Steve McQueen’s stunning visual portrayal of the story of Solomon Northup, a black musician living in Saratoga Springs, NewYork, with his wife and two young adoring children in 1841, is nothing if it is not one of the most moving films I’ve seen in many years. 12 Years a Slave is art but it is art at its highest and noblest best, thus it is more than a film with a great story, or great action and stunning visuals. (All of which it has.) It is a film about America in the middle of the eighteenth century that causes the problem of slavery to come alive for modern viewers. There should be no mistake about the perspective the film adopts since it makes the American experience come alive in a way that far too few of us have understood at a deeply emotional level.
Richard Cohen, a syndicated Washington Post writer, wrote a particularly moving editorial on this film a few weeks ago, in which he said, “[The film reveals what] we obscured, we covered up – we made the past conform to the present and insisted that hurt or pain had no right to persist, as if family takes told at the kitchen table dissipate when the silverware is put away. As a nation, we like to look pretty, but sometimes we weren’t. The grave obligation of art is to show us what we look like. McQueen has held up a mirror. God, we look ugly.”
Cohen is referring to how we have (incorrectly) told the story of slavery to generations of younger Americans. In a sentence, we have removed the horror of slavery so that we believe a number of myths and a great deal of nonsense that seeks to explain why our forbears endured this hellish treatment of human beings in the name of a united nation. (The tragic historical irony is that by not telling our true story we will never understand how we were so divided, brother against brother. I grew up hearing that the “real” issue which prompted the Civil War was state’s rights. While this is partially true it is a, on its own, a lie, indeed an abominable lie that many still believe.)
Steve McQueen’s film challenges the common notion that I grew up in the South that most slave owners were God-fearing, decent Christians who loved their slaves and treated them extremely well. This notion is still promoted by some Christians, as hard as it is to believe. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that helped to light the fuse of the Civil War was not the work, as Cohen wonderfully puts it, “of a demented propagandist. . . . [who] never ventured south to see slavery for herself.” This film reveals just how true her fiction actually was in real life.
Slavery is not to be judged by the actions of a few good people who were mistaken about its evil. There were such people, I am quite sure. But such people actually made things worse by tolerating the institution and then by giving license to their neighbor’s actions when they were anything but kind to their “property.” This evil arrangement touched many, and more than a few lived and profited by the institution, in the “free” states of the North. Indeed, the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is just such a heart-wrenching story.
Solomon Northup was a free man, a skilled carpenter and violinist. Northup was invited to Washington, by two circus promoters, to play his fiddle. (His wife was away at work in the next town and thus she never knew what happened to him when he disappeared.) This invitation is a set-up to kidnap him and sell him into slavery for considerable profit. He awakes one morning to find himself drugged, bound and in a slave cell. He was then shipped down the river (literally) to New Orleans , to live as a slave near the Red River in Louisiana (1841-1853). After twelve years he was rescued, through the kindness of a Northern man working on the plantation who appealed for his release in the North. He was then returned to his family in New York. The story of the film is thus based on his own story, published in a book with the same title as the film. The book was released soon after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and sold over 30,000 copies, making it a huge best-seller in the 1850s. Northup’s account, being non-fictional, lent profound credibility to Stowe’s fictional account of Uncle Tom. In the national political debate over slavery, leading up to the Civil War, the book 12 Years a Slave played an important part. Endorsements from major Northern newspapers, anti-slavery organizations, and evangelical groups promoted Northup’s story as a way of opening the hearts of people to the actual plight of the black slave.
After I saw 12 Years a Slave I read a number of online reviews about the film. One that intrigued me appears in The Atlantic, a magazine that I often read with real appreciation. This review, written by Noah Berlatsky, reveals how the new movie takes fictional liberties with the story that Northup actually wrote in the 1850s. His points are worth considering. He questions how Northup told his account to David Wilson, a white New York attorney who was a staunch abolitionist. Berlatsky believes that Wilson embellished the account for his reading audience and his strong anti-slavery purposes. But in the end Berlatsky fails in the critique he offers to the reader. He is aware of this charge for he concludes his critical review by writing:
Outright lies about slavery and its aftermath, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind, have defaced American cinema for a long time. To go forward more honestly, we need accounts of our past that, like the slave narratives themselves, use accuracy and art in the interest of being more true. That’s what McQueen, Ejiofor, and the rest of the cast and crew are trying to do in 12 Years a Slave. Pointing out the complexity of the task is not meant to belittle their attempt, but to honor it.
The problem with this type of review is that it is academically respectable, at least on a certain level, but it fails to understand the power of visual art and the reason Steve McQueen tells this story as he does. Film critic Susan Wloszczyna says that watching 12 Years a Slave makes you feel you have “actually witnessed American slavery in all its appalling horror for the first time.” I could not agree more.
I feel that I have spent the better part of my adult life unlearning many of the foundational stories that I was taught as a young, white American. This does not make me anti-American but it does put profound caution in my mind and soul about some versions of our story. It also makes me cringe at the kind of history that we tell our Christian children and the way in which we have adopted attitudes about our history that are both untrue and unhelpful.
This film goes a long way in bringing alive some of our worst history. Here the story of our defense of slavery is exposed for what it was – a brutal treatment of our fellow Americans in the name of a way of life that was corrupt, often in the name of the Christian religion.