Solomon Northrup, a free black man kidnapped into bondage, relates in his 1853 autobiography how his drunken owner Edwin Epps often roused exhausted slaves from sleep, commanding them “with a slash, and crack, and flourish of the whip” to “Dance, you damned, niggers dance.” For Epps the black bodies that labored to produce his wealth were as well his playthings, to do with as he pleased.
In “12 Years A Slave,” the film adaptation of Northrup’s narrative, audiences are treated to this macabre exhibition of corrupted power as recounted by Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Like 19th century readers, we are allowed to peek behind the veil of Southern belles and magnolias to glimpse the peculiar institution in all its sadism and depravity. It becomes clear that Grenadian-British director Steve McQueen and African-American screenwriter John Ridley are not simply challenging past cinematic depictions of slavery. They are out to expose them, much as Northrup did the slave regime.
For a society still struggling some 150 years from Emancipation to negotiate a working discourse on slavery and race, it is a visual moment that forces a reexamination of our national past perhaps like no other major film in recent memory.
Slavery has been part of American cinema since its inception. Silent shorts like “For Massa’s Sake” (1910) gave way to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915), climaxing with the era of plantation epics from the “Littlest Colonel” (1935) to “Gone With the Wind.” (1939). All followed a rehearsed formula, casting slavery as benign and extolling the faithful Uncle and doting Mammy of Lost Cause nostalgia. The turbulent 1960s brought change, often through salacious Blaxploitation dramas like “The Legend of Nigger Charlie” (1972) and “Mandingo” (1977). It was television that eventually humanized slavery, with the groundbreaking miniseries “Roots” (1977).
Since then, big-budget films on slavery have been rare: “Glory” (1989), “Amistad” (1997), “Lincoln” (2012) and “Django” (2013). Each however has garnered considerable interest, offered up as a bellwether—our “canary in the coal mine”—on the national mood regarding the thorny paradox of American bondage.
“12 Years,” a British-American production, departs from its predecessors, choosing to privilege a voice from among the enslaved. It is hardly an act of genius. Slave narratives dot the Atlantic literary tradition, dating back to the 18th century. Yet past films like “Glory” either created fictional slaves (the first men of the 54th Massachusetts were in reality free blacks from the North), or, as with “Amistad” and “Lincoln,” shifted the focus to legalistic battles between great white men. The political economy driving Hollywood deemed it financially perilous to examine slavery without the looming presence of a “white savior,” or, as a means to glorify the eventual triumph of American ideals. Slave narratives were considered poor adaptations for the big screen.
Once more, television took the leap. In 1984, African-American filmmaker Gordon Parks directed “Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey” for PBS, starring actor Avery Brooks. But with limited funding, and predating social media, the film came and went with little fanfare. Parks also complained of external pressure to keep his adaptation “toned down,” later lamenting, “it could have been stronger.”
McQueen’s “12 Years” is a study in contrast. The inhumanity underlying antebellum society is on full display. At a slave market, naked black bodies are poked and prodded in Northrup’s own words, “precisely as a jockey examines a horse.” Men, women and children are reduced to commodities, referred to as “beasts” and compared to “baboons.” Slaves are brutalized to work, as punishment or even pleasure. Clutched in every white hand is a weapon—a whip, a pistol, a rifle—both intimating slavery’s disproportionate power, and unmasking the fears of its perpetrators. This is no “Django,” with monologues questioning victims for not merely liberating themselves. In “12 Years,” as in Northrup’s narrative, slavery is depicted as a frightfully efficient state-sanctioned machine of exploitation that controls through brute force and ritualistic terror.
But visually translating a 19th century abolitionist publication presents its challenges. In his narrative, Northrup describes his first master William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a “kind, noble, candid, Christian” man, blinded into owning slaves through societal influence: “a model master.” Northrup’s generous assessment bears traits of “moral suasion,” an abolitionist strategy that contended Southerners could be morally persuaded to give up their “property.” In reality it would take a war.
McQueen and Ridley negotiate this by enhancing the voice of the slave Eliza (Adepero Oduye), inconsolable after she is sold away from her children—who are in turn separated. When Northrup attempts to defend Ford’s virtue Eliza rebukes him, reminding Northrup (and the audience) that Ford is a slaver and those he owns are nothing more than “prized livestock.” Ford is provided all the nuance of a Founding Father; but his knowing complicity in a monstrous system renders him a monster as well.
The cinematic translation of “12 Years” is not without criticism. A scene of children playing while Northrup endures torment (not part of the text) comes off as somewhat gratuitous. Another, depicting Northrup’s apathy towards a slave seeking his help in New York, also contradicts the narrative. Particularly disappointing, the slave community in the film, as a collective, is almost silent, reduced to cowering faces and woeful lamentations.
Where “12 Years” succeeds stunningly is in the centrality given to enslaved women. Alongside Eliza, the film enhances the voice of Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) the enslaved common-law wife of a plantation owner. Disrupting simplistic notions of traitorous “house slaves,” the peculiar Mistress Shaw explores the cunning of those forced into narrowly circumscribed choices. From her perch she pronounces apocalyptic judgment on the planter class, declaring God will handle them all.
No figure stands out more than the young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Prized by Epps for her labor and exploited for her sexuality, Patsey seems to encapsulate the soul-crushing horror of slavery, its excesses and torments. Enduring rape by Epps, and the vicious jealousy of his wife, Northrup describes Patsey as “the enslaved victim of lust and hate” who “had no comfort of her life.” The film makes this triangle of abuse and vengeance slavery’s rotting core, climaxing into an almost intolerable scene of violence replayed near verbatim from Northrup’s narrative.
Unlike “Glory” there are no patriotic bonds of sacrifice in “12 Years;” no benevolent British troops come to liberate slaves as in “Amistad;” Django’s horse doesn’t dance. Even Northrup’s eventual rescue is a muted victory, as we see those left behind. If there is heroism in “12 Years” it is to be shared only by Northrup and those enslaved, for the sheer feat of survival.
Even before its full release, “12 Years” has been named an Oscar contender, the heralded “Day of Jubilee” for the Mammys and Uncles of Hollywood’s past. Whether Steve McQueen is in fact cinematic slavery’s Great Emancipator remains to be seen. But “12 Years” has undoubtedly thrown down a gauntlet.
Dexter Gabriel is a doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University. His areas of focus include slavery, emancipation and popular culture in the Black Atlantic.