The film, directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, been compared to Schindler’s List, a comparison that, in some ways, does it a disservice. The protagonist of Schindler’s List was a German with a conscience; Jewish characters were in the background. Like The Butler earlier this year (also from a black director, Lee Daniels), 12 Years a Slave focuses solidly on black characters in a story that includes decent white characters as well as monstrous ones, but no white hero per se.Share
Perhaps you’re already thinking this is a movie that I think you should see, rather than a movie you would want to see. Perhaps, no matter how I might praise the brilliant direction and stunning cinematography, or Chiwetel Ejiofor’s riveting lead performance, you’re thinking a harsh, unflinching movie about slavery isn’t your cup of tea. You might even be wondering whether, in 2013, we really need yet another movie about slavery. Haven’t we seen it all before?
What if I were to tell you that until now there has never been a major historical motion picture about the slave experience in America? Could that possibly be true? Hollywood has produced plenty of historical dramas about race and racism (many dominated by white protagonists or major characters) from The Help to Glory. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad was more about abolitionists; as with Schindler’s List, oppressed characters were in the background.
There is no shortage of firsthand source material on the actual experiences of American slaves. Scores of ex-slave memoirs were published and disseminated by abolitionists prior to the Civil War. After the war, writers and journalists recorded thousands of interviews with former slaves. A few of these accounts are famous for the post-enslavement careers of their authors, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. Why have neither of these notable figures been the subject of a major motion picture?
In the annals of firsthand slave narratives, the story of Solomon Northup, first published in 1853, is particularly poignant. (Northup’s memoir, written with the aid of a writer named David Wilson, was a bestseller in its time, and was repopularized in 1968 by historians Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin. The full text is available online.)
A free-born New York native, a husband and father of three, Northup had been lured in 1841 to the slave city of Washington, where — like countless other free blacks during this time period — he was kidnapped, shipped to the Deep South (Baton Rouge) and sold into slavery. Generations of schoolchildren have learned about the Underground Railroad; why are they not taught about this horrifying “Reverse Underground Railroad”? Why had I not heard about it until now?
The choice of this story lends the first act of 12 Years a Slave a greater immediacy and impact than other slave narratives might have. When we first meet Solomon Northup, he’s a working family man, a violinist married to a cook, both with jobs that occasionally take them out of town. They are respectable, well educated, relatively comfortable: a family with lives and challenges recognizably similar to our own.
All of this makes the shock and abhorrence of what happens to Solomon all the more crushing. Ejiofor brings a dignity and warmth to the early scenes with his family, and a horror and bewilderment over what unexpectedly befalls him, that makes the viewer feel his disorientation and disbelief. He responds as any of us would — with outrage and defiance. But he is in the hands of professional predators whose livelihood depends on crushing this natural, human assertion of right.
Even so, Northup’s self-possession is never entirely eradicated. Set apart from his fellow slaves by his vocabulary, worldliness and assertiveness, Northup impresses his first master, a gentle Baptist preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch), with his competence and vision — qualities that only make Northup a target to stupid, cruel men like Tibeats (Paul Dano), who works for Ford, and Epps (Michael Fassbender), a plantation owner who becomes Northup’s second owner.
Making some effort to accommodate himself to the role imposed on him, Northup learns to hide what may be, other than his indomitable determination to be reunited with his family, his greatest asset: his dangerous ability to read and write. The logistics of composing a letter and getting it to friends in the North, who could produce copies of his papers of freedom, may be seemingly insurmountable, but he keeps trying. (Read more.)