuous. The treatment of Patsy did highlight the strain between white and black women. Even though they're both trapped, there's no empathy because of the man between them. Brad Pitt did bug the hell out of me. Talk about Deus ex Machina.
    In some ways I longed for the book. Solomon is so intelligent and forgiving. In the movie, he's just sort of long suffering and hang dog.

  • Less Lee Moore

    This is a valid critique and I confess had many of these thoughts at first until I thought about things more. I know Solomon was a more sophisticated slave but I did also feel sympathy for the others he encountered. And I think the movie did a pretty amazing and subtle job at showing how it didn't really matter if you were born free or not: you were still subject to the cruelties of slavery once taken. It showed, to those ignorant people who try to separate black folks into "good" and "bad" because of differences in education, income level, etc. that such distinctions are meaningless and racist in themselves.

    I did get the impression of a lack of community among the slaves, but for them to shun that seemed absolutely necessary for their survival. Consider laws that prevented groups of black folk from congregating post-abolition and you can see how that originated with slavery.

    It's hard to capture internal monologues from a book on film, but I didn't see Solomon as unforgiving or not intelligent at all. Perhaps reading the book first gives a different interpretation?

    As for Brad Pitt's character, was he not in the original text?

  • Bea Pants

    RE: The Cumberbatch character. I hate to be that person who's all "well in the book," but in the book I was surprised at Northrup's evenhanded treatment of Mr. Ford. I haven't had the chance to see the film but my impression based on reviews is that in the film Ford is gentle but ultimately weak-willed. I did not pick up on that in the book. In fact Northrup describes Ford as a pious and decent man who believed in slavery because that was the society in which he was brought up. I think in the modern retelling our (justifiable) need to condemn the institution of slavery leads us to portray those that go along with it as deficient in some way. However history has proven repeatedly that people who we might otherwise consider good can and do go along with terrible things if they happen to be the status quo at the time. Northrup, who was not separated from slavery by a century and a half, seemed to understand that.

  • pissants_doppelganger

    I decided to go to an afternoon showing on the spur of the moment last weekend. I realized that I only had enough time to get ready and get there and I hadn't eaten anything all day. I was going to an Alamo Drafthouse, so problem solved, right? Except I didn't really feel that this would be a burger munchin' movie. I was able to snack on some fries, but I still felt like an asshole.

    As for Cumberbatch's character, that other character summed it up nicely. He's kind and all, but he knows there is more to Solomon than meets the eye, and he won't investigate. Yeah, and his "I'm selling you to a mean motherfucker because he's the only one who will take you on account of your reputation. I might deign to help you, but I gots ta keep stackin' that paper, ya know?" line was quite revolting.

    Spoiler alert: Oh, and EVERYBODY audibly gasped when that woman took a decanter to the face.

  • Personally, I don't think we punish people who abuse animals nearly enough.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    I spent a lot of time reading up on Jefferson for a play last year. And he's a complex guy. Lover of liberty, worked to end the importation of new slaves from Africa (ending it as a transatlantic trade). But he kept slaves, until he died, and the only ones he freed were the 5 who shared his (or a family member's) blood. I kind of understand where he's coming from, even if I can't *really* understand it.

    Slavery was the status quo. It was a part of the air they breathed, part of the economy of the time, part of life.

    We read about the plight of Chinese factory workers and still buy our Apple products, our plastic toys, our dollar store everything. We barely even have to push it out of minds. We read about factory farming, and I'm sure I'm not alone in trying to avoid factory-farmed meat, but not particularly fighting to do so. Depending on how the pendulum swings, in 100 years we could be the hypocrites, the ones who knowingly continued what we were doing, who maybe gave to some charities to try to offset the damage. The ones our descendants regard with shame.

  • I've been reading Henry Wiencek's "Master of the Mountain: Jefferson and his Slaves" and it has definitely made me reassess a lot of my preconceived notions about the Founders and the institution of slavery. The book is quite incendiary but also opens a window to the self-contained society that existed among both the slaveholders and their "property."

  • Sara_Tonin00

    That book was just coming out when was I just wrapping up my research (I had to finish writing already!) but I did read the excerpt in Smithsonian magazine. It was a valuable accompaniment to other portraits of him. Also fascinating - I highly recommend if you get a chance - is the exhibit Slavery at Monticello, currently at St. Louis Museum of History, but visiting a few other locations.


    It does a remarkable job of introducing his slaves as not just humans, but individuals, to the extent possible.

  • Sirilicious

    Definitely. I try to boycot some stores and products, donate to a couple of global causes, but i am not consistent. It's harder to follow through when you don't see the suffering in your own small circle (that's our nature), but that doesn't excuse me. My logic, empathy and principles should override that nature.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    And, though I haven't seen it yet - my understanding is that McQueen's intention through the film was to demonstrate that slavery was an institution that corrupted and degraded the master's soul as well as the slave's.

  • Blake Shrapnel

    I love it how everyone thinks that if they were raised in that environment, they would be one of the tiny minority that stands up and says "this is wrong."

    The odds are NOT in your favor.

  • I thought the odds were supposed to be ever in my favor.

  • Bea Pants

    We discussed this a lot in class when I was getting my BA in history. There was always the occasional white student who was certain they would have been anti-slavery and the African American student who was certain they would have let a slave revolt. The fact is, it's the rare human being that's better than the times in which they are living.

  • NeoCleo

    True that.

  • foolsage

    That reminds me of an old Eddie Murphy routine.


  • AudioSuede

    The "hanging" scene (no spoilers) was so uncomfortable that it easily rivals most horror movies for my most disquieting film experience ever.

    Also, not to stir the pot, but #5 gets complicated by the fact that so much of that movie centers on he biblical arguments for slavery. It's a pretty steady drum beat of horrible logic and religious zealotry that has to make religious people uncomfortable, or at least glad that their church has evolved over time.

  • Did they mention that the abolitionist movement both here and in the UK was largely fueled by the church as well?

  • jennp421

    Completely agree about the scene, and I really admired that McQueen chose to make the audience feel the uncomfortableness. I'm sure most movies would have given us a second to see what was happening and switched perspectives. The length of the scene and the inability to look away just really hammered it in.

  • Al Borland's Beard

    For #2, I felt the same way about Charlize Theron in 'Monster'. In that, I could no longer masturbate to 'Reindeer Games' without thinking about Aileen Wuornos.

  • Hollyg

    Personally, I can't watch Victor Gaber as a villain. All I can think of is "No, Jack, Sidney would be so disappointed! You're good, you went down with the Titaniiiic!" *cries while singing My Heart Will Go On*

  • PDamian

    I want very much to see this film, but I don't think I'd be able to bear seeing it in a theatre, where I'd burst into loud, sobbing tears every few minutes. I'll wait for DVD so I can watch at home and pause the film from time to time so I can stomp around my living room screaming and crying.

  • nosio

    If you do see it in theaters, I guarantee you won't be alone! I started silent crying about 20 minutes in and didn't fully stop until the film had ended. And then I cried some more.

    By the end, there were several people around me just openly weeping.

  • linnyloo

    I'm a movie crier too, and have a really strong empathy system. Seeing Saving Private Ryan in the theater was a huge mistake -- I'd read that the first 10 minutes or so were super intense, and I ended up curled up in my chair yelling "HOW MANY MORE MINUTES?" a couple of times to my friend. Thank goodness the movie theater was nearly empty, and the movie was loud enough.

    I think Tarantino films have violence that's just on the side of cartoonish so that it doesn't always activate my empathy circuits, meaning I can watch his stuff without going out of my skull, and even find it funny while cringing/watching through my fingers, but when there's super realistic violence? Yeah. My brain can't handle it.

  • stryker1121

    I saw Saving Private Ryan in he theater and at least a half-dozen people walked out at various times throughout the film. That first viewing I was just dumbfounded by the violence, but my empathy circuits didn't kick until watching the movie again on TNT years later. For whatever reason, the horror just hit me and I was crying during several scenes.

  • Bob Genghis Khan

    1.) Schindler's List was hard to watch as well, but I have no qualms revisiting it now and again. All about personal preference.

    2.) Isn't this what acting is all about? Range, disappearing in a role, etc.? You aren't sure if you can "Like him in another role again"? Really? Don't you usually reserve such uneasiness for the Gibsons and Sheens of the biz, not those who act horribly ON screen?

    3.) Perhaps that is the point of the character? To show that even the "good" still took part in this horrendous trend?

    4.) White people were not the only race to keep slaves in our planet's history. It was a horrible act that all races took part in. How does all of humanity pay back "reparations?"

    5.) I am religious, and I still agree with your statement here.

  • PerpetualIntern

    RE: #4, using the past tense isn't even accurate. There are still slaves all over the world, unfortunately.

  • autw

    RE: #4. I totally agree.

  • iamuhura

    The thing is, all #4 says to me is: "Look, everybody ELSE was doing it. Why do *we* have to be punished/learn our lesson?!"

    I mean, if you wouldn't accept that response from a preteen, why accept it as an adult?

  • Bob Genghis Khan

    Also, I'm aware this comes off as under-the-rug sweeping, and it is not intended. I just wonder if we as a society stay in a constant state of 'getting over' or 'moving on', how do we actually move on?

  • Bob Genghis Khan

    I would make the argument that the lesson has been learned. Films like this, literature, entire lessons and units in school, and the general notion that, you know, slavery was awful. What more needs to be done? Same thing with segregation - we all generally agree that it was terrible and not such a great idea, so at what point do we bury it and move on?

  • Jifaner

    Well, but why *should* we be "punished"? Know anyone who owned a slave? I'm thinking not. We have a long way to go as a society, but I think we have far more to make up for where segregation is concerned. Yes, it's tied directly to the history of slave owning, but segregationists and the people who were raised in that environment are alive and well and perpetuating the racism that eats at us all.

  • NeoCleo

    I am with you on this Dustin. Thanks for reviewing so that I don't have to watch. I ADORE Ejiofor and hate that I can't stomach viewing the work that will finally give him the fame he deserves. I can't have an opionion on the actual movie since I won't ever watch it, but as for the shades of grey you explore in your #3, it's all pretty black and white to me. EVIL. Invoking one of Terry Pratchet's spirit animals, Granny Weatherwax, evil is black and white, it starts with "treating people as things."
    Please keep doing the knee-jerk, emotional reviews, I read them as avidly as I do Carlson's intellectual parsing.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    I can only envy those who had the opportunity to see this movie in theaters since it will only arrive in my part of the country (midwestern Brazilian, yeehaw!) when the awards season begins and the poster is finally slammed with accolades and numerous Oscar nominations.

    And in the event of it ever debuting here at all, I predict an even harder time attempting to convince someone to watch it during the weekend given the subject matter.

    It must be quite a cinematic experience.

  • Hollyg

    Oh, I'm sure it will debute here. But I'm pretty sure I'll have some trouble getting people to see it.

  • Michelle

    Sigh. This is exactly why I don't want to see this movie. I already read the book and imagined most of this happening, I don't know if I'm cut out to see it in the theater. Maybe at home? Cuddling with my cat?

  • Modernlove

    This is how I feel. I really want to read the book, once this semester ends and I have time again, but I don't know if I can take the movie. I don't do well with this kind of visceral emotion (I know that's the entire point of this film, to make you feel uncomfortable and to challenge you), but I just don't know if I can emotionally handle it.

  • linnyloo

    Word. Me too.

  • Ted Zancha

    Also, funny story. Here are a few comments from the couple sitting behind me having an unfiltered (but also very annoying and pseudo intellectual) reaction to the film.

    "The dialogue was so unbelievable."

    "Just because it was a serious movie and it had a brutal beating doesn't mean it is good."

    "I know this was Solmon's story and its based on his book, but the entire time I was wondering 'what about all the other slaves. What are they thinking.'"

    "You know what film did slavery really well and showed it for what it really was? Django Unchained"

    I almost started yelling at them, but once that last comment was made I just left. I just cant handle people sometimes.

  • AudioSuede

    Slate had some article where they were criticizing the film for focusing just on one slave instead of on literally all the slaves, and I was like, "Um, this is one guy's fucking memoir. HOW DO YOU MAKE A MOVIE ABOUT MILLIONS OF PEOPLE AT THE SAME TIME?!" Some people are so self-righteous. Just admit you didn't enjoy it! You were uncomfortable! You don't want to look racist! But fuck people who are trying to shame the filmmakers for not doing something that is completely impossible.

  • jennp421

    So we have two movies about slavery in two years after having almost none for several years and they are supposed to represent the entire experience? Yeah, that makes sense. Or you know, we could ask for more movies to show the other slaves felt.

  • AvaLehra

    "You know what film did slavery really well and showed it for what it really was? Django Unchained"

    I actually snorted when I read that. A full on snort, people.

  • Ted Zancha

    Yeah, I really wanted to laugh in their faces. Just asinine.

  • I am a sick, depraved person who has seen the film twice (though both times for free), and it really was not difficult at all in that way. The film is difficult, sure, but it's also humane and beautiful, and a second viewing made me appreciate so much more the artistry of its presentation.

  • Ted Zancha

    More than anything, the scene that ruined Cumberbatch for me was with him and Giamatii. No matter how "kindly" of a slave owner he made himself out to be, I was horrified to watch him tear that family apart.

    Dustin you are right. Phenomenal movie, but hard to justify watching it again. If if I do decide to watch it again, it will take some time. Because that was a film you had to endure

  • The only cinematic experience that comes close to this for me was Passion of the Christ. I have a really high tolerance when it comes to violence, sex, etc, particularly if it's done with an artful purpose. But I saw 12 Years by myself after a long, shitty work day and I almost walked out of the theater. Just a really hard movie experience, especially in a theater where it's difficult to unthether yourself from the moment with a quick twitter scan or WWF round.

  • Ted Zancha

    My girlfriend compared it to Schlinder's List, with which I agreed. There was not a moment in either of those movies where the tension/sadness/brutality let up. 12 Years a Slave was relentless. And there were many times where I wanted to look away or yell "oh shit!"

  • A moms post AND a white guilt post within an hour of one another? I'm about to tell my broker to buy 10,000 shares of Orville Redenbacher, and right quick.

    This right here -- "How could anyone see this film and argue that somehow white people have paid their reparatory debt?" -- is gonna get the site some new visitors. Sure, these visitors will come cloaked in white, pointy hoods and have a WND Disqus posting history, but the pageviews are colorblind at least.

    Oh, and I agree with almost everything you said here. Solid work.

  • AudioSuede

    God, I have to see WND links in my news feed every morning for work when I browse the media for relevant news, and it gets harder and harder to believe that these people exist.

  • Repo

    We're a loooooooooooong way away from the Pajiba 10 these days, aren't we?

  • Mrs. Julien

    Especially given Dustin's new perspective on Fassbender.

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