It’s amazing that 12 Years a Slave is, to my knowledge, the first major film production of a slave narrative. Based on the book by Solomon Northrup, a free African-American from New York kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery before a miraculous recovery in 1853, 12 Years a Slave is the most powerful depiction of the horrors of slavery in the history of film. Steve McQueen’s excellent adaptation stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup, with Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as his sadistic owners; the former a dissolute drunkard who sees his slaves as nothing but animals and the latter playing a typical (in slave narratives) plantation wife who sees her husband having sex with slaves and can do nothing about it except be incredibly cruel to the woman unfortunate enough to receive his attention.
This is one powerful, difficult to watch film. 12 Years a Slave is a slap in the face to the Gone with the Wind tradition of Civil War-era filmmaking, romanticizing slavery. There was nothing romantic about slavery. It was a horrible moral cancer upon this nation that gave owners the right to do whatever they wanted to do with their human property. They were rewarded for raping their slaves by keeping their offspring as slaves. In a very real sense, sex with slaves was a capital investment by masters. Whippings, humiliations, the desperate fight to survive and maybe even someday escape, or at least hope to go to Heaven when you die–this was the reality of slave life.
Some have criticized McQueen for two things–the lack of agency shown by the slaves and the focus on the suffering and bodily mortifications. On both accounts, I totally disagree. On the first, there is a long history, particularly on the left, on wanting to project heroic stories from subaltern peoples. But there was nothing heroic in slavery, or very little anyway. It was about sheer survival. In this sense, McQueen shows the slaves with plenty of agency given the limited options of their life. Even Patsy wanting to commit suicide is agency on some level–there was an out for her horrible life. The second criticism is more irritating. I’ve even read the term “pornography” used to describe the emphasis on bodily suffering. What did it look like for slaves to be whipped? Do we need to know this?
Yes! We do need to know this. We do need to see the skin and blood flying off the body. This is not something that should be hidden from us. Given the role race and memories of the Civil War era still play in American life, we do need to know the reality of the system that created the system of inequality that still dominates the United States in 2013.
I realize this is primarily a political review, which I prefer to avoid when writing about film. But the mastery of McQueen’s work is combining an aesthetically excellent and well-acted film with a specific kind of political message that avoids platitudes and false heroism and instead simply shows us the horrid brutality of the American past. Maybe only a British director could do that, I don’t know.