Coming out of the theater I heard a man say, “I hate history.” Now he could have been lamenting the prospect of attending a history class the next day, but I suspect he was responding to the violence in the film we just saw, a remarkably good movie about slavery in the U.S. south. No matter how worthy the film 12 Years a Slave isn’t the definitive movie about U.S. slavery, a subject people who don’t really know what they’re talking about think has been absent from U.S. culture (Roots, Amistad, Beloved, Nightjohn, even the schlocky Mandingo have already treaded these waters). But let’s not mistake precedence for worth. This is a movie well worth watching, but too many are mistaking 12 Years a Slave as the first, as U.S. slavery’s Schindler’s List, as though Schindler’s List was the first and only movie about the Holocaust.
But 12 Years a Slave isn’t as harrowing as Schindler’s List – nor is it as traumatic as so many are billing it. Whereas Schindler’s List chronicled the horrors of Nazi death camps and traumatized audiences, 12 Years a Slave is a more discreet journey through the horrors of slavery marked by an emotional objectivity Spielberg is probably incapable of. So let’s place this movie in its rightful place: a personal testimony of one man’s experience of slavery, an institution that dwarfs the horrors of the Holocaust. The Nazis perpetuated the Holocaust over a relatively short period of time, but U.S. slavery extended over centuries. It evolved and adapted over time and to the demands of specific regions. It was even practiced in the supposedly slave-free North; something like 20% of New York City’s population was a slave of African descent around 1700.
So it isn’t possible to make the definitive movie about slavery, but that isn’t stopping people from tagging this movie as just that. I don’t think that’s fair, not only to the absurdly high expectations it places on the film, but also for ignoring the complexity and nuance of the subject. Slavery in 1853 was different from slavery in 1750. And Maryland practiced it much differently than Alabama. Slaves on cotton plantations had vastly different experiences from slaves who lived in cities or worked on rice or indigo plantations. Some places it fazed out (New York), other places it exploded, especially after the invention of the cotton gin. So no one can make a definitive movie about this subject.
Critics have latched onto the objectivity as callousness or pretentious art-house pandering. Stephanie Zacherek has called it antiseptic, “history made safe by art.” She’s not wrong in that assessment; there is an emotional disconnect that most of its supporters are ignoring. Armond White, always a safe bet to have an interesting idea supported by twisted logic and indefinite critiques, has called it dishonest and slammed director Steve McQueen as fraudulent. White does not specify exactly what he finds fraudulent, except for McQueen’s artistic choices, which he sneeringly and passive aggressively drapes in quotation marks. He labels it as ahistorical, though again he never specifies where it blunders, historically that is. McQueen, according to White, is using the violence of slavery as a safe tool to pacify the guilt of white audiences, “to feel good about feeling bad.”
This is where Armond White stumbles onto a legitimate point. There are many who are walking theaters whose approval of the film is predetermined. The hype is telling people it’s the best movie of the year, that it’s about slavery and we haven’t really grappled with slavery in film yet (see above). It is an easy picture to get behind. No one is on the other side of this issue, no one is cheering Michael Fassbender’s “slave breaking” plantation owner or nodding in approval at the decisions of bitterly cold and insecure wife (played by Sarah Paulson).
But none of this takes away from the raw power of the film. Director Steve McQueen uses the story of Solomon Northrup, a free New Yorker who is kidnapped from his family and sold into slavery. The real Solomon Northrup wrote about his experiences after being liberated, 12 years after his enslavement and it is this book that screenwriter John Ridley and directory McQueen base their story. While questions about Northrup’s veracity have popped up over the years, no one doubts the evils of the system under which he suffered. And McQueen captures those evils with uncompromisingly graphic imagery, including an extended beating with a wooden paddle (that shatters under the force of the blows) and an attempted lynching that goes on and on and on and on and on.
Zacherek is right. There is an emotional disconnect, but it’s a calculated disconnect. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrup as a man who, in response to the life he’s been thrown into, turns off his emotions. He shuts everyone out, even us. The pain he’s experiencing, torn away from his family, beaten into submission, stripped of his identity, is a liability. Play dumb and keep quiet, a slave tells him on the ship south. He only learns this the hard way.
Once he does learn though, he becomes our guide, the lens through which we not only see, but experience slavery, albeit a narrow experience uninformed by a larger social and historical perspective. But that’s not necessarily bad. He understood he wasn’t alone; he understood the slaves he lived with for 12 years weren’t alone either. Millions suffered, some less and some worse than him. So his betrayal and injustice may be great, but is it really any greater than someone born into slavery? When he’s first kidnapped, his protestations are heart-wrenchingly ironic. “I don’t belong here,” he says, but then who really does belong there?
Northrup was painfully aware of this irony when he wrote his book and his witness to the injustice around him is a more compelling story than his alone. How could he privilege his experiences and elevate the trauma of separation from his family when there is enough pain and suffering to go around? Like Frederick Douglass, he had a voice because he escaped, but he doesn’t waste it belaboring his own injustice. He uses it for a greater purpose.
One might wonder at the brutality, how exaggerated it may have been. Did Solomon Northrup represent his experiences without embellishing? I suspect the narrative isn’t one hundred percent accurate, but who cares? Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle was criticized for exaggerating the horrors facing of immigrant life in a turn of the twentieth century Chicago meatpacking plant. Sinclair stood by what he wrote, all of it he said having happened – maybe not all of the terrors occurring in the same family, but that doesn’t diminish the book’s power. The fact that any of these things could have happened is a crime. And the fact that everything Northrup wrote about could have happened (if in fact they didn’t) is also the point. Biographical accuracy isn’t required when exposing the brutality of slavery to a country that, at the time (1853), wasn’t keen on facing its realities.
When I was leaving the theater I overheard another man talking to his wife, wondered what he had just seen. Torture porn, he called it. Two hours of beating and psychological torture to what end? My first though was someone read Armond White’s review. My second thought was a concern for the man: Who wanders around crowded theaters loudly and proudly proclaiming they missed the entire point of the picture we just saw?
I suppose he though thought it was an anti-slavery movie and vaguely remembered something from school about the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution already settling the issue. Well it did settle the issue and we probably don’t need an anti-slavery movie in 2013. But this movie isn’t that narrow. Institutionalized injustice is the point here. Wherever of for whomever we let it flourish, no one is truly free. If rights and freedom can be denied arbitrarily for one, the effects can seep over and affect us all, no matter how secure one may feel. Be it slavery. Be it Jim Crow Laws. But those are in the past. What about a complaisant criminal justice system that regularly sends innocent men and women to prison based on coerced confessions or testimony coaxed by promises of lighter sentences or dropped charges? What about exploited labor and unsafe working conditions? What about supposed war criminals rotting away in Guantanamo even years after they’ve been cleared? What about drone strikes blindly killing the innocent as well as the guilty? What about a financial system rigged to make the rich richer at the expense of the rest of us? The list can go on and on.
12 Years a Slave is not a perfect movie. McQueen almost comically idealizes Northrup’s pre-slavery life. No friction, no stress, perfect wife and children. Maybe this is how Northrup would have experienced his previous life in his memories late at night in the slave quarters, but it smacks of falseness, as a gimmick intended to inspire outrage rather than understanding.
Also, we never really get a sense of what life was like for Northrup and his fellow slaves at the cotton plantation of Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Like actual human memory, we experience the most traumatic of events, losing the minutiae of daily living. But I wanted to glimpse how they fashioned a sense of community, no matter how fragile. Or if they weren’t able to cobble together a community, I wanted to see why. What was the element that drove them apart? Mostly what we see is victimization and the hopelessness it engendered. But could it all have been hopelessness? Weren’t there moments of happiness or love? The closest we get is a fleeting sexual experience between Northrup and another woman, but once satisfaction is achieved, she turned away, perhaps more bitter and alone than before.
I’m not proposing that McQueen should have made another movie, but it wouldn’t have undercut the message of the film to show even the most powerless staking out a sense of identity and community. I’m not talking about anything major like rising up against the overseer. Fighting back is a fantasy modern viewers impose on the narrative. When Northrup does turn the whip on the brutal overseer played by Paul Dano (who has perfected the ignorant poor white character), I surely didn’t cheer. There was no place good that was going to end up. (And it didn’t.) But there must have been moments of quiet resistance like, say, sabotage. Even bonding with the other slaves would have been a statement.
But, as McQueen tells the story, there was no bonding, except for maybe with one woman particularly brutalized by Epps and his wife: him because he loves her and is jealous, and his wife because she’s jealous that he loves her. Everyone else on the plantation stays in the background, meek, silent. Of course this may have been exactly the way it was on Epps’ plantation. The absence of what we would like to see or what we know happened in other places doesn’t make it ahistorical. Just slightly unsatisfying.
Still 12 Years a Slave is a movie worth watching. Don’t be scared by the violence: It isn’t nearly as bad as people have been building it up. The real violence is psychological, an entire people terrorized into fearful acquiescence. Go see the movie to understand how slavery marred our history, how it continues to affect how blacks and whites interact, how we have yet to truly come to terms with its legacy.