Review: 12 Years a Slave

Catherine Clinton reflects on history’s intolerable cruelties

January 9, 2014

Source: Kobal

Man’s inhumanity to man: the abuse suffered by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at the hands of slaveholder Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) ‘ushers in a powerful new era for slavery studies’

12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt
On general release in the UK from 10 January

McQueen: ‘I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical’

Since the 1970s, new perspectives on slavery – debates over the origins, impact and legacy of bondage within the United States – have spiralled beyond the confines of the academy. Recent months have seen a particularly remarkable set of films on the subject, provoking further discussion about slavery and its role in US culture.

New views on African-American enslavement, symbolised by the miniseries Roots (based on Alex Haley’s multi-generational saga), garnered unprecedented acclaim in the wake of civil rights activism. Eighty-five per cent of US households with televisions tuned in for one or more episodes and its finale on 30 January 1977 was the third highest-ranking telecast in US history. Although this did not initiate a groundswell of Hollywood projects on America’s plantation past, there have been intermittent reflections on it by A-list directors: Ed Zwick’s Glory (1989), Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997), Jonathan Demme’s Beloved (1998) and Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999).

American historical scholarship has been transformed even more dramatically. The most recent major study, Eric Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (2010), illustrates two fundamental shifts in understanding. First, slavery has been “Americanised”, detached from its southern roots, and seen as permeating most aspects of American culture and fuelling the northern economy during the antebellum era.

Second, contrary to the claims of certain champions of Confederate heritage, the abolition of slavery is now firmly regarded as a central aim of the Union cause in the American Civil War. Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) very much follows this interpretation and should help fix it in the public mind.

Within the past 18 months, film audiences have been rocked by bold new interpretations of slavery: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Lincoln premiered in the US and UK in 2012 and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave was a hit at international film festivals before its wide release in the US during the autumn of 2013. Academics have energetically joined the debate in face-offs and round tables, as talking heads and scolding op-eds. Although this has sometimes taken the form of the “history police” pointing to “inaccuracies” in the films, we have also seen a spirited and healthy discussion of how and why most Americans have such a limited appreciation of the horrors of slavery and the depth of its scars.

In the case of Lincoln, a Dreamworks partnership has offered a free DVD to all middle and high schools in the US. It seems likely to become a classic, as well as an important pedagogical tool for stimulating reflection on slavery’s place in the American past. Yet it has also come in for criticism.

Particularly prominent were writers who have devoted their careers to countering the image of enslaved African Americans as people denied any agency, robbed of their culture by the transatlantic voyage, whose lack of organised resistance reflected a passive or cooperative response to their subhuman status. Some critics of Lincoln charged that the film distorted the 16th president’s role in emancipation, favouring a throwback to the cliché of whites “granting” freedom to slaves rather than acknowledging the proactive and central role played by blacks in the abolition struggle.

Tarantino’s “spaghetti southern” – a new twist on the shoot ’em up westerns that catapulted Clint Eastwood to stardom – has been a box office bonanza. This over-the-top reinvention of the plantation South has been embraced by many: the heroic protagonist Django Freeman, played by Jamie Foxx, goes in search of his enslaved wife (accompanied by a cunning bounty hunter, Dr King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz) and rescues her from the clutches of an evil slaveholder in a protracted finale worthy of the genre, with mayhem and bloodshed galore.

In the run-up to the film’s release, Tarantino dissed previous productions, particularly Roots, and sparred with film-maker Spike Lee. He confessed in an interview with AskMen online magazine: “When it came time to do the script, I didn’t look at any history books. I didn’t want to have the arm’s length of history, and I asked myself the questions and I came up with the answers.” This is the kind of auteur historians are hardly going to appreciate; suffice it to say that the film is not likely to worm its way into the classroom.

12 Years a Slave came out in the midst of the award season and seems to have emerged as a clear frontrunner in recent weeks. The drama depicts some of the more savage and sobering images of slavery – emerging from a generation of archival and academic research – without any whiff of cartoonish excess. Black British director Steve McQueen told The New York Times that he made his film because he “wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.”

A host of scholars have warmed to a portrait that so faithfully follows a 19th-century text. Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir Twelve Years a Slave, which describes how he was kidnapped, sold into slavery in the 1840s, held hostage on a Louisiana plantation, then rescued by a legal intervention and returned to his family and freedom in the 1850s, reads like a Hollywood script. But in McQueen’s assured hands, this sobering tale imaginatively reinterprets slavery’s impact, and hints at its long shadow.

Despite slaveholders’ attempts to control all aspects of the system, including its documentation and archives, recent scholars have offered revised pictures of slaves’ lives that are more sympathetic and empowering for blacks in bondage. We now have rich and persuasive evidence about how slaves defied their masters’ dictates by exerting humanity against mastery, forging a community within plantation worlds and maintaining selfhood in defiance of slavery’s attempts to impose “social death”, as Orlando Patterson suggested in his landmark 1982 study, Slavery and Social Death. Resistance is no longer viewed through the lens of counting insurrections, as historians investigate more subtle subversive acts, chronicling even those “pleasures of resistance” that many slaves built into their survival skills.

While man’s inhumanity to man is a central theme of the recent academic literature on slavery, man’s inhumanity to women has also received fresh attention as a traumatising cultural legacy. Django and 12 Years both dwell on slaveholders’ obsessions with colonising women’s bodies, whether their kin or enslaved property. Here the films reflect the sensibility of contemporary artist Kara Walker, whose disturbing installations include paintings, drawings and collages, but even more inventively feature silhouettes and light projections to showcase the darker aspects of slavery. (An early piece from 1994 is called Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart.) Yet feminists have also challenged Tarantino’s characterisation of Django’s wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is reduced to a passive, muted character awaiting rescue.

In 12 Years, the young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is subjected to a cascading series of inhumanities, as she is raped by her owner and brutalised by his jealous wife. Although at one point she suicidally urges Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to release her from her ordeal, she also fiercely seeks to resist. When her rageaholic master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) forces Solomon to wield a whip, to punish Patsey, the pain – and the audience’s discomfort – is ratcheted up astronomically. Astonishing performances by Ejiofor and Nyong’o make slavery, and all its intolerable cruelties, incalculably real.

There are moments when not just the soul is revealed through the eyes, but the whole history of a people. It may be only a token acknowledgement to have this frame-by-frame exposé of one slave’s story, but McQueen’s powerful meditation conjures up an entire world – and ushers in a powerful new era for slavery studies.

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