12 Years a Slave (2013, dir. Steve McQueen) takes place mostly in Louisiana. We see numerous scenes of open fields, of swamplands, of trees hanging down with Spanish moss. The sounds of droning insects and piping frogs are almost ever-present. These sounds and the lush vegetation suggest an environment of remote isolation. The beauty of this film—the beautiful setting, the artful cinematography and filmmaking—contrasts with the dark reality it portrays. At times I wonder whether slavery (like the Holocaust) is something film should try to represent. Is it possible that personal testimonials, scholarly histories, lists of the dead, better tell us the story than someone’s attempt to represent and interpret it, to use it as the stuff of art when in fact the reality is so horrible that the risk of misrepresentation overrides the benefits of representing it accurately, if such is even possible.
Solomon Northrup’s narrative 12 Years a Slave, published in the year of his rescue, 1853, strikes me as unsettling for several reasons. Its account of how a man can be kidnapped out of his life into slavery is disturbing enough. The years of enslavement he endures are recounted in painful detail. Solomon on several points pauses his narrative to explain the process of growing cotton and of sugar cane, so that his story has the impact of both a personal tale as well as a more objective account. Solomon never fully comes to identity with his fellow slaves, and it’s clear that his education, his former status as a free man, in his mind places him in a status superior to that of other slaves. He is more than willing to serve loyally the slave owners who treat him well, like Ford, and even at times seems to sympathize with them. At times I sense two voices in the narrative, that of Solomon and of David Wilson, who assisted him in the writing of the account. The film offers an effective adaptation of the narrative, focusing entirely on Solomon’s situation. It drops the accounts of cotton farming and instead integrates those details into the plot of the film. Many of the events of the narrative find their way into the film. It thankfully omits the legal proceedings following Solomon’s rescue, and it significantly abbreviates the process by which he is reunited with his family. The narrative tells and explains Northrup’s tale, while the film dramatizes it.
In an odd way, 12 Years a Slave reminded me of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932; dir. Mervyn Leroy). Both focus on a man suddenly and unexpectedly torn from his comfortable environment and plunged into a hostile atmosphere of confinement, imprisonment. Both focus on that confining environment—prison life, slavery—but even more on the plight of the lonely and isolated individual unfairly and unjustly ripped out of his life. As there as with the character James Allen in Fugitive, there’s an existential quality to the plight of Solomon Northrup, who clings to his identity even as in order to survive he must pretend to be someone else. I found myself as focused on that aspect of the film as on the issue of slavery, which at times seemed almost incidental to his situation. To imagine the possibility of what Solomon Northrop suffers, the loss of his freedom, of his family and friends, for twelve years, is nigh impossible. Other connections come to mind as well—Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1842) in particular, along with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862).
As he tries to preserve his identity, Northrup at first resists being lumped in with the other slaves he works and lives with. Gradually the common situation they share makes its mark on him and though he never gives up on being Solomon Northrup he ultimately accepts his kinship with them. When they sing over the grave of John, an old man who dies while picking cotton near the end of the film, Solomon joins in singing with them. This moment signifies his acceptance of his unity with them, of his identity as a slave.
I do not know whether this film gives an “accurate” or “representative” account of slavery. I can say about it what I said in another post about Mandingo: that I have no doubt that everything it portrays was true of slavery. 12 Years suggests a natural comparison with Mandingo. Yet the tawdry and sensationalistic melodrama of that inferior film is absent in Twelve Years. The most telling contrast comes in the relationship of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) with the slave girl Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o). This is a relationship of force and rape, abuse and abasement, while in Mandingo we are asked to believe that the relationship between slave master Hammond and his “bed wench” Ellen is consensual and mutually loving. Despite the attention it pays to the slaves on the Hammond plantation, Mandingo is primarily about the white slave owners. 12 Years is about the slaves--and one slave in particular. It doesn’t romanticize or sentimentalize slavery, nor does it, with one exception, make slavery worse than it was. What it does achieve, on occasion, is its portrayal of the practice of slavery as a form of everyday normalcy. We may think of slavery in terms of endless brutality and abuse. But mostly what it must have been was a sustained and unremarkable succession of days, normal days, in the lives of both the enslaved and their enslavers. The film evokes this normalcy through scenes in which slaves go about carrying out the tasks of their typical routines—picking cotton or chopping sugar cane, chopping and carrying wood, cooking, washing—routines that characterized the span of their lives. Each day they carry their bags of cotton to be weighed. Those who do not pick more than 200 pounds are whipped—the film portrays the whippings mainly in the background. There is nothing unusual about them--they are part of the daily routine—not punishment but instead what the owners regard as an appropriate way to train their slaves to increase the productivity of their cotton picking work.
In an extended scene, Tibeats, who works as a carpenter for Ford, tries to whip Solomon, who resists and beats Tibeats in turn. Tibeats flees and returns with two men who commence to hang Solomon, with the full intention of killing him. Ford’s overseer intervenes, chases off the three men, and leaves Solomon suspended from a tree branch, his feet just touching the ground. As he struggles to keep his balance and avoid choking to death, other slaves carry on their work around him, seemingly ignoring him. Eventually one slave woman brings him water. The mistress of the house looks on from the porch, as does the overseer. The other slaves can do nothing for fear of their own lives. They cannot interfere with the punishment of a slave who has transgressed and attacked a white man. The film lingers for an excruciating duration on the images of Solomon attempting to retain his foothold. Throughout this scene there is no music at all. The sound of the insects—cicadas, June bugs-- familiar to anyone who has lived in the summers of the Deep South, drone on and on, in this atmosphere of deadening normalcy and pain. Only Mr. Ford has the right to save him, and eventually he arrives and cuts the rope with which Solomon is suspended.
(On occasion whippings become a form of personal revenge and punishment—one in a scene involving Solomon, and another when Patsy has run off to a nearby plantation to bring back a bar of soap. The whipping she receives from Epps is the most brutal in the film.)
12 Years has its share of depraved and brutal white people, but it also portrays a number of highly civilized white characters who deal with slaves as a normal part of their existence. In an early scene, the slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) shows plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist minister, a group of slaves that he is thinking of buying. Freeman seems a likeable man. He is calm and affable in his manner, speaking candidly of the attributes of various slaves on sale, comporting himself as would an insurance or car salesman in the process of trying to make a sale. There is nothing remarkable or depraved about his behavior, other than the fact that he is selling human beings. When Ford decides to buy Solomon and Eliza, who is the mother of two small children, she begs him to buy her children as well. He decides to purchase the daughter, but Freeman refuses to sell, explaining that in a few years her beauty will make her a valuable property. When Ford brings the two new slaves home, his wife asks why Eliza is weeping and unhappy. Ford explains that she has been separated from her children. Mistress Ford nods sadly as if to signify that this is an unfortunate but inescapable result of a slave sale. She reassures Eliza that soon she will forget about her children. In many ways Ford treats his slaves well, preaches to them every Sunday. He recognizes Solomon’s talents and rewards his good work. In the film, Ford seems the ideal slave master. Solomon Northrop’s narrative Twelve Years a Slave praises him highly. At the same time, in neither the narrative nor the film does Ford question the institution of slavery itself. He accepts it as part of the reality of his world, as a necessary practice.
Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the obverse of Ford. He is close to being a psychopath, both in how he treats his slaves as well as in how he treats his wife. He spends much of his time drinking, threatening the slaves, molesting Patsy, insulting his wife. It is difficult to think that he is truly representative of the normal slave owner. It’s difficult to imagine that he could have been productive as a plantation owner, as a farmer of cotton and other crops, because he apparently spends little time tending to these activities. If most plantation owners had been like Epps, the plantation economy would have faltered early in its history. Yet what the film makes clear through his character (this is true as well of the Hammond family in Mandingo, and of Calvin Candie in Django Unchained, and of Duncan Bedford in So Red the Rose) is that however kind or cruel plantation owners might have been in their treatment of their slaves, they exercised virtually complete control over their lives. They were able, within the broad limits of what Southern law and social custom would allow, to do whatever they liked with the slaves. I have to confess that as much as I know about slavery, from books I’ve read and films I’ve seen, 12 Years left me scratching my head in astonishment. We did this? This is our history? From this vantage point early in the 21st century, 150 years since Emancipation, it’s almost impossible to imagine. Therein lies much of the value of this film.