Rob Edelman: Violence and "Entertainment"

May 12, 2014

One of the "criticisms," if you will, of the Oscar-winning 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the manner in which the physical abuse of slaves is presented onscreen. In 12 YEARS A SLAVE, the brutality is graphic and in-your-face, which is the style of its director, Steve McQueen. And the question that viewers might have after seeing 12 YEARS A SLAVE is: To emphasize the horror and degradation of slavery, is it necessary to include imagery that is so painful to watch?

My take is that, given the solemn nature of the subject matter in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, such portrayals are justified. Granted, they may be difficult to sit through, but that precisely is the point. At a time when Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who has won headlines by observing that African-Americans in the year 2014 might be better off as slaves, a film like 12 YEARS A SLAVE takes on extra-special resonance. 12 YEARS A SLAVE may not be a documentary but its central character, Solomon Northrup, was a real person. His kidnapping and the years he wasted away in slavery did happen, and the film's portrayal of the treatment of slaves in American history is no overstatement. Indeed, 12 YEARS A SLAVE serves as a powerful reality check for the Cliven Bundys of the world.

Unfortunately, however, not all contemporary films that feature violent imagery do so for constructive purposes. Such films are not made to inform viewers in any way, or make them aware of history, or jar them by acknowledging that there is, indeed, evil in the world. Too often, these films exist merely as diversion and, if you do the math, you will see that, for every 12 YEARS A SLAVE, there are dozens of contemporary films which highlight violence that is explicit-- and pointless.

On occasion, however, some films do allegedly offer points-of-view about violence. But as they do so, they are outrageously hypocritical. Take, for example, THE FROZEN GROUND, a repugnant (albeit fact-based) thriller that came to theaters last year.

Nicolas Cage stars as an Alaska state trooper who is convinced that a seemingly average family man, played by John Cusack, actually is a serial kidnapper and killer of young women. On one level, THE FROZEN GROUND seems to be condemning individuals who resort to violence against women, but the film oozes falseness as it drowns in the very same explicit depictions of aggression against women that it supposedly is censuring.

Then there is the equally distasteful REPENTANCE, which was released earlier this year. Here, Anthony Mackie plays a self-help guru and author who, to his regret, comes to the assistance of a disturbed man, played by Forest Whitaker, who is mourning the death of his mother. REPENTANCE is yet another coarsely violent thriller featuring a psychologically unhinged character who is driven to do horrible things to others. And aren't we lucky: We get to see all his violent acts, in in-your-face detail.

Additionally, the "victim" in REPENTANCE is no innocent who lucklessly crosses paths with a psychopath. In this regard, REPENTANCE puts forth the notion that even the most well-intentioned individuals among us really are charlatans whose pasts are littered with lies and hypocrisy.

Is this "entertainment"? Or is this the worst kind of cynicism?

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.