Last night I saw 12 Years A Slave (based on the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup). While I think the film is both significant (as it takes on the rare task of telling a story about American slavery, circa 1841-1852, from a slave’s perspective), and moving (as it grabs any human with a morsel of empathy by the throat through its detailed imagining of the daily suffering of American slaves), I don’t think it is a great movie, for two reasons:

(1) All of the slaves in the film, even those who were never educated, speak with a poetic prose that is almost Shakespearian.

Thus, while the barbaric reality of their situation drew my imagination into their painful past, their fantastical linguistic prowess pulled me back out. It seemed to me that the screenwriter (John Ridley) and director (Steve McQueen) wanted to convince us that, even though the slaves were uneducated and could not read or write, they were still intelligent beings. Of course they were, but surely the writer can illustrate intelligence by other means (perhaps by the clever use of tools, and/or ideas, and/or an ability to manipulate situations and/or people). It seems to me that the writer and director do not think that their audience is smart enough to recognize subtler symptoms of active minds.

(2) The story—as seems to be the convention of any movie that wants to be seen as sophisticated these days—is told out of order.

12 Years a Slave begins by taking us to one of the Solomon Northup’s most painful moments as a slave, before flashing back to his origins as a free man, where we watch him for a few fleeting scenes. Then, our protagonist’s tale jumps between various spots in the narrative until finally resting in the main arena of the story. Why do modern directors fear the linear so much? The convention of bounce-around storytelling has become so prevalent that even the superhero movie Man of Steel (2013) thought it was important to go for a mixed timeline. I understand that sometimes non-linear sequencing can benefit the drama if:

(A) Telling the story out of order allows different perspectives to be presented one at a time. This way, the audience is learning about new characters, or pieces of the puzzle, as the significance of the events grows, as in Vantage Point (2008), or, most impressively, in The Debt (2010). In the latter case, the story gives us a look at future events that will later turn out to not be as they seem, and so when the back story reveals the secret, the future plot and and the past plot collide beautifully. 12 Years a Slave, however, does not unravel puzzle pieces of the tale in this fashion; instead, we know most of the story in the first few scenes.

(B) Instead of one long narrative, the movie presents a collage of tales. As a result, such a film is sometimes divided into several narrative strands that overlap in time, and so technically happen out of order; however, each tale has its own linear coherence that is not significantly altered by the slight knowledge of the future given by the other stories (for instance, Pulp Fiction (1994)). However, 12 Years a Slave focusses on one character throughout, and thus does not reap the benefits of such collage-based storytelling.

(C) In special cases of character development, having the protagonist initially seen without their background context is later supplemented by flashbacks that enhance our understanding of them. This device allows us to realize that there is more to them, and perhaps humanity in general, than we realized (for instance, American History X (1998) and the TV series Lost (2004-2010)). The creators of 12 Years a Slave could have opted for this option and done it effectively had they begun with the protagonist as a slave and then inserted flashbacks that gradually revealed he was not always one. Alas, they did not.

(D) The story is told from a future perspective such that we know the final result but are spared the details until they occur. I think this device is particularly effective in cases where the outcome is common knowledge, so the circumstances of how it happens is more interesting than the ending, such as stories about a famous historical event or figure, for instance, Titanic (1997) and Amadeus (1984). 12 Years a Slave could have used this option, as the title already implies the conclusion of the film, but, instead of telling us the entire story from a future perspective, the film merely mixes our hero’s past events into one murky stew.

(E) The movie is actually about time travel, so an out-of-order sequence is part of the narrative, for instance, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and Back to the Future (1985).

Despite the successful offerings above, movies that effectively tell stories out of order are relatively rare, in my opinion. In most cases, the trick of giving away future events damages the drama because it diminishes the film’s ability to provoke curiosity and fear about what’s to come.

In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the story begins with Solomon Northup already living in one of his most hostile southern environments during his time as a slave. The movie then slides backwards to his time in the north as a prosperous free man; his kidnapping, then, is not nearly as scary to us as it should have been because we already know how bad it will get.

Moreover, even the kidnapping is not told in order, and so instead of luring us into the protagonist’s happy past at first, before shocking us with a moment-by-moment depiction of what went wrong, we are knocked back and forth between his future and his past such that we never settle into the joy of his initial happiness. The horror of his change in circumstances, therefore, is not nearly as well articulated as if it were simply told to us in order.

Furthermore, the downward trajectory of Northup’s life as a freeman-turned-slave—while rendered with brutal and effective detail—is again not as powerful as it could be because we know, from the original flash ahead, how bad it will get.

I think I understand why directors believe in this pinball-style story telling: along with wanting to capitalize on the strange perception that all smart stories are non-linear, they believe

(A) that the audience needs to be constantly shown the contrast between the good times and the bad times, or the thematic relationship between past and present, by putting them side by side, so that we can fully empathize with the distinction, and

(B) that flashbacks to past events during the action will remind us of where the character has been such that we will appreciate their current motives.

If I’m right about any of these director and writer motivations, I think movie makers need to have more faith in both their stories and their audiences. A worthwhile and well-articulated story doesn’t need to remind the audience of the significance of current events (in contrast with the past) as we will have been on the journey with the protagonist, and so will feel the significance of the change instinctively; moreover, if the the characters are drawn well, we will understand their motivations without needing the director to constantly point at them for us as though we’re primary school children.

In short, I implore directors and writers to trust their stories instead of leaning on this condescending and over-used gimmick.

8 thoughts on “MOVIES: OUT OF ORDER”

  1. Dear Seth,

    I agree with you that writers and directors often impose a conception of narrative time that is too convoluted for the film’s own good. The good ol’ backstory that is clearly delineated in occasional flashbacks at important moments, as well as the introduction featuring a narrator set in the distant future, seem to be dying in favour of more complex time-travelling structures that do not usually suit the story.

    Nevertheless, I disagree with your first point that the language of the characters who have been slaves all their lives is too sophisticated in this movie. While I agree that they would not likely have spoken in that way in reality, I think that:

    (a) The dialogue corresponds to Solomon Northup’s own writing style in the book, 12 Years a Slave (1853), on which this film is based. Since the story is entirely from his own perspective, it makes sense that he would influence the way his characters spoke. Perhaps the filmmakers perceived some characters as mouthpieces to express his own sentiments on the cruelty of slavery;

    (b) There were indeed distinctions in the way different characters spoke in the movie:

    I – Northern freemen who had been captured and sold into slavery later in life, as well as northern whites and southern whites who were against slavery (or at least were kind to the slaves), spoke in an eloquent, flowery, sometimes poetic, and overall, very noble, manner.

    II – Southern slaves who had been in bondage all their lives were slightly less articulate and formal (in acknowledgement of the fact that they were uneducated), yet still poetic. While less sophisticated, their speeches were often more impassioned and rich in imagery, making their expression at least equal and I think more compelling than that of the educated individuals in Category I.

    III – Perhaps most interestingly, southern whites who were cruel to the slaves, regardless of whether they were well-educated masters and mistresses, or the most lowly foremen or slave traders, had simple, crude, inarticulate language, with fewer speeches (they also had the thickest Southern accents).

    This device of delineating the level of virtue in characters by the quality of their speech is not new. Shakespeare did it. I had an English professor who told us that Milton used this device in Paradise Lost by making the devil inarticulate in comparison to God. Moreover, in opera, composers often use musical markers to label characters as virtuous, evil, or something in between. I like the idea of elevating the speech of the victims of this dark historical period. Giving them an idealized, eloquent voice that in reality they likely did not possess makes the film resemble an old-fashioned stage play or epic poem: not realistic, but stylized in expression. I am fine with movies foregoing realism for a good reason, and this was a good reason.

  2. Thanks Natalie. I agree with your approval of my annoyance with “time-travelling” story lines (in movies that don’t involve time travel).

    Meanwhile, unfortunately, I cannot support your disagreement with my criticism of the erudite language used by the uneducated slaves in the movie. I don’t dispute your comparisons with Shakespeare. Instead – at the risk of losing my creative licence by impugning the greatness of convention’s favourite all-time writer, whose every linguistic of maneuver is seen as proof of “writeousness” for any author attempting do something similar – I must admit that I have long thought that Shakespeare’s lack of distinction in his characters’ speech (they all sound the same to me) damages the realism of his dramas. I have resisted pointing out this complaint because (A) I am not a Shakespeare scholar, and it seems risky for a novice-Bard-watcher to go after the world’s top-ranked writer, and (B) I assumed that the literary period in which he was writing (where I surmised realism of dialogue was generally not valued) was as much to blame as he. But, since you bring him up as evidence for the worthiness of allowing characters to speak as eloquently as their innate nobility instead of their realistic capabilities, I will be consistent and admit that I think this is a bad habit of Shakespeare’s, too. Now, strike me down, English professors, if you must!

    I hadn’t realized that Shakespeare gave virtuous characters higher levels of diction than the vice-riddled (again, they all sound the same to me), but, if he did, then, to my mind, Ridley has copied a problematic anti-realist style of dialogue that hurts his film. Whenever I see a play by Shakespeare, I’m engaged by his ideas, but I am never lured into his stories. In contrast, modern movies have the power to take us to prior realities so that we can imagine and understand them in ways that we might not have been able to before. By copying Shakespeare’s anti-realist, virtue-based dialogue in 12 Years a Slave, Ridley is both condescending to his audience (do we really need to be told by such artificial means who is good and bad?), and disruptive to the story he’s telling: most people are already aware going in that slavery is bad; we’re not attending to be taught this indisputable lesson; instead, we are looking to gain a better understanding of how it happened and what the experience might have been.

    I can see a benefit to using Northup’s compassionate, ideal voice to represent the slaves, but to do this, why not have his character narrate what he saw in the minds of his brethren? This would have achieved the same noble purpose without yanking us out of the reality of the story.

  3. Seth,

    I am sorry, this is embarrassing for you. I’ve made the decision to block all comments on my parasite blog (which I have generously allowed you to house on your blog, so as to enable me to express my valuable insights on a variety of subjects without having to trouble myself with setting up my own blog). You see, your responses have always been unnecessary and even detrimental; since my opinion is superior, the comments become an embarrassment to the posters such as yourself. Unfortunately, I have been experiencing technical difficulties. I apologize that the changes have not gone through yet and that you have exposed yourself like this. To compensate for what is clearly my mistake, let me offer you a free subscription to my parasite blog for one year. Best wishes, and remember that the time will come when you won’t be despairing at your ignorance but rather laughing at that silly comment you made one day.


    Natalie Anderson

  4. Dear Natalie:

    Thank you for this fair warning that you will soon be protecting me from attempting to respond to your thoughts on my thoughts. I am honoured that you have chosen to use my blog as the home of your parasite blog, and so I really ought to have been more careful, anyway.

    Seth Blogs

  5. Dear Sethblogs,

    Having recently finished reading 12 Years a Slave in full, I wish to modify my previous comments about language, in particular, that the filmmakers were justified in writing florid and poetic dialogue for the slaves in the film because of Northup’s own eloquent writing style. While I still agree with myself in part that there remains some basis for having the slaves speak in such a manner (as it enabled the slave characters to vividly express the barbarism of their lot in life such that the Solomon character didn’t have to say everything), I now think that it was unnecessary to do so, since Northup himself provides many samples of slave dialogue in his memoir, perhaps not enough to piece together for a full script, but certainly enough to provide a creative basis of a script and thereby give individuality to each character. In so doing, the screenwriters would have not only constructed a more accurate fictional portrayal of what we know of slave culture in general, but also captured Solomon’s impressions of what their speech was like.

  6. Thank you, Natalie. I fully agree with your partial disagreement with your former defence of the poetic dialogue forced into this movie. It seems that Northup was a master story teller who could have been called in to service this script by having him play the narrator. He could then have kept the script both from getting out of order (with unnecessary flash arounds of temporal perspectives), and he could have articulated the intelligence of his fellow slaves without condescendingly elevating their language.

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