Much has been made the last couple of days about the “tough medicine” of Steve McQueen’s slavery drama “12 Years a Slave.” Two stories, one at the LA Times and another at The Wrap, played up modest attendance at the film’s Academy screening* this weekend as evidence that its “brutal” depictions are keeping the squeamish at bay.
In reality, though, this is just another step the media has taken in doing another disservice to a film that is hardly something you have to take a deep breath and suffer through. (The first disservice, of course, being breathless proclamations that it was the Best Picture Oscar contender to beat.) The film’s account of slavery is unflinching, yes, but some reports, ever since it was first unveiled for audiences at the Telluride Film Festival, would have you believe it was shackles by way of Gaspar Nöe or Eli Roth rather than the thoughtful Brit at the helm.
All of this was on my mind this morning when I talked to McQueen about the movie, so I led in with it. Is his film so brutal, I asked.
“It’s the truth,” McQueen said. “But it’s not like you’re seeing a horror film. This is about the truth and it should be respected as such because this is how I’m able speak to you; part of my family had to go through that and over 25 million African Americans had to go through that, too. So to turn one’s back on it is to turn your back on how people came to exist in America. We don’t turn our backs on Holocaust survivors and it would be indecent to do so. This is about the truth, that’s all. Plain and simple.”
And for those people, Academy members or otherwise, taking the media’s lead on this and forming some view of “12 Years a Slave” as something more akin to a “Saw” movie, take heart: it’s really not that bad. I’d even wager you’ve seen much worse. Don’t take my word for it, take Tim Gray’s at Variety. But even if it were such a difficult sit, as McQueen says, one should respect it for what it is, the truth of our nation’s history.
Oh, by the way, to that AMPAS member quoted in the LA Times piece who said he or she had read all about the Civil War and slavery and didn’t need to see a movie repeating what he or she already knew, I’d like to see you try and be consistent with that facile reasoning from film to film. I imagine it will inevitably cave on you at some point. Have a little respect for art? You are, after all, a member of an organization that annually tips its hat to such a thing.
Stay tuned for more with McQueen and others on the film in the coming days.
“12 Years a Slave” arrives in theaters this Friday.
*It’s worth noting, respect my fellow awards beat analysts as I do, that it is increasingly pointless to report on Academy screenings that seat 1,000 people — be it attendance or reception — as if they are an indication of what the 6,000-member organization will collectively think of a film.