12 Years a Slave is one of those must-see films that you’re glad you’ve seen, even though you can’t say you enjoyed it. It simply isn’t that kind of film. Like Schindler’s List (1993), it’s an important film historically, but it’s difficult to watch, as characters are torn from their families, forced to work at hard labor, and savagely whipped — backs torn open, bleeding profusely. In one agonizingly slow scene a man hangs by the neck for what appears to be several hours as others go about their business in the background. His toes are barely able to reach the mud beneath his feet and he shuffles awkwardly as he struggles to keep his neck above choking. The scene is unbearably long and utterly silent except for the soft buzzing of insects and the mutter of unconcerned conversation in the background as he slowly dances in a circle.
Yet, for all that, this is an exquisitely beautiful film. The camera work by Sean Bobbitt often focuses tightly on unexpected closeups — the backlit hands of a store clerk wrapping a package, or a caterpillar munching on a sunlit leaf. These artistic touches are typical of Steve McQueen’s directorial style, and they provide a vivid contrast to the dark theme of slavery in this film.
In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a cultured, educated free black man living with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children in Sarasota, New York, when he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by treacherous men masquerading as his friends. Bewildered and frightened, he is whipped into submission and then sold from farm to farm into increasingly harsher conditions. He quickly learns to hide his literacy and his background as a freeman in order to survive, as it is impossible for him to contact friends and family in the north, and masters feel suspicious of and threatened by slaves who can read and write.
This film chronicles the 12 years that Northup spent as a slave. It is horrifying because he was a freeman kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, but the plight of the other slaves is no less horrifying. In fact, all slaves are kidnapped in one way or another — either directly, or by birth into slavery. It is horrifying because slavery was practiced by otherwise liberty-minded American colonists who somehow found a way to justify their “peculiar institution,” often by reading from the Bible. And it is horrifying because it was legal. As abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) says to a southerner who defends his legal right to own Northup, “Law don’t make it right. What if they passed a law making it legal to buy and sell you?”
Another horrifying aspect of this story of a free man sold into captivity is that it still happens today. So many young men today are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many of them are beaten or terrorized in the interrogation room until they are so frightened and confused that they confess to crimes they did not commit, just as Northup is beaten into a confused stupor in this film when he claims to be freeborn. They languish in prison for 20 years or more, unable even to apply for parole because the parole board requires a declaration of remorse for one’s crime — and how can a man express remorse for a crime he did not commit? I teach in the college program at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison, and while most of the men are indeed guilty of their crimes, several do not belong there. Tears water their pillows at night, just as Northup’s tears water his pillow in the film, because their lives are destroyed by false arrest, false witness, and false judgment. There is a rush to put them away with the justification that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he must be guilty of something.” Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”
Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”
Films are like myths. They often reveal the values, beliefs, and fears of a culture. A few seasons back we saw multiple films about reluctant superheroes alienated from the society they have sworn to protect and weary of their isolating roles. This has been a season of films about the struggle to survive in an unfamiliar environment — an astronaut stranded in space (Gravity), a ship’s captain kidnapped at sea (Captain Phillips), a socialite demoted to her sister’s tiny apartment (Blue Jasmine), and an “everyman” stranded in the ocean (All is Lost), to name just a few. In many ways these films reflect the concerns of our current culture as we struggle to survive in what is an increasingly hostile and estranged America, where instead of being appreciated, individual people (including some of the most successful producers) are beaten down and denigrated.
Although 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, it is impossible to know what is factually true, and what is substantially true. Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.
It also does not make sense that all the black characters in the film have perfect diction and lofty vocabulary — so lofty that Lupita Nyong’o sometimes stumbles over the uncomfortable sentence patterns. Yes, Northup was highly educated, and many other blacks were educated too. But not in Louisiana. And not field slaves. It would have been more realistic to have written a script that was truer to the vernacular used by slaves in the mid-19th century. But I suppose that would have given rise to accusations of stereotyping.
In his recent article for the Atlantic Noah Berlatsky quotes UNC professor William Andrews’ view in To Tell a Free Story (1988): Solomon Northup’s story was actually written by his attorney, David Wilson. Andrews argued that most, if not all, slave narratives were merely dictated to white writers, who “cleaned up” the diction and made the works presentable in style and language for white audiences. However, Berlatsky would have been wise to read a more recent commentary on slave narratives. Later scholarship presents compelling evidence that many of them were indeed written by the former slaves themselves.
I studied slave narratives as the focus of my masters thesis, “To Tell a True Story” (1993), in which I discuss the purpose, themes, and genres of slave narratives as well as their truthfulness and the difficulty of claiming the authors’ own voices. All these narratives were framed by authenticating documents written by reputable white people who lent a stamp of credibility to the narrators. Of course, many of these supporters were abolitionists with a cause, so for more than a century it was whispered that these white benefactors did the actual writing. “How could an illiterate slave write something as elegant as this?” critics asked. Evidence is rising that the narrators did indeed read — and write. They learned to write well by reading good books and learning from the patterns they found there. But we can never know for sure who put pen to paper, the teller or the auditor. The important thing is that the stories have been told.
12 Years a Slave is a profound film that tells a profound story. It is difficult to watch, not only because of its intense emotion and brutality but because of the guilt it engenders in those who are not black, simply because they are white. Right or wrong, we tend to identify with those of our own race, and it is difficult to identify with character after character who has not a single redeeming quality until Brad Pitt finally appears on the screen as a reasonable white abolitionist. But Schindler’s List was difficult to watch too, for many of the same reasons. Both are brutal, both use nudity to demonstrate the humiliation of their characters, and both are overwhelmingly respectful of their subjects. Both are films you ought to see.