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'.

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