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A brilliant, disturbing new film exposes the untold story of slavery’s ‘Reverse Underground Railroad.’
BY Steven D. Greydanus
12 Years a Slave made me angry, and grateful, in ways I didn’t always anticipate.
The film, directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, has been compared to Schindler’s List, a comparison that, in some ways, does it a disservice. The protagonist of Schindler’s List was a German with a conscience; Jewish characters were in the background. Like The Butler earlier this year (also from a black director, Lee Daniels), 12 Years a Slave focuses solidly on black characters in a story that includes decent white characters as well as monstrous ones, but no white hero per se.
Perhaps you’re already thinking this is a movie that I think you should see, rather than a movie you would want to see. Perhaps, no matter how I might praise the brilliant direction and stunning cinematography, or Chiwetel Ejiofor’s riveting lead performance, you’re thinking a harsh, unflinching movie about slavery isn’t your cup of tea. You might even be wondering whether, in 2013, we really need yet another movie about slavery. Haven’t we seen it all before?
What if I were to tell you that, until now, there has never been a major historical motion picture about the slave experience in America? Could that possibly be true?
Hollywood has produced plenty of historical dramas about race and racism (many dominated by white protagonists or major characters) from The Help to Glory. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad was more about abolitionists; as with Schindler’s List, oppressed characters were in the background.
There is no shortage of firsthand source material on the actual experiences of American slaves. Scores of ex-slave memoirs were published and disseminated by abolitionists prior to the Civil War. After the war, writers and journalists recorded thousands of interviews with former slaves. A few of these accounts are famous for the post-enslavement careers of their authors, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Why have neither of these notable figures been the subject of a major motion picture?
In the annals of firsthand slave narratives, the story of Solomon Northup, first published in 1853, is particularly poignant. (Northup’s memoir, written with the aid of a writer named David Wilson, was a bestseller in its time and was repopularized in 1968 by historians Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin. The full text is available online.)
A free-born New York native, a husband and father of three, Northup had been lured in 1841 to the slave city of Washington, where — like countless other free blacks during this time period — he was kidnapped, shipped to the Deep South (Baton Rouge, La.) and sold into slavery. Generations of schoolchildren have learned about the Underground Railroad; why are they not taught about this horrifying “Reverse Underground Railroad”? Why had I not heard about it until now?
The choice of this story lends the first act of 12 Years a Slave a greater immediacy and impact than other slave narratives might have. When we first meet Solomon Northup, he’s a working family man, a violinist married to a cook, both with jobs that occasionally take them out of town. They are respectable, well educated, relatively comfortable: a family with lives and challenges recognizably similar to our own.
All of this makes the shock and abhorrence of what happens to Northup all the more crushing. Ejiofor brings a dignity and warmth to the early scenes with his family and a horror and bewilderment over what unexpectedly befalls him that makes the viewer feel his disorientation and disbelief. He responds as any of us would — with outrage and defiance. But he is in the hands of professional predators whose livelihood depends on crushing this natural, human assertion of the right to freedom.
Even so, Northup’s self-possession is never entirely eradicated. Set apart from his fellow slaves by his vocabulary, worldliness and assertiveness, Northup impresses his first master, a gentle Baptist preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch), William Ford, with his competence and vision — qualities that only make Northup a target to stupid, cruel men like Tibeats (Paul Dano), who works for Ford, and Epps (Michael Fassbender), a plantation owner who becomes Northup’s second owner.
Making some effort to accommodate himself to the role imposed on him, Northup learns to hide what may be, other than his indomitable determination to be reunited with his family, his greatest asset: his dangerous ability to read and write. The logistics of composing a letter and getting it to friends in the North, who could produce copies of his papers of freedom, may be seemingly insurmountable, but he keeps trying.
The screenplay by John Ridley (Red Tails) is largely faithful to Northup’s memoir, from the most harrowing incidents (such as a ghastly, lingering punishment meted out to Northup for daring to resist a beating) to the appearance of a character one critic called “too good to be true,” a religious Canadian abolitionist-carpenter named Samuel Bass (played in a cameo by producer Brad Pitt).
Bass’ brief but striking speech about the equality of all men “in the sight of God” and the injustice of the law of slavery is an important counterweight to the misuse of religion by the likes of Tibeats and Epps to justify the status quo. Perhaps even more crucial is an overwhelming scene depicting the subversive power of faith to strengthen and unite the oppressed, with Northup emotionally caught up with other slaves defiantly singing a spiritual following the death of one of their own.
In a film full of every kind of ugliness — slaves subjected to brutal beatings, arbitrary violence and rape; men and women displayed for prospective buyers, bereft of clothing and dignity — McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt find images of striking beauty: the paddle wheel of a steamship and the choppy water in its wake; glowing embers of a burning sheet of paper turning, with Northup’s hopes, to ashes. The contrast is analogous to passages in Northup’s memoir in which the very beauty of his surroundings seems oppressive. (“It was a very pleasant morning. … The sun shone out warmly; the birds were singing in the trees. The happy birds — I envied them. I wished for wings like them, that I might cleave the air to where my birdlings waited vainly for their father's coming.”)
A few critics have quarreled with the simplicity of the film’s uncontroversial theme: the evil of slavery. It has been argued that McQueen could have taken greater risks and challenged his audience by highlighting more provocative, less politically correct angles on the story of slavery: the role of black slavers or instances of more kindly relationships between masters and slaves. For that matter, I would have welcomed more of the principled religious abolitionism of Samuel Bass.
But such objections fall away in the face of two simple observations: a) Solomon Northup’s story is important and worth telling; and b) this is that story. Following the source material, Northup is in practically every scene; the whole story is told from his point of view. There is no need or place for a subplot making Bass a bigger character (yet another white hero in a black story). Likewise, a story about kindly relationships between masters and slaves might be worth telling, but a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery is likely to have a different story to tell.
It must be noted that, in one important way, the film does pose an affront to viewer expectations: In a story of injustice, audiences today expect some kind of satisfaction. There must be justice or, better, revenge. Take Quentin Tarantino’s lurid blaxploitation-themed Django Unchained, a film that is, in a sense, remarkably frank (by Hollywood standards) about the ugliness of slavery — but in the context of a wildly unrealistic, hyperviolent revenge story, not unlike his alternate-reality WWII film Inglourious Basterds.
12 Years makes no concession to the viewer’s wish for satisfaction or closure. It’s true that Northup is never wholly humbled and, following the source material, refuses to take a beating lying down if he has another choice. But the consequences of his insubordination are so heinous that there’s no satisfaction in it.
Hollywood formula almost demands, in a climactic confrontation, that Northup indulge in one brief moment of victory over a longtime oppressor: a look of triumph, a parting taunt, a sock in the jaw, something. (Even the real Northup confides in his memoir, “It would have been a comfort had I dared to give him a parting kick.”) The film denies the viewer this comfort, which would trivialize the atrocities Northup has suffered. Reunion with his family is the only comfort afforded to Northup and to us. (Closing titles drive home the final injustice: Even as an acknowledged free man, Northup was not allowed to testify in Washington against his kidnappers, who were never punished.)
It’s fair to object that Ridley’s screenplay occasionally revises history to heighten the barbarity of Northup’s oppressors. One of the few moments that struck me as false involves the casual murder of one of Northup’s fellow prisoners on the slave ship bearing them to Baton Rouge: an improbable way to treat valuable cargo in which one has invested and on which one hopes to make a profit. I wasn’t surprised to learn from Northup’s memoir that, in fact, the man died of smallpox. And while a devastating betrayal late in the narrative is related much as it happened, the story suffers for the absence of a kindly British sailor on the slave ship who collaborated in Northup’s first attempt to contact his friends in the North who could verify his identity and obtain his freedom.
But these are minor issues in a generally unimpeachable, haunting film that has only about two hours to relate 12 years of injustice — and to redress decades of cinematic silence. My friend and colleague Peter Chattaway once commented that “we live in a culture where something doesn’t seem ‘real’ until a movie has been made about it.” That makes 12 Years a Slave not only a brilliant film, but an essential one.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Caveat Spectator: Much harsh content, including scenes of vicious abuse and cruelty; a brief sexual encounter and scenes of sexual abuse (no nudity); nonsexual nudity (e.g., a slave-market scene); profane and obscene language. Mature viewing.