Not for entertainment: 12 Years a Slave's no laughing matter

Stephen Fry's comments at the Baftas were nothing compared to the insensitive crunching of popcorn at the cinema


At the very moment that Steve McQueen was receiving his Bafta for best picture, I was in a nearby cinema watching the movie that has elevated the former Turner Prize winner to the pantheon of film. I am not gainsaying that 12 Years A Slave is a work of formidable cinemacraft, which leaves a powerful imprint on the psyche of the watcher, but I can understand why Stephen Fry made the joke he did, and why it sounded more than a little off key.

In his prologue to the Baftas, Fry said that the film was so good that he hoped it would be '24 Years A Slave', a comment which is borderline distasteful, and which, predictably, drew some criticism on Twitter. Fry apologised in characteristically expansive style. “I crawl humbly in the face of your disapproval,” he tweeted. “Would you like me to kill myself?” he added, a rather misjudged throwaway remark, if you ask me, for someone who famously said he contemplated suicide, and is not the most thick-skinned animal himself.

Anyway, Fry exposed an interesting issue which relates to this film, and to others of its type. Make a light-hearted comment about the movie, and you are seen to be trivialising its highly sensitive subject matter. Hold on. Was Fry actually saying that he wished the horrors of slavery had lasted longer? Of course not. And who would be brave enough, for instance, to make a joke about the movie Schindler's List? Stand back and wait for the accusations of Holocaust denial. We live in a climate when everyone is queueing up to claim offence, and where there is very little room for nuance or irony, leave alone the remark that flirts with what's acceptable or not.

But if we have to treat films like this differently, as more than just a piece of entertainment, then perhaps cinemas must play their part. Maybe forbid selling popcorn, for instance. I don't think that's too much to ask, and it's time, in any case, that cinemas exercised a little self-control in portion sizes. (In Vue venues, it's even impossible to buy a regular-sized bottle of water.) The  person in front of me was behaving as if he was watching the latest Jennifer Aniston rom-com, slurping Coke from a cup the size of a water butt, and eating popcorn throughout. Occasionally, it was hard to distinguish between the crack of slave-master's whip and the crunch of the popcorn from the row in front. I just don't understand how it's possible to sit there eating and drinking while watching scenes of unspeakable inhumanity: that, surely, is an individual act of insensitivity much more heinous than Fry's.

It is hard to imagine that 12 Years A Slave won't do well in the forthcoming Oscars. It has great performances – particularly, I'd say, from Michael Fassbender – and is indisputably A Very Important Film. Whatever it is, it's not really a piece of entertainment, to be consumed with either sugar or salt. And, as Stephen Fry found out, it's no laughing matter. In fact, I found it so hard to watch in parts that I'd turn Fry's sobriquet on its head: I wished it had been 'Six Years A Slave'.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions