Stunning performances without the story to make them relevant, 12 Days a Slave assaults the viewer with one despicable depiction of slavery after another. Best Picture? Perhaps. Best story? No, that honor belongs to another film.
“Look how horrible things were” is fine subject matter, but an argument needs to be built on top of that for it to be worthwhile. A complete arugment. Shock value pales in comparison to a complete and well-rounded story.
Main Character Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to live, he doesn’t want to survive. Influence Character Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) survives no matter what the cost. The two meet and butt heads…but that’s it. Influence Characters exist in a story to challenge the Main Character’s approach or way of seeing the world, and Patsey does this strongly. But the Influence Character must also develop a relationship with the Main Character for the story to feel complete.
When making an argument, balance rules the day. The Main Character finds equity in the Influence Character and the Overall Story—the story everyone is involved with—finds balance within the Relationship Story, or Relationship Story Throughline. The former pair describes conflict at a micro-individual level, the latter at a macro-collective level. Without this Relationship Story throughline a story falters.
12 Years a Slave suffers from this oversight.
Whether developing or dissolving, a relationship must exist between the Main and Influence Character.1 This throughline provides the emotional counter-balance to the more logistical argument being carried out within the Overall Story. 12 Years a Slave excels when it comes to shackling, beating and stringing up innocent men but it fails when it comes to considering the emotional conflict between two people. They satisfy what the story wants, but don’t provide the emotional fulfillment a story needs. The breakdown that leads to him joining in song carries great power, yet this moment could have been even greater had it some connection to the back-and-forth between Solomon and Patsey.
12 Years a Slave tells the Tale of Solomon’s journey from free man to slave and back again.2 It tries to argue the tragedy that befalls when man gives up his pride in order to survive, but fails to complete that argument. Without exploring the conflict that occurs within the scope of a relationship, the story feels one-sided and unbalanced. As a result, the film leaves Audience members shocked—but not quite knowing why. A voyeuristic spectacle of man’s violence against humanity, 12 Years a Slave remains a constant reminder of the importance of story to give meaning to life’s events.
Stories need a Relationship Story in order to feel complete. Without it the Author’s attempt at saying something will feel very one-sided and dispassionate. ↩︎