It often happens that I only see important films long after their first release. Usually this is because of some economic constraint– being generally broke, I have to pick my movies carefully.
In the case of 12 Years A Slave, however, my delay was because I knew the story would hit me hard–
And I was right. This would be a hard movie to watch if you were Russian or Chinese or Bengali. It is harder to watch as an American; it is harder yet to watch as a white American; it is harder yet again to watch as a Southern white American; and it is even harder to watch the movie as a Southern white American who came out of a natal culture in which racism was an acceptable way of viewing the world. I grew up among people who, to put it bluntly, thought George Wallace in the 1960’s was simply doing God’s work.
It’s safe to say I bring a lot of baggage to this film.
***Mild spoilers below***
The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York State, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. As the title indicates, it took him twelve years to regain his freedom, and during that time he gained an intimate understanding of the institution of slavery, as it played out in the lives of ordinary people, both white and black. In 1853 Northup was able to get a message out to his family and acquaintances in New York. He was liberated, and then wrote his memoir with the help of a white Northern editor.
The film is not 100% accurate to Northup’s memoir– a conversation or two are invented, and a few pieces of the story have been changed. On the whole, though, it is faithful to the spirit of the memoir, which is a hair-raising depiction of the dehumanizing horror of slavery, from the inside. There really hasn’t been a film like this before, on this subject. Roots and such-like treatments pale to near-invisibility by comparison.
The film itself is superbly put together, and well-deserved its three Oscars. The cast out-does itself– Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as the erratic and cruel Edwin Epps, Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup’s first, comparatively humane master, and Lupita Nyong’o, now famous as Patsey. Cameo appearances abound, including Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard. I don’t think there’s a false performance in the whole ensemble. The script, by John Ridley, captures the cadence and tone of the speech of the period, no mean feat.
For me, however, the power of the film is how it takes us into a world we can hardly imagine nowadays– the life of a slave in the antebellum South. Depictions of slavery in film have all-too-often been sugar-coated pieces of Confederate propaganda, and even when they were not, they have rarely penetrated to the depths of what American chattel slavery really meant.
12 Years A Slave, by contrast, does not blink. From the moment Northup wakes up in chains, after having been drugged and kidnapped, we are shoved into a universe in which normal human relationships are twisted out of all recognition by the supposition that some men are property and some are owners. In this world slaves are sometimes not even cattle– they are objects which may be destroyed at will. It’s a descent into some abattoir of human spirit and worth.
It feels, in fact, Orwellian, in that it seems to posit the same soul-crushing hopelessness, the same sense of being obliterated beneath an all-powerful authoritarianism. The movie goes to great lengths to prove this feeling is legitimate. The slave regime of the South before the Civil War was, quite simply, a system of tyranny, carefully designed (in a bitter irony, by people who thundered their love for liberty) to maintain control of the slave population, and to deny it any role other than that of un-recompensed laborer. It was illegal in most or all Southern states to teach a slave to read; slaves needed passes to move about beyond certain areas; and, for the most part, slaves had no appeal against cruel treatment. Aside from the law, there was the willingness of the white majority to engage in vicious vigilante reprisals against even rumored insurrection or disobedience. The movie shows all of this– whippings, rape, the inability of Northup to protect his friend Patsey from Epps’ violence, the slave patrol on the road casually executing runaways, the secrecy which the slaves were forced to adopt to protect themselves from Big Brother in the plantation house. Punishment and terror are routinely meted out to slaves as means of keeping them in line.
It also painfully outlines the extent to which slavery ensnared white as well as black. Even the relatively decent Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) cannot keep Northup safe, and must yield to the necessity of debt when dealing with his slaves. For other whites, the absolute nature of the power they have over slaves corrupts them, from Giamatti’s heartless slave-dealing to Epps’ rape of Patsey. Because of their corruption, the whites often live in delusion, blaming the slaves for their own failures, or even the vagaries of nature. Mary Epps blames Patsey for her husband’s ‘attentions’ to her, and visits cruelty on Patsey in retaliation. Epps feels at liberty to impose terror on a whim, and another white overseer retaliates against Northup when Northup shows himself to be smarter than the overseer.
There is, thankfully, little or no trace in the film of the Confederate lie that slaves were content with their lot. This is tyranny, plain and simple, of the same species as the Nazis or the Soviets, only with a different focus. And none of the slaves in that focus are signing up for extra helpings of servitude.
This was a hard film to watch, but I am immensely glad I did. It’s a powerful indictment of America’s original sin, which still reverberates in the racism that justified slavery and which still taints us as a nation. This is, sadly, about as American a film as you can find anywhere. And we need to own that history and that truth, so we can do better.
I highly recommend it.