Sunday, November 24, 2013

Brandon Isaacson and Mary Tobin discuss 12 Years a Slave (re-post from

Originally appeared on, 10/25/2013.

Mary: My initial reaction: an absolutely fantastic film. The visuals were lingering but crisp, with several particularly powerful shots displaying unimaginable suffering in the foreground with innocent children playing in the background. The jarring spectrum of human emotion encapsulated in a single scene was amazing.

Brandon: I want to love 12 Years a Slave like everyone else, but I don't. The problem for me is that it feels like a stage play. It's like watching a handful of famous actors play roles, but PLAY THEM, not disappear into them. Ejiofor seems like he's acting in a play, as highlighted in the trailer by the line 

Mary: That did seem a little odd to me. They seemed to be there to be famous, not be there to aid in the film’s overall effect.

Brandon: It makes it hard for me to be engaged in—the costumes and makeup, like Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, feel like play costumes and makeup (good enough to be seen from a distance, not with a camera up close). There's nothing wrong with it. But why do we need famous people? It doesn't feel real. Did it feel real to you? 

Mary: The fact that the film was based on a real story—that made it so much more real for me. I think being rooted in a real story helps films become more realistic, and this was based on a true story so that felt more real because it wasn’t simply trying to portray ‘slavery.’

Brandon: This did feel like a more realistic portrayal of slavery, but I take issue with rewarding it for being “based on truth." It's a sketch of truth, but we can't really understand the reality of the truth. It's based on truth, but always going to be distant from reality. Just look at The Social Network. Because it is that time period, we know how far it is from the truth. But with films like 12 Years, we just think, oh this is the reality. You can't accept that or fall into that trap.

Mary: If your qualm with historical films is that they're not close to reality, isn't a requirement of a film like this that it's based on the closest version of the truth we have?

Brandon: No, my qualm is with rewarding films for being "true" when that's often a misleading notion. But that's the phenomenon. "This one is based on truth so I should take it more seriously" is a common thing. As a method of making the character more relate-able, they center the story on someone who was free and is then enslaved. Which is fine in general, but it's something that makes these Schindler's List comparisons weird. I don't feel this is ‘the slavery movie.’ His experience is grounded in a free man, being enslaved, and waiting for his opportunity to get out of the situation. It almost then feels like a nightmare –with lines like, "I will survive. I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy till freedom is opportune."
 A nightmare is a horrible experience that you know will end. There's a sense that this is temporary, which is a problem, since the misery of enslavement has a lot to do with the permanence of it. 

Mary: So what are your thoughts overall?

Brandon: None of it really sticks in my mind, I really just don't connect with the way McQueen looks at things, it doesn't make me feel anything. However, I’m reacting to the A+ praise it’s receiving. To some extent I’m slanting more negative because I’m not as enthusiastic. I think it’s an excellent film, but requires more criticism than some are giving it.

I found several images striking, especially a few beautiful shots of what I believe were weeping willows—many more showing the internal struggle of various characters (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cumberbatch, etc) without forcing too much dialogue. I can see why you take issue with this being called ‘the slavery movie,’ but I didn’t look at it that way. I think it was a compelling, engaging, beautifully shot portrayal of what one man endured during a time when his rights were nonexistent.

Brandon: B+/A-
Mary:       A

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