This past weekend I was finally able to see 12 Years Slave, which has been one of the most talked about and lauded films of the past year. Given the rather harrowing subject matter, it was not necessarily something I was looking forward to, but I came away impressed with the film as both a work of art and a powerful consideration of the historical legacy of slavery in the United States. As most readers will undoubtedly already know, it is based upon the experiences of Solomon Northrup, a free-born African American from upstate New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. After over a decade working on different plantations in Louisiana, Northrup was able to secure his freedom with the help of an itinerant Canadian carpenter and friends from the North. Working with an editor named David Wilson, Northrup subsequently published a narrative of these events entitled Twelve Years a Slave (originally published in 1853, link is to an 1859 edition). Although there is some scholarly debate about the veracity of all the happenings and anecdotes included therein, it is unquestionably a powerful account of the American slavery system.
John Ridley’s admirably spare adaption for the most part remains faithful to Northrup’s narrative, and the episodic fashion in which Steve McQueen’s film unfolds was, I thought, particularly effective. In short, I liked it because it does not try to do too much. I am not sure what I can contribute to the already voluminous and penetrating commentary on the film (see this great piece by Wesley Morris for one), but I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share. For one, it was simply refreshing to see an honest depiction of slavery in American popular culture. The racial power dynamics portrayed in the film long outlasted slavery, and the nation’s tortured race relations have been reflected and refracted in American culture in ways that typically marginalize black people and experiences or turn them into a form of entertainment for white audiences. In presenting the brutal historical legacy of slavery from a black perspective, 12 Years a Slave powerfully confronts the pernicious cultural legacy that haunts American popular culture. One of the more striking scenes in the film for me was when the drunken Master Epps rouses Solomon and the other slaves from their quarters late one night to dance for his amusement. Finding their enthusiasm wanting, an enraged Epps screams at the “damned niggers,” whip in hand, until sufficient spirit is shown and he begins to cavort with his “property.” The dismal scene is arguably an apt metaphor for the traditional dynamics of popular entertainment in the United States.
While I certainly found the film and its implications disturbing, it was not as hard to watch as I expected. Part of this was no doubt due to my knowledge about the history of slavery going in, but it was also due to McQueen’s masterful direction. Despite telling a relatively straightforward and downright brutal story, the film is not unrelenting. At times the camera lingers on the natural beauty of a scene; at others we see some of the small triumphs of Solomon and the other slaves in their struggle to preserve their humanity. Probably the most cutting scenes for me were those in the New Orleans slave market, where we see the dehumanizing process of chattel slavery at work (for a great scholarly take on the same, see Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul). The one scene that fell a bit flat for me, and one which I appreciate was supposed to be a very emotional moment, was Solomon’s singing of “Roll Jordan Roll” at the funeral of an unnamed fellow slave. Spirituals, and music more generally, clearly played an important role in slave life (see Shane and Graham White’s The Sounds of Slavery), but the use of this particular song in what was ostensibly a transformative moment just felt a bit contrived to me. I could probably write an entire book on the role of music and dancing in the film, though, so it is perhaps best to move along.
This might sound strange, but the work that resonated most with me in thinking about this film was James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Although McQueen is trying to represent something of the historical reality of slavery and Agee/Evans are considering the contemporary lives of white sharecroppers amidst the Great Depression, both are works of art that center on somehow capturing and communicating the humanity of their subjects. This probably deserves a much longer post and explanation, but I cannot help but think of the two as complementary. In the “Preamble” to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee struggles with the limits of representation and human experience, writing that “a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point” than a “book,” and he goes on to warn the reader that if they were to truly understand what he wants to communicate, “you would hardly bear to live.” I imagine that McQueen likewise struggled with these issues, albeit in a rather different context. I also cannot help but think that Agee would have appreciated the naturalism, economy of style, and moral force of 12 Years a Slave. There’s a powerful moment in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (“Late Sunday Morning”) when a group of African-American singers perform for Agee and Evans at the behest of their white landlord, much to the discomfort of both parties. The scene eerily echoes Epps forcing his slaves to dance, though in this case Agee is “sick in the knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand, mine and Walker’s, and that I could communicate nothing otherwise.” Though much had obviously changed in the intervening century, the stultifying racial power dynamics remain, and a disconcerted Agee plays his part through by tipping the young men, who thank him in a “dead voice” and go on their way. Agee and McQueen each in their own way grapple with the discomfitting history of American race relations, and their respective works of art succeed in part because they are so clearly moral efforts. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has produced an at once beautiful and harrowing film that forthrightly addresses the terrible history and complex cultural legacy of slavery in the United States. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
*A quick final note, and one that some will no doubt find superfluous. Solomon Northrup was lured from Saratoga Springs to Washington by two men, Brown and Hamilton, who promised him work with a circus company there. Brown was apparently a small-time magician and ventriloquist as he performed a show in Albany for an audience that Northrup recalled was “not of the selectest of character.” They arrived in Washington in early April and a quick check of the relevant sources shows that that there was no circus wintering there and a touring show did not arrive until later that summer. It thus seems clear then that neither Brown nor Hamilton were actually affiliated with a circus and this was simply a ruse to lure Northrup south. While the nineteenth-century American circus undoubtedly had its share of dodgy characters, skipping out on debts was more par for the course. Still, the deception does reinforce why itinerant entertainers were looked on with such suspicion by so many Americans at the time.
Further reading: Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853); Clifford Brown, et. al., Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (2013); Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (2001); Shane and Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery (2005); James Agee and Walker Evans, Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941); Laurence Bergreen, James Agee: A Life (1984).