What I'm Watching: 12 Years a Slave

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I focused extensively on slave narratives. As the name suggests, slave narratives were accounts of life in slavery as written and/or told by ex-slaves. Most slave narratives were pretty formulaic, in great part because they were important political and social pieces that were meant to generate support for the abolitionist movement. The thinking was that, if people saw the horrors of slavery made apparent in a firsthand account, then it would convince them of slavery's evils and compel to join in the abolitionist struggle.

Over the course of my studies, I read dozens of slave narratives, from the most well-known to the most obscure. In my research and writing projects, I focused primarily on female slave narratives, including Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes, and Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince. If you haven't read any slave narratives, I highly recommend that you do so, and I'm happy to make suggestions. Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an excellent place to start, as is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Needless to say, when I first saw a preview for the movie 12 Years a Slave, I knew that I had to see it. This film is not simply based on a true story, but also on the slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave. In this book, Solomon Northup details his experiences as a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery before finally being discovered and freed after twelve years. 

I'll start off by saying that this is a well made film. It is well acted, well directed, and well shot. It is emotionally engrossing, and the settings are equally beautiful and horrifying. In terms of its narrative, the film is set up as a sort of three act piece, which, although factually inaccurate, works to give the story natural highs and lows and keeps everything moving forward. The music is beautiful, though it was composed by Hans Zimmer, so it sounds a little like some of his other pieces (at times, I found myself remembering overtures from Inception). Finally, given that most people have never read nor perhaps even heard of slave narratives, I appreciate that a widely released film adapted one. While I'm not confident that this movie will compel people to return to the source material (though you all should), I understand that most people never would anyway. Given this, I appreciate that Hollywood, a major international platform, has recognized Solomon's story as important and one that needs to be told, and that as a result, a lot of people will finally have access to it. 

That said, I left the film with three very distinct thoughts. I don't necessarily want to call them criticisms, though perhaps they are in part. I'll present them to you in the order in which they occurred to me, which I think also correlates to their relative importance. 

1. The film opens with a montage. We see Solomon and the other slaves together, picking cane, eating, sleeping. I think the montage is meant to set the tone - we feel the extreme oppressiveness of slavery, the despair, the impossible physical conditions, the brutality, and the squalor. At one point, Solomon attempts to make ink out of berry juice to compose a letter, only to give up, which emphasizes the seemingly hopelessness of his condition. Then, as Solomon lies awake one night, surrounded by his fellow slaves, he engages in a wordless sexual encounter with the woman lying next to him. The moment is presented without context or commentary, as just one piece of daily life in slavery.

This moment perplexed me, and as I continued to think about it more, it really started to bother me.  Sex and sexuality in the context of American slavery are incredibly complicated subjects, in particular because of the pervasiveness of sexual violence, the continual breakdown of sexual relationships and families, and the complicated notions of female sexuality and purity that were prevalent at the time. Given this, to present this moment between Solomon and the nameless slave woman without context or commentary is problematic and even dangerous, especially considering the inappropriate but still all-too prevalent stereotypes that we hold in regard to sexuality, race, and gender. I don't think I would have been bothered by this moment so much had the movie done something with it. This encounter is far too important to be swept aside as "just a moment," and I think that the weightiness of it will be lost on many viewers who, without any prompting from the film, will not know what do with it or be compelled to think critically about the tragic and terrible aspects of American history to which this moment is linked. 

2. Solomon Northup was a real man who experienced real cruelty, and I think that his story is an important one that should be told. Nevertheless, out of all the slave narratives that could have been chosen, I couldn't help but wonder: why did the filmmakers choose this one? Frederick Douglass' slave narrative is undoubtedly the most famous and widely read. Chances are, if you have read a single slave narrative, it is Frederick Douglass'. He is one of the most well-known and important historical figures, and his seems like a more obvious story with which to start.

But what sets Solomon Northup apart from other slave narratives is that he is not a slave. He is a free black man who is wrongly kidnapped and unjustly sold into slavery for twelve years. He does not escape to or buy his freedom; rather, he is freed when the proper legal channels are finally utilized to bring forward his true identity and status as a free man.  

So why would Hollywood choose this story? I think the answer is simple: Because it is more relateable to a white audience, and therefore, plays into the important and far-reaching legacy of sentimental discourse. Many slave narratives, as well as other abolitionist writings utilized sentimentality in an attempt to provoke an emotional response in readers that allowed them to identify with the plight of oppressed black slaves. Sentimental discourse has a long and problematic history, but I think what is important here is that, in attempting to enable white readers to identify with black slaves, sentimentality often sought to literally replace the black individual with the white individual. In other words, white readers couldn't simply identify terrible acts of human atrocity as such when they happened to black slaves; rather, they had to be invited to actually imagine that these horrors were being committed against them and their families.

Because Solomon is free, just like his white counterparts, his story is even more compelling to white audience members. He is free (like us). He has a family (like us). He has a job and a home and plans for the future. Just like us. Therefore, his plight is particularly compelling, not simply because of the horrors, but more importantly because white audiences can relate to it. It is precisely because Solomon is truly free that his enslavement is, at its core, an injustice and an atrocity. Other slave narratives detail horrors that are part of a foreign way of life, a way of life that white readers cannot understand because it is so far from our own. While slave narratives try to make these horrors plain and a little less foreign, Solomon's story connects more easily with white readers and audiences. It is difficult for us to imagine being born into slavery, living each day surrounded by it, and knowing that you have no legal right to freedom. However, we can imagine the injustice we would feel at being kidnapped and wrongly forced into slavery, and that makes Solomon's story more identifiable to white audiences.

3. When I was leaving the theater, I heard a gentleman complaining to his friends about the film. "You know, I just don't understand why there has to be so much violence. After a while, the movie got so boring. It's like, 'OK, I get it, slavery was horrible.' I just don't need to keep the seeing violence over and over again. It's boring."

On the one hand, I can understand where this man was coming from. 12 Years a Slave has a lot of violence. Rather than offering a tightly crafted plot with riveting twists and turns, there is a seemingly never ending parade of violence, and the viewing experience is exhausting. Slaves are beaten and whipped. A young black woman is sexually pursued and violated by her drunken and angry master and then physically and verbally abused by his jealous wife. Backs are torn open and put on display for the camera. There is so much violence in the film that I can understand the desire to simply exclaim, "Enough already! I get it! Slavery was horrible!"

But that's just the thing: I don't think we "get it." Slavery may have ended in 1865, but in the century and a half that has passed since then, our understanding of slavery and our relationship to this aspect of American history is as problematic as ever. Slave narratives sought to give people a firsthand account of slavery so that they could know the horrors of the institution. And in 2013, the film 12 Years a Slave seeks to do much the same because we still need to see these horrors firsthand to understand them. There are still too many people who do not know, who do not understand the depth of slavery's terrors nor the long-lasting impression that they have left on us as a nation. In our effort to move forward, we far too often sweep this "uncomfortable" facet of our history under the rug, proclaiming that "We get it!"

Slave narratives did much more than detail the horrors of slavery. They elaborated on the rich culture that developed out of slaves' African roots and this tragic institution, the intricate and intense familial bonds that were formed, the celebrations, the strength of spirit, and the courageous men and women who, despite all of the odds, risked everything to fight back. The film 12 Years a Slave touches on some of these details, but just barely. Because we still don't get it, the film simply does not have room for these stories. 12 Years a Slave has to show us slavery's violence, over and over and over again, in the hopes that, maybe this time, we will finally get it. In that way, what may seem to be the film's failings are actually, I believe, an indictment of American society and our refusal to incorporate the truth and reality of slavery, with all of its horrors and various facets, into our perception of ourselves and our national history.

As a final note, I just have to point out that, for a movie focused on American slavery, I found it a bit odd and telling that the director and three main actors are all British. Given the subject matter and the United States' discomfort with it, perhaps many American actors and filmmakers didn't feel up to tackling this project.   

1 comment:

  1. Wow, thank you for writing this. i have been meaning to go see this film, and now I have a lot to think about as I watch it.


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