Brilliant, unrelenting, brutal. 12 Years as a Slave is sweeping the film festival and award circuit as a major film event, a classic work of art that will resound historically and redefine the relationship between reality and film. But it is almost unwatchable.
It is Django Unchained without the humour, cartoon treatment of violence or happy ending. It is Wolf Creek, Saw and the worst snuff movie you can imagine without the convenience of fiction or the comforting tropes we are used to in Hollywood film.
It is the unadorned slice of reality from one of the worst episodes of humanity’s cruelty.
In an era where the brutality of the church, the Salvation Army and the state to the children in its care have us shaking our head at the bottomless depravity of humankind, you would think we might flick past something as remote as negro slavery in the United States with just a passing thought.
Christopher Pyne would certainly prefer it that way. “of course we should recognise the mistakes that have been made in the past. But … we don’t want to beat ourselves up every day.”
As producer, Brad Pitt, has mounted a project that unflinchingly beats us up over our absolute inhumanity to those over whom we claimed dominion. It barely even discusses theissues or allows another point of view, it is simply the unbelievable reality that a nation’s wealth was built on the blood of its indentured labourers who were tortured into submission and killed when they objected.
It is a history that is common across the colonial world and Christopher Pyne’s discomfort is shared by most decendants of the imperialists who inflicted such torture on the indigenous and enslaved peoples who did the hard work of building the empires that established the riches we now enjoy.
Steve McQueen as director does not allow us to consider such issues intellectually he simply holds our nose to the whipping post. We are spattered with the blood and broken flesh, sickened by the whimpering of the whipped as they are treated by their peers afterward, and broken hearted as the raped and battered women sob for their daughters dragged into prostitution and their sons to labour as “beasts of the field”.
Because of this, it is hard to imagine anyone queuing to watch this film. It is hard to recommend that you see it. It will disturb and confront you, it will make you sick to the stomach, you will not be able to think about anything else for days.
It is not often that an almost unwatchable film lines up for awards and critical acclaim but it is happening. This is not just the sentimental awkwardness that follows films that deal with difficult issues. This is because the film is almost perfect.
When Tarantino took his distinctive touch to the same topic with Django Unchained there was criticism of the brutality, the use of the word nigger, the depiction of dogs mauling human flesh. There are no such criticisms of 12 Years as a Slave.
It is so real, so brutal, so believable there is no room to question its veracity. You cannot argue with the film, you simply have to come to terms with the history.
As education minister Christopher Pyne claims he does not want relativism to obscure the truth. Brad Pitt and Steve McQueen have crafted the perfect antidote: the unadorned truth stops the argument once and for all, dead in it’s tracks.
“Here is the reality, deal with it.”
Watch this film and weep. Or, watch this film and be filled with a consuming anger and passion to fight to find the good within us all and unseat the cruel and oppressive from their thrones.
Either way you will be a better human for it.