Sunday, 16 March 2014

Is 12 Years a Slave too violent? A response to a Sight & Sound readers letter

In the April edition of Sight and Sound I came across their Letter of the Month from their Feedback section. In short, the letter complains that Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is too violent. Now, the author of this letter has not asked for a response, as many of these readers' letters are just sounding boards for gripes, but I felt quite strongly that this reader had missed the point. The letter is his opinion, this post is my opinion. If you have a response to 12 Years a Slave or the use of violence in cinema, let us know in the comments.

You can read the whole letter at the bottom of this post.

I'm going to be going through and looking at each point the letter brings up. So in the first paragraph Paul Hill states that McQueen's films are too harsh and lack humanity, and that it should be the other way around, because it "diminishes the real emotional power and meaning of a story". What Hill is saying is that all films should be less violent and more humane, regardless of the director's style or what the story is even about.

The next paragraph states how the "realistic and non-sentimental" can fall into "superficial... horror", and states that early on in his viewing of the film he proclaimed "'Have mercy. I've got the point. I know about man's inhumanity to man'". This, I thought, was grossly arrogant. 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story of a man's forced enslavement, and to presume that just one instance of violence is enough to tell the story of slavery is disgusting. Yes it may not be pretty to watch, but it is necessary. Without acknowledging and facing up to human violence, we risk making ourselves less humane. And indeed, cinema has made us face up to the realities and consequences to violence more than ever before.

Cinema is a mass media, and I reckon more people would watch a film on World War Two than read a book about it. The same with slavery; McQueen himself has stated how underrepresented slavery is in cinema. You do not inform people about the horrors of man by just letting them know that it happened once
in the past. For centuries we have made art about violence, written books, and now we make movies.

Because of our knowledge of violence, we as a society have become less accommodating to it. Although it may seem like the world is becoming more violent, especially when you read the news, the opposite is actually more the case. Especially since the Second World War, with all the horrendous atrocities that caused, we have defended the rights of people and animals, creating laws and stigma against certain behaviour, to ensure that the same oppression doesn't happen again.

Later on in his letter, Hill compares 12 Years a Slave to Mel Gibson's awful The Passion of the Christ, saying that the violence makes us turn away, and that we just feel sorry for the person being tortured, as opposed to understanding their pain. I've watched the whole of The Passion of the Christ, as yes it is gory in an attempt to be authentic, but it is all meaningless as it has a horrendous script. I didn't wince or turn away with 12 Years a Slave, but I did find myself crying when Patsey is whipped for leaving the plantation to get soap, so she can be clean, and I cried when you find out that justice was never found for Northup against his captures. Would I been able to feel any of that if I had not seen the conditions that they had to live in, and the punishments they had to endure?

The last paragraph is perhaps the most offensive. He states that the "representation of torture should never itself be painful". This sentence reeks of hypocrisy. It's similar to when someone proclaims to be an animal lover but ignores how the creatures end up in their burger - 'ok, I know we did some bad things to innocent people, but can you just linger a bit longer on the Spanish moss, spare me the details'.

He states that he wants filmmakers to "focus on the human reaction rather than the nastiness if one seeks maximum emotional involvement rather than mere relief when it comes to the end". As I mentioned before, how are you meant to feel emotionally involved if you don't understand what you are investing your emotion in? If I hadn't witness "every inch of torn flesh" then I wouldn't understand why their freedom was so important to them.

He ends his letter by saying "So, is this film good? Yes, but it could and should have been far finer". To this man's standards, a film is not truly good unless it tames back on the violence. Throughout the whole of his letter, he stresses to filmmakers about how to direct without offering any idea of how to portray human reactions without the sufficient context of which to place those reactions in.

Slavery is one of the most awful moments in human history, and we have done a lot as a society to ensure that we understand why it happened and the effects of it. But Paul Hill needs to remind himself that 12 Years a Slave is a film. The violence in films may look realistic, and McQueen tries to be as realistic as he can in order to show his audience as much of the truth as he can, but the violence is not real. It is a simulation of violence. As McQueen reminded people in his Oscar winning speech for Best Picture, thousands of people are experiencing the pain of slavery even in today's society. Mr Hill needs to be grateful that the worst violence he is likely to experience is on the cinema screen.


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