While it looks like 12 Years A Slave is poised to become one of the clear frontrunners in the Oscars race, garnering overwhelmingly reviews throughout, the project is not immune to criticism. Since we're dealing with a movie that tackles the daunting subject of slavery, one could expect that the beef the critics have is related to the way McQueen approached the subject; however, in this case the repeated accusation levied against the flick is... that it's too beautiful.
Although most critics can't stop heaping praise on 12 Years a Slave, those who do not consider it a masterpiece strangely seem to object to a particularly curious quality of the movie: the fact that it has gorgeous cinematography, which they do not deem appropriate for the darkness surrounding the cruel institution of Southern slavery. Stephanie Zacharek, who writes at The Village Voice, wrote the following in her review:
McQueen, who is also a video artist, has a superb sense of composition, and he always knows just how and where the light should hit. In an early scene in '12 Years a Slave,' Solomon, after being deceived and drugged, wakes up in chains, locked in some dungeon-like room. Contrasted with the inky blackness around him, the billowy white shirt he's wearing practically sizzles; small parcels of light glint off his iron chains, giving off a matte, dull glow. It's an image of great visual beauty. And it looks like art direction.
R. Kurt Osenlund (contributor at IndieWire) said:
The trouble with the movie is McQueen is such a self-consciously artsy director that he lets his formal approach obstruct the message he’s trying to send.
And Donald Levit, from Reel Talk, also echoed this idea:
The cinematography itself is over-prettified and distracting.
Facing this (admittedly light and somewhat complimentary) criticism, McQueen himself responded to it in a promotional Fox Searchlight luncheon and Q&A. The British-born 44-year-old director affirmed:
These plantations are quite astoundingly beautiful. And then you realize the most horrific things happen in the most beautiful places. It is quite odd in a way. But at the same time it's life. I'm not making a horror film. I'm not thinking to tell Sean Bobbitt [the cinematographer] to put a dark lens of everything. I can't put my filter onto this reality.
I have to in some ways show the perversity in life. This is how it is. One has to show that as it is. I have to embrace the horror of it, just as much as the beauty of things.
What do you think? Is it insensitive to portray a movie about slaves with gorgeous cinematography? Or is it a pretty vapid assessment made by film critics who always have to find something negative in even the most well-made movies? Get bantering below, cinephiles.