“12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained,” and that time Spike Lee was totally right

12 Years a Slave, the new film by Hunger and Shame auteur Steve McQueen, is one of those films whose arrival dominates the critical conversation. The film, based on the memoirs of escaped slave Solomon Northrup, is being praised for its artistic as well as its revelatory qualities. Paul MacInnes of The Guardian calls it “not just a great film but a necessary one.” All reviewers talk about the brutality of slavery depicted in the film, because brutality is a necessary component in a film purporting to depict the realities of American slavery.

Many, like Richard Roeper, make the comparison to last year’s Django Unchained. The comparison keeps popping up, despite the fact that 12 Years and Django have relatively little in common. 12 Years is, in the words of MacInnes a “stark, visceral and unrelenting” biopic of a man enduring hellish torment. Django is a Leone-inspired Western, at times bloody but cartoonish. To the degree there’s any relationship at all between the two, 12 Yearsis a necessary corrective to the antics of Django Unchained.” The consensus is that 12 Years is brutal and unforgiving, whereas Django shares only the motif of slavery. 12 Years shows us that Django didn’t come close to illuminating the realities of the time. What I’m wondering is, when do we acknowledge that Spike Lee was totally right about Django, and the legions of people who criticized him were wrong? Continue reading