Monday, June 16, 2014

Twelve Years a Slave (2013)

Solomon Northup: I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune! ~from Twelve Years a Slave (2013)
Sometimes it is hard to believe that chattel slavery ever existed in America. Yet little more than one hundred and fifty years ago, people could be legally bought and sold in the country which prided itself on being the "Land of the Free." I say "legally" because there is still a great deal of human trafficking that goes on illegally, all over the United States. Slavery is as much a part of our American heritage as the pilgrims, the pioneers and the "Star-Spangled Banner." America was built by slaves, in both the North and the South, because the men, women and children who worked in the coal mines and factories of the North were often little better off than the chattel slaves of the South. In fact, the working conditions in the North were usually worse; at least, however, the workers could not be legally bought and sold. In the recent Academy Award-winning film Twelve Years a Slave the full horror of the slave market is exposed in the most harrowing way, as the audience watches a mother separated from her children. One horror follows another, all masterfully filmed and acted, leaving the viewer hollow with despair.

According to Grantland:
It is a grim sight, the man hanging from a tree. His neck is noosed. His arms are tied behind him. The toes of two booted feet tap, tap, tap in the mud, neither foot firmly on the earth. Each skates a bit. But all that planting the entire foot guarantees is more drudgery. He continues to tap and struggle just the same — for hours and possibly days. The cicadas keep changing their tune. From a distance, we watch him. And from a distance, he is watched. Men and women leave their shacks and go about their duties as if the hanging man were a natural botanical product. They know him, and they know better than to help. He was bad, insurgently so. Now he hangs as an advertisement against insurrection. From a different angle, a finely dressed woman watches the man briefly from her balcony, turns around and heads inside. Children are playing. From the left, a woman, less finely dressed, sneaks him something to drink, and you feel the risk. She bets her safety to water this strange piece of fruit.

I’ve never seen a sequence that so elegantly uses duration to lay out an ecosystem of power and powerlessness, one that ripples across time, from the 1840s to the 21st century. 12 Years a Slave manages to do that again and again. It coolly clarifies the United States’ lasting social underpinnings: the seeds of black anger, black self-doubt, black resilience, white supremacy, and white guilt. The director is Steve McQueen, a 44-year-old Englishman. The screenwriter is the American entertainment-industry veteran John Ridley. Both men are black, and the movie they’ve made radically shifts the perspective of the American racial historical drama from the allegorical uplift to the explanatory wallop.
The hanging man is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist, carpenter, husband, and father, whose 1853 memoir gives the movie its source material. Northup was born a free black man, and a series of non-chronological flashbacks show that he enjoyed his middle-class life in Saratoga Springs, New York. His wife and children leave for a three-week trip, and to pass some of the time, he accepts an invitation to accompany two performers (Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam) to Washington, D.C. He awakens in a cell, chained to a wall and accused of being a runaway from Georgia. His back is beaten with a board until the board breaks. Then he’s whipped. In one of the flashbacks, a slave notices the Northup family walking into a shop and wanders, astonished, from his owner to gape at these unicorns. Now that man’s disbelief is Solomon’s.

The entire film presents savagery in civil terms. Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader who informs Solomon, with a slap, that his name is to be Platt. He goes on to sell a mother named Eliza (Adepero Oduye) to a New Orleans plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He does so as she pleads not to be sold separately from two children. The pulse of Giamatti’s character never seems to go up. He kicks one child, and makes the other demonstrate for Ford how “it’s very like he will grow into a fine beast,” while their mother is dragged from the room. Whether he’s heartless by nature or circumstance is unclear. A well-appointed house doubles as his market, with men and women arranged for sale along the walls and Solomon playing his violin. You tend to see scenes like this in public, as tragic commercial theater. Domesticating it, as this movie does, compounds the awfulness. (Read more.)
The film retains the Victorian language of the book upon which it is based, making for an authentic atmosphere. Historically, everything is believable, until we arrive at the Epps plantation. There I noticed some historical discrepancies. What grand plantation house would have the pig sty in the front yard? There were the pigs, not far from the curtained portico of the neo-classical mansion. And where were the peacocks, geese and chickens? And for an estate of that size, they did not keep many field hands, maybe about a dozen.

Furthermore, what Southern lady would stand by and cheer as her slave rival was being flayed alive? Ladies stayed in the house and tried to pretend that sort of thing was not going on. And the master, Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), was certifiably insane. He ran around drunk, half naked, spouting Sacred Scripture like the devil in the wilderness, openly preying upon the black girls. His behavior can only be defined as what in the South is referred to as "white trash." How such a lunatic could make a profit from that farm is anyone's guess, especially when he forced his exhausted field hands to dance half the night.

 Such inconsistencies led me to do some research. Here is an article from Vanity Fair which discusses the search for the historical Patsey. Patsey is the saucy, spirited beauty whom the white trash Mr. Epps almost flays to death. She is brilliantly portrayed by the lovely Lupita Nyong’o. To quote from the Vanity Fair article:
My research in Louisiana also centered upon finding a cause of death for Edwin Epps, in pursuit of some manner of cosmic justice for Patsey. (If his will was written prior to emancipation, she would be listed among his inventory if she was still with him at the time). It’s documented that he passed away in 1867, and his wife died shortly thereafter—both are interred at Fogleman Cemetery, a short distance from where his plantation once stood, though their headstones have long since been lost. (The space itself is completely overgrown—a few original headstones, a historic marker and a fence are all that separate it from a forgotten patch of farmland).

Epps’s will exists at the Marksville courthouse (I held the original, as it happens). His inventory proved enlightening—his children and wife Mary were named, as were all of the items currently on or within his plantation. As it turns out, the papers were drawn up post-emancipation (on April 27, 1867, shortly after he died), so there was no record of Patsey. There was mention of outstanding debts that included a cotton order from New Orleans, with the stated proceeds being split among his laborers—proving that he did have either sharecroppers or hired laborers working his farm at the time of his death, one of whom could possibly have been Patsey.

“What we know about slavery is heavily weighted to the larger slave owners,” explains Stacey. “Around 50 percent of slave owners in the antebellum South owned 25 or fewer slaves over the course of their slave-owning ‘career.’” Epps falls firmly within the average of that group, having owned between eight and 12 slaves at any given time. “There’s a whole yeoman or middle-class slave-owning group of people we don’t know a lot about,” says Stacey. “Most of the largest planters kept thorough records, but it’s less likely that this group of people kept thorough records because they didn’t have enough resources. They were quite often working right next to their slaves picking cotton, breaking corn.” This means that Patsey’s fate was, in many ways, directly tied to that of Epps. “These are men, women, and families who owned a few slaves throughout their lives,” says Stacey. “The recession would hit and they’d have to sell off a few of their slaves. How did they treat their slaves? I suspect it’s just as uneven as their richer counterparts, but we don’t know that. My sense is that they’re ranges of extreme. Either they were very benevolent or they were very, very sadistic—because they had to live and work and exist in much closer proximity to their slaves than the larger plantation owners.” (Read more.)
 It sounds highly probable to me that the Epps did not have a neo-classical mansion but a simple farm house. They were not gentry but struggling farmers, struggling with alcoholism and mental illness as well as with the economy. Poor Solomon Northup ended up in the worst hell hole in Louisiana. In spite of the dehumanizing conditions, more worthy of a Nazi concentration camp than an American agricultural enterprise, Solomon clings to his human dignity and his Christian faith, refusing to give into despair. He comes very close, however, when he is made to participate in the oppression of his fellow African-Americans.

Even under "favorable" conditions, chattel slavery was a grotesque institution which should never have been introduced to America. It should have been abolished by the Founding Fathers. While Twelve Years a Slave reminds us of the worst aspects of our history, it should also remind us that slavery still exists in the world, in Africa as well as in our own country. Ridding our nation of the scourge of human trafficking should take more of a priority. Share

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