I first saw Steve McQueen’s brilliant “12 Years a Slave” shortly after the film’s release. The only word I can use to describe the sensations I felt upon leaving the theater is shell-shocked. I didn’t realize until the credits began to roll that I had been sitting with my hands gripped together, as if I was holding my own hand, trying to give myself strength to just get through it.
I’ve now seen “12 Years” twice – and after seeing it with my daughter this evening, I finally feel able to speak on some of the themes of the movie that really struck me: (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
1. Slavery was a national institution, supported by the Constitution of the United States and federal law as well as state law. Solomon Northup was born a free black man, but was kidnapped and sold into slavery. This may seem shocking today, but in fact, the Fugitive Slave Clause of the Constitution and the federal Fugitive Slave Laws made it all possible. Under the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, the government had the authority to recapture escaped slaves. These laws privileged the property rights of slave owners, against which a fugitive slave – or accused fugitive – practically had none. If a slave owner identified a so-called fugitive as his property, the alleged fugitive would be deemed the putative owner’s property, even if the alleged slave was really a free person. In New York City, which depended heavily on the Southern cotton trade, slave catchers worked in close concert with the judicial system in support of the slave trade. The film depicts Solomon Northup prior to his capture as blissfully at peace in his community, but the truth is, a system that left all African-Americans vulnerable to being kidnapped and sold into slavery made the concept of black “freedom” a nullity. In other words, freedom for black people has never been free.
Columbia University’s Eric Foner makes a great argument here about how the South’s demand that the U.S. government take a more active role in tracking down and apprehending fugitive slaves exposes the lie that the South was all about “states’ rights.”
2. Solomon wouldn’t have been freed without a “white savior.” Daniel Older wrote a popular article for Salon, arguing that the white savior has no place in slave narratives. As Older puts it, “About three-quarters through the movie, Brad Pitt suddenly shows up and, essentially, saves the day.” And if that’s actually what happened in the film, I would be just as irritated by Pitt’s appearance as Older obviously was. But there are major differences between Brad Pitt in “12 Years” and the white savior around whom stories of black achievement often are centered (think of Invictus, which made Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela a sidekick to Matt Damon’s Francois Pienaar, captain of South Africa’s national rugby team). “12 Years” never centers the story around Pitt’s character Bass. He is a minor figure in the film, as he is in Northup’s narrative. And importantly, Bass does his saving offscreen. He tells Northup he will help him, but we never see him taking any action on Northup’s behalf. Indeed, one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film occurs after Bass has left the plantation, when Northup despairs that Bass has betrayed him, just as Northup previously was betrayed by a white day laborer he unwisely befriended. Perhaps the problem – if there is one – is less that Bass has a role in the film, and more that Bass is played by a Big Hollywood Star like Brad Pitt, which draws more attention to the role than it deserves.
The point isn’t simply that Bass is part of Northup’s own personal historical narrative and thus could not be erased from Northup’s story – the point is, given that Northup was freed not by escaping, but by the exercise of legal and judicial process, such an erasure would have undermined the film, I believe to its detriment. The legal system I mentioned above never would have freed Solomon Northup without the intervention of a Bass. As a black man – slave or free made no difference – Northup had no voice in the legal system. He had no due process rights. It was right for the filmmakers to acknowledge the pivotal but limited role Bass played in helping Northup gain his freedom. But the filmmakers generally minimize the role of white saviors to the greatest extent possible, even more so than Northup does in his narrative.
In his narrative, Northup acknowledges his influential friends in New York who receive Bass’s letter and help him prove that he is really Solomon Northup of Saratoga, New York, and not just Epps’ nigger Platt. In the film, these men do all of their work off-screen. We do not see the legal maneuvering that takes place on Northup’s behalf that leads to Northup leaving Epps’ property and being reunited with his family. Although this is part of Northup’s personal history as well, the filmmakers wisely chose not to credit the legal system with freeing Northup – because although the legal system ultimately gave Northup back the limited freedom available to him as a black man, it also denied him justice. At the end of the film, it is noted that Northup lost his case against his kidnappers because, as a black man, he was unable to testify in court against whites. I agree with Older’s larger point that slave narratives that feature enslaved persons who free themselves and others also deserve telling – Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are but two examples. But I thought “12 Years” handled the “whie savior” aspect of Northup’s narrative particularly well.
3. Solomon Northup likely never recovered from the physical, emotional, and mental toll of slavery. Unlike fugitive slaves – men and women who were born enslaved, dreamed of freedom, and – either through their own powers, with the help of abolitionists, or both – managed to emancipate themselves, Northup was born a free man, lived a fairly prosperous life as a free man, and then had all of his intelligence and independence beaten out of him. In the film, shortly after his capture, while on a boat headed to Louisiana, Northup tells one of his fellow captives, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” But during the 12 years of his enslavement, he took to heart the advice he received early on – don’t tell them who you really are, don’t tell them you’re a free man, don’t tell them you’re educated – in order to survive. On Master Ford’s plantation, he nearly lost his life because he had not yet learned how to be a nigger instead of a man. By the time he was rescued from Epps’ plantation, the transformation was almost complete. I wish it were possible to know more about the end of Northup’s life and the circumstances of his death, but I do not know how one survives such an ordeal without serious, permanent, lasting damage.
4. Patsey. That red mist that rises from her back with each lash, before we see how she is literally being flayed open, still makes me shudder. As Platt/Northup drives away from Epps’ plantation, and she falls to the ground, you can’t help but wonder what happened to Patsey – and whether she found someone else to end her life for her, or the courage to end her own.