Culture House Daily

Give Steve McQueen a Nobel prize not an Oscar

20 February 2014

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.

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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.

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Show comments
  • Hexhamgeezer

    No. Give McQueen a ticket for the Lego Movie.

    Now, that is a film worth watching.

  • commenteer

    I was completely gripped by the film. I see a lot of films with my son, and believe me this one was worth the price of admission. Unlike Blue Jasmine, Gravity and the Wolf of Wall Street, all of which I’ve also seen in recent months. I’m really puzzled by your reaction. I wonder whether Steve McQueen is a bit too black for Americans to stomach? They seem to like successful blacks to be at least half white.

    • Swanky

      No, he’s merely too cruel and in that way, not realistic enough.

  • Skiff

    you are an idiot who has consigned the direct moral and aesthetic questions posed by the film in the bracket of ‘content’, and that too like countless automatons who write bullshit with keywords in the title to get hits. Look at yourself long and hard in the mirror before you say anything. I pray your conscience is clear because you know you are trolling even though you are doing a bad job at it.

    • Swanky

      Can we have that in English?

  • Swanky


  • Swanky

    No, let’s certainly not give the torture-porn man an award. As the critics Kevin D. Williamson and James Bowman have both remarked, an uplifting moralistic drama makes the Left feel good about holding their Lefty pieties. A tedious painful long drama makes the Left feel bad but serves the same function — and in addition, they get to feel superior to everyone else that says ‘how dreadful, no thanks’. The very pain of watching confirms them in their supposed higher sensitivities (in fact, I think only their blunted sensitivities and self-regard shield them sufficiently to watch such nauseating productions). In short, they are the political postmodern equivalent of St Teresa priding herself in effect on her humility in subjecting herself to every grossness known to man.

    And you should be ashamed of yourself.

  • grammarschoolman

    See Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph for a blow-by-blow account of the stupidities of this film.

  • crosscop

    The story ( also based on historical fact) of the entire population of the Irish village of Baltimore being captured and enslaved by Muslim raiders would also make a good film. It will never be made of course – the slaves and the slaver-owners are the wrong colour.

    • Kennybhoy

      This is true…

  • ADW

    I haven’t seen 12 years, but I would say that The Pianist is a truly great film, even if it also deals with black and white subject matter.

  • sfin

    Bravo – this article echoes my thoughts exactly!

    I fought to stay awake in this movie, largely because it took 2:15hrs to tell a 15 minute story.

    Steve McQueen is a good director with a signature “look” and Michael Fassbender was good value, as always, but the rest of it was dull, dull, dull!

    “One dimensional” says it all – from the rest of the cast, through the plot, to the overall scope. It seems that any dross released under the umbrella of highlighting or confronting an “ism” (sexism, racism etc) has to be compulsorily applauded.

  • meliorist

    I suppose the only Nobel Prize that would fit the bill would be the Peace Prize, but that prize is such a joke, it would scarcely be an endorsement.

  • nibs

    You would never have written this about the mawkish “Schindler”. Anyway, you could only claim such lack of drama if you believe that slaves could not be very interesting characters in themselves, rather than loveable Eastern Europeans.

    • Kennybhoy

      This is true.

  • JoeDM

    Wow! He’s changed since Bullitt.

    • GUBU

      That’s his father you’re thinking of….

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