Film critic Armond White has been booted out of the New York Film Critics Circle. Officially it was for heckling Twelve Years A Slave director Steve McQueen at a press conference. But they can’t have liked him telling the truth about the movie. Namely, that it’s crap.
We should listen to hecklers. Especially when they’re as serious as White. That they have to heckle their message is usually a sign that something is up. And something is up. The consensus surrounding Twelve Years a Slave is getting unhealthy.
For many the very act of telling Solomon Northup’s story is enough to immortalise the film. No matter that the acting is one-note, the editing clumsy, the score criminal. Twelve Years is the first film to tell the real story of slavery. Which could have been true were the film not a remake, and were it not for the existence of Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, the enormously popular 70s TV series Roots or Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.
Twelve Years is what we call in the business an Alison Lapper. Saintly tat. Like Marc Quinn with his Fourth Plinth commission, McQueen mistakes well-intentioned, emotionally charged issues, for great art. Both might make you well up, but they’re not interchangeable.
Criticism is afraid of calling out this kind of thing. It’s embarrassing. So, works that are good must also be good. Morals are confused for aesthetics. We’re happy for the poetry to be solely in the pity. Out the window goes centuries of hard intellectual graft in which art slowly extricated itself from the need to be morally valuable as well as aesthetically involving. In its place arrives our aesthetically shallow, morally heart-warming, pantheons, curated and defended by the very people who would have denounced and dismantled past pieties.
There is a good reason why Hollywood has rarely dealt with slavery. And it has nothing to do with racism, as some have claimed. It has to do with the basic rules of drama. Where is the drama in the bare facts of slavery? Where is the moral complexity? Where is the possibility of any lightness of touch, or dramatic sleight of hand? Morally, literally, slavery is black-and-white. It makes little sense as drama. And so it’s hardly surprising that Twelve Years fails as drama.
Twelve Years will have a use. In colleges and schools – though possibly primary rather than secondary. It is a solid work of populist history. It tells the truth and evokes emotion. It’s generous and balanced. But, as art, it’s eminently forgettable.
Sancitify Steve McQueen. Give him a Nobel prize. But please don’t give him an Oscar.