12 Years a Slave directed by Steve McQueen. Length: 134 minutes. Premiere: October 18, 2013.
When 12 Years a Slave begins, a group of slaves stare at you while a voice from the audience’s perspective calls them “fresh niggers.” This opening scene, framed by sugar cane and an ugly epithet, introduces the film’s honest portrait of slavery. It also reveals how director Steve McQueen intensifies Solomon Northup’s classic slave narrative to expose slavery’s past and present. Historians who hunt for inaccuracies in McQueen’s interpretation may miss the timeless issues that he explores. This film is not a period piece that celebrates how far society has progressed in 150 years. Instead, 12 Years a Slave tells a story to deepen our understanding of past problems and heighten our awareness of current ones.
Solomon Northup’s tale can captivate audiences like few other slave narratives. Northup, a free black man in New York State, had a happy family and a good life until kidnappers sold him into bondage in Washington D.C. After suffering for twelve years on Louisiana plantations, he regained his freedom through the intercession of kind strangers, influential friends, and the law. Northup’s perspective as a free man in chains made his account of slavery compelling when it first appeared in 1853. Readers, and now filmgoers, discover the dark realities of slavery along with Northup. We experience his brutal submission, his dwindling options, and his competing desires to resist and survive. Because Northup was taken from comfort and thrown into an underworld of subservience, his story forces us to consider how our privileged lives rely on the suffering of millions today.
Beneath the graphic brutality of 12 Years a Slave is a sophisticated meditation on slavery that explores how selfishness and fear ensnared blacks and whites, men and women, within a system of oppression. A scene that illustrates this insight occurs on the Ford plantation, when a white carpenter and two accomplices try to lynch Northup for resisting an unjustified beating. The overseer rescues Northup, because the white men have no right to destroy Master Ford’s property. But when the overseer sends for Ford, he leaves Northup hanging by the neck with his feet seeking a tenuous hold on muddy ground. The gruesome limbo that Northup endures for hours grabs our attention at first, but then we notice the background where children play, slaves work, Ford’s wife catches a breeze on the balcony, and the overseer paces across the porch. With the exception of one slave woman who silently brings Northup water, no one does anything to alleviate his pain. Most people do not acknowledge it. The scene could suggest that such violence was too common to attract notice, but the filmmakers show us how fear and self-interest shaped everyone’s actions. The carpenter, accomplices, overseer, mistress, and master resorted to violence, or permitted it, when force asserted their power and self-interest. Northup’s resistance to punishment presented a dangerous spectacle in a place where slaves vastly outnumbered whites. Fears of insurrection spawned fragile positions between brutality and leniency like the harrowing balancing act that Northup endured. The slaves cannot help Northup without challenging white power, so all but one of them ignore the situation. To intervene would court violence. Ford arrives, cuts Northup loose, places him in the big house foyer, and grabs a gun. He fears that the carpenter and perhaps a posse of lower class whites are lurking in the shadows, waiting for a chance to punish Northup, and maybe Ford too, for jeopardizing racial order. At this moment Northup tells Ford that he is a free man. Ford replies that he cannot hear this now, because he has debts to pay. Instead of helping Northup, Ford sells him to a cruel master, Edwin Epps. Self-interest and fear prevail.
12 Years a Slave presents a faithful interpretation of Northup’s narrative; however, its accuracy prevents the film from offering a comprehensive view of slavery, because Northup did not experience or recount critical aspects of the institution. His work never explains how the racist, apathetic North permitted slavery and benefited from it for generations. As a result, the film gives the impression that most northerners practiced and preached racial equality. The film’s simplistic portrayal of Bass, a white Canadian who helps Northup escape slavery, compounds the notion that moral attitudes followed latitudes. More important, Northup did not appreciate the strength of the slave community and, thus, the film does not either. We learn very little about African American culture, religion, and other subtle forms of resistance. Northup chose survival instead of assimilation or resistance. However, two slave women in the narrative and film prefer resistance to assimilation and survival. Eliza refuses to forget her children, separated from her forever by the slave market. She mourns them constantly and vocally. Patsey prefers death to slavery and asks Northup to drown her. Survival has no appeal to her when the future looks so bleak. Eliza’s mourning causes the master to sell her. Patsey’s defiance earns her a ruthless whipping. Both women are raped. Instead of presenting Eliza and Patsey as members of a slave community, the narrative and film cast them as deviant victims.
All told, 12 Years a Slave takes us inside the slave ship, market, and cabin, while keeping us in our place. From the opening scene to the last, we do not share the slaves’ fate. We can empathize and remember the slaves, but we cannot free them or be them. Solomon Northup must have felt the same way. When rescuers carry him away from bondage, Northup glances back at his bewildered friends, the doomed slaves, but looks forward to his family and home.
Jason Phillips is the Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University.