Twelve Years a Slave is a film that portrays a complete sense of authenticity that grips the viewer and takes them on Solomon's journey with him, as if it was actually him that had written, directed and acted in the film to show people life through his eyes. This could be a feature made real by the screen-writer, who worked directly from his memoirs, or could be the work of the brilliant director. America may be quite hesitant to admit that it was the work of the director that made it so worth watching, mainly because he was English rather than American. The fact that an Englishman has somehow managed to capture the essence of slavery in 19th Century America in a more dramatic and relatable way seems to say quite a lot about American film in general.
It shows a sense of incompetence amongst American film directors, a factor that could be put down to the way Hollywood and American film seems to be more centred on what will sell and make money rather than what will accurately portray true events. This could be further explored through the comparison between Django Unchained and Twelve Years a Slave. There is a general acknowledgement that Django Unchained is more 'entertaining', which could be considered quite an oblique way of thinking. It was the stereotypical Hollywood film that was directed by a white person on a topic that they had tried to make entertaining by showing slave masters as receiving their comeuppance. It could be considered a flimsy attempt at condemning slavery, but how can that truly be showed unless you actually look into the reality of everything in a film without humour? It's almost offensive to attempt to find the humour in such a serious topic.
Django Unchained is known as a revenge-fantasy. For good to prosper it requires the complete masculinity of the protagonist to rise up and fight against one or two 'bad guys' in a climatic final scene. In Twelve Years a Slave that's not the case at all. It becomes all the more real through the questions that are left unanswered, despite history already being written. We don't know what becomes of Patsey or the other slaves on the plantations that we've met along the way, nor does Solomon. The unknown and unfinished ending that simply shows one slave making it out only acts to raise more questions about the hundreds still trapped; there's no simple cut ending. Even by comparing the films' posters it is quite evident that Django Unchained is more concerned with the masculinity and strength of the character overcoming the 'bad guys', seen by the protagonist's size on the poster, whereas Twelve Years a Slave shows a frightened Solomon trying to run from what has been thrown upon him, it creates a real sense of desperation and fear which makes the film seem all the more dramatic and real.
"An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture – and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened."
Jay Livingston wrote a blog post of Django Unchained Vs. Twelve Years a Slave, the above quotation is taken from it, and discusses how Django Unchained is an idea that was easy to sell to Americans, supporting my earlier point of it being the stereotypical Hollywood film that was made to entertain rather than inform its audience.
There's a raw power in Twelve Years a Slave that leaves the viewer almost awestruck and speechless, despite some reviews of the film criticising the fact that it is not as gritty as the original memoirs written by Solomon Northup. But this doesn't make it any less difficult to watch and there's no way to stop yourself from becoming slightly immersed in the story of the man. Even though there is a raw power, the film doesn't seem to focus on anyone in the film, there's a multitude of characters and no real focus on any of them, despite the whole film being based on Solomon Northup's memoirs.
The abundance of famous and familiar faces used in the film, from Benedict Cumberbatch to Brad Pitt, takes away from the 'realness' of the story. If you combine this with the number of characters, it seems to add an unnecessary complexity to the already emotionally troubling film. This makes it all the more difficult to understand and fully engage with the message to the audience, one of sheer honesty from Steve McQueen, the film's director. His style promotes honesty as he doesn't seem to lead the viewers to side with any of the characters portrayed, he leaves it completely up to them in his delivery of the story. There is a sense of trust left with the audience for them to be intelligent enough to understand the small expressions and actions as well as the speech, shown in the many close-up shots of the actors and actresses, rather than relying on being spoon-fed the plot line and morals they are meant to be taking away from it.
Therefore, despite the complete 'realness' and authenticity of the film, there is a sense of unnecessary complexity to it that confuses audiences which leaves half of them emotionally distraught and the others completely unaffected - choosing to prefer the typical Hollywood portrayal over the informative, real one.