Last week in Chicago I saw Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the first major film ever to have been adapted from an actual slave narrative. Widely celebrated for its direct, unflinching presentation of the experience of slavery, McQueen’s film has struck a nerve in the consciousness of viewers and reviewers alike, and is a sure favorite to win lots of awards.
Loosely, the premise of the film is as follows: Northup, played splendidly by British actor Chiwetel Eijofor, is a free Negro man who at the outset of the film lives in upstate New York with his wife and children (one of whom is the incessantly radiant and painfully cute Quvenzhané Wallis, who, alas, has no lines spoken in this film…but I digress). Apparently a very well respected and talented Negro, he is conned by two sinister white men and through a rapid progression of sinister events he ends up “sold down the river” to the heart of Louisiana slave territory. The greater part of the film covers his experiences on the plantations and properties in which he labors for the twelve years to which the title refers.
Surely you’ve heard by now that 12 Years A Slave is a very violent movie. Nowhere can you find a review for the film that does not at least mention the scenes of racially charged violence and rape in direct, intentional tones. I’ll add to this chorus by mentioning that second only to those scenes of outright violence are numerous acts of white duplicity. From the two “performers” who initially sell Northrup to the slavers, to the sleazy slave trader (played quite convincingly by Paul Giamatti) who viciously breaks a mother and child up in sale, claiming that his morals extend no further than the coins in his hand, to the to the enslaved woman Patsey (played by the transcendent Lupita Nyong'o) who is the champion of cotton pickers, but whose body becomes THE central locus of abuse in the film, from both her masochistic rapist slave master and his infernally jealous and violent wife (played by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson, respectively), to the white ex-overseer-turned-slave who rats Northrup out to the master—whites betray blacks’ trust over and over again.
In short, the film wants you to know that slavery was a violent, evil enterprise that dehumanized those who participated in it. To the extent to which the film is inspired by an actual slave narrative, this message is important, and even more important to today’s audiences, many of whom apparently may have fallen into the false assumption that we are post-racial and no longer in need of such wake-up calls in the age of a black President, despite persistent racial inequality in social, political, and especially economic spheres. So it is to this end—that of a wake-up call—that McQueen’s film most definitively succeeds, and in a way rightly draws comparisons to the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Roots (which, rumor has it, is getting a remake soon…apparently slavery stories are big money).
But on the other hand, despite its frequent comparisons in reviews to Roots, McQueen’s film reminds me more of an updated, slightly more—shall we say—egalitarian, Hollywood-ified version of Haile Gerima’s epic, also super-violent, black power-influenced film, Sankofa, minus the black magic and call for revolution (also minus scenes of Africa, but is this not part of what made Gerima’s film “revolutionary”)? Both 12 Years a Slave and Sankofa seek to dramatize the alienation, nihilism, and pathology slavery induced in the minds of the enslaved. Northup first loses his family, then his name, and then the grounds for his whole personhood through the passage from relative freedom in the North to enslavement in the South.
The ways in which this passage from autonomy to enslavement occurs reminds me of the methods described in the “Letter” attributed to one Willie Lynch, the fictional (but true) work detailing how to “make” a slave. According to the letter, this is how it’s done, more or less: (1) Dehumanize black men (2) Break up black families (3) Turn black people against one another.
A neo-slave narrative of another sort, the “Letter” surfaced in the 1970s, purposefully to historicize the systematic racism that confined black people to drug-infested ghettoes. To this day many ostensible defenders of black masculinity, in the mode of the black power of the 1970s, refer to the “Letter” as an example of a “historical” document that proves that the black man’s misery in America is both structural and intentional, and used for the purposes of control.
I bring up the “Letter” to make this point: this masculinity's lens produces the most glaring deficiency in the film’s presentation, and my greatest beef with it as a whole. To put it plain: the female characters depicted in the film are essentially flat and agencyless, even for slaves.
This is probably not all McQueen’s fault, as the film does stay relatively close to the original narrative. However, as the film is neo-narrative, and, furthermore, because there exist in the historical record so many examples of black enslaved women who demonstrated profound and unique agency in their experiences as bondswomen, as runaways, and as agents of change—the relative absence of this “type” in the film hinders the film’s ultimate value as a “true” representation of black slave experiences.
Even Patsey, by far the most well developed and complex female character, comes across as a passive recipient of the violent world around her, being raped, beaten, and basically thrown around like a rag doll—and finally being too “weak” in spirit or agency even to take her own life (she requests Solomon do this for her). Her character’s essential lack of agency makes worse the systematic silencing done to her by the experience of enslavement. Perhaps this is to show just how much more insidious the practice of slavery was for black women, who, without a doubt, occupied the bottom rung in the racial-gender hierarchy. But if it is important for a film to depict how enslavement warped black womanhood, it is even more vital to the film’s efficacy to also undergo the difficulty of depicting black feminine agency, intellect, and spiritual power.
If the whole point of the film is that enslavement cannot destroy the essential humanity of those enslaved, then to present Northup as exceptional in his dogged will to remain human (to live—not merely to survive) is paradoxical. Such is the nature of phallocentrism. But, as I said, this is not all McQueen’s fault, and my judgment of this very real issue in the film is more an indictment of a cultural and social reality than of a philosophical flaw unique to this film.
Finally, many reviews laud this film as the first “real” depiction of enslavement many people will have ever seen. Categorically, I disagree. While the efforts made are genuine, the questions valid, and the complications (for the most part) astute, 12 Years a Slave is still Hollywood. Unlike the vast majority of the millions of Africans held in bondage in the Americas over the centuries, now all but forgotten to history, Northup made it back home to his family after his twelve year experience, and died a free man. Hollywood requires such exceptions.
Furthermore, no film which essentially disregards the ways in which black women fought against psychological dehumanization in enslavement (short of becoming sex slaves to white men) can truly be called an accurate depiction of slavery. But, alas, this is only one film. And it is a daring one. And it does attempt something unseen in any American depiction of enslavement since Sankofa—a true(r) account of the psychological destruction enslavement did to those blacks damned to experience it.
So should you see it? Absolutely. Definitely. Watch it, think about it, go to the library and read about the experiences of those who were enslaved in this country. It is a very important film. If you really want the full experience, after watching and digesting it and starting a discussion circle around it, read this book:
…and we can talk about some more things.
If you want to read more slave narratives, this resource may be a great starting point (Thanks to Dr. Eric Duke from the U of South Florida for the link): http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/