Jean McGianni Celestin is a writer who focuses on the intersection of race with culture, sports and politics. Follow him @LiberatedKing.
Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography, 12 Years a Slave, has garnered rave reviews since premiering on Oct. 18. It is being hailed as the Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan of slavery-era films, with many touting it as a serious Oscar contender.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup, the film illustrates his horrific journey as a free black man from Saratoga, New York, who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into bondage in Louisiana for 12 years. Once purchased, we watch, in a heart-wrenching scene reminiscent of Kunta Kinte in Roots, as Northrup is brutally beaten by a white slave handler until he accepts his new slave name, Platt, and eternal fate as a piece of property. The film takes us on the harrowing passage Northrup/Platt endured as he is transported through the hands of various slave brokers before ending up on the cotton plantation of Edward Epps, played by Michael Fassbender.
Epps is ruthless. A self-proclaimed “nigger breaker,” he embodies the godless spirit of the slave-owning American South. He is vile and tortures his slaves at will. “There is no sin,” Epps declares. “Man does as he pleases with his property.”
In one of the more difficult scenes to stomach throughout the picture, he rapes Patsey, one of his young female slaves, played by Lupita Nyong’o.
He considers her a “Nigger among niggers.”
“God gave her to me,” he says, and does what he desires with her, including forcing Northrup/Platt to whip her for leaving the plantation without permission.
As a visual leitmotif, Fassbender’s character reminds us of the unspeakable cruelty slave owners inflicted on blacks daily.
After several failed attempts to regain his liberty and return home to his family in the North, Northrup/Platt toils through the years, perched between the perpetuity of hope and the reality of his despair. He does what most enslaved blacks were left to do after being abducted and sold into captivity―he survives long enough to meet a white Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt.
The story positions Bass as a different kind of white man. The “good kind” who, although despises slavery, uses the term “your niggers” when telling Epps that his slaves deserve to be treated as equals. Bass secretly promises Northrup/Platt that he’ll contact his family and friends in the North to tell them of his capture. Then, one day, while slaving away in the backbreaking fields of the plantation, Northrup is saved by an old friend―a white Northerner named Cephus Parker, played by Rob Steinberg.
In the end, Northrup takes a final glance at his fellow slaves, including Patsey (who, at an earlier pivotal moment of the film, begged him to save her). Then rides away in a wagon with his rescuer back to the North.
12 Years a Slave is a searing and, at times, unprecedented look back at the barbaric practice that slavery truly was. It shows us the psychological and emotional anguish African people suffered for more than 400 years. But like any historical narrative of its kind, it isn’t beyond examination.
One of the problematic elements of McQueen’s film is the supposed contrast it portrays between the North and South. Prior to his capture, we see Northrup as an erudite free man, who is seemingly equal to his white counterparts. White Northerners regard him as if he is fully human, by tipping their hats to him and his beautiful family while they peruse through a shopping promenade. Except this was during a period when blacks were still considered Three-Fifths human in the American psyche, so the idyllic perception that those images convey is misleading and ignores how spiritually pervasive slavery truly was.
African Servitude was a national institution. Northern states practiced it for more than two centuries and dominated the trade without remorse. Pre-Civil War Northern economy benefited greatly off of the free labor market of the South.
Just who should we suppose that plantation owners were selling their bales of cotton to?
Slaves were openly auctioned on the Market House of Philadelphia. Those “good” white Northerners depicted in the film profited from the plantation system in the form of lower-priced goods like sugar, tobacco and coffee. And they did it deliberately, while the Abolition Crusade was sweeping across the Northern territory. Even after slavery was abolished, freed blacks were still subjected to harsh segregation policies in places like Northrup’s home state of New York. Therefore, this sort of Good America versus Bad America imagery distorts how vastly accountable the entire country was for this long and horrible tradition.
To be fair, 12 Years a Slave is not a shameless panorama of this era that some audiences found Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained to be. There are no cartoonish flavorings sprinkled over the complexities of this period. It is based on a true story and McQueen uses it to make a thoughtful statement about America’s history. But large parts of it still felt vastly incomplete. It carries some of the same troublesome ideologies that made Django anti-heroic for many.
The traditional setback with films like 12 Years a Slave is that they individualize the concept of oppression by telling us the story of escaping it alone. We root for Northrup because he is introduced as being exceptional to begin with―he is educated and dresses like whites, and so we cringe when he is lynched (and miraculously survives it). Then, we’re offered a modicum of relief when he is saved and returned home to his family, even though the others remain on the plantation.
When one really thinks about this from the standpoint of the millions who were enslaved, such themes may underwhelm more than they inspire. They tell us that individual blacks, if determined and patient enough, can rise quietly above the condition of their communities and leave them behind.
Northrup’s story deserved to be told. It is powerful, and what he suffered was a crime against humanity. But beyond the unforgivable violence McQueen brings to life, the premise of his story does little to challenge the status quo of Hollywood portrayals of slavery. If anything, it lends itself to the traditional tale of the incapable black slave who is aided to freedom by a white redeemer. Northrup/Platt has no agency until Bass comes along. Everything he endeavors to free himself is botched until Brad Pitt gets word of his whereabouts to his family.
Where would have Northrup been had he not met this Jesus-like Canadian?
There are reasons why films of this vein are more readily produced in this genre than others. Both economic and social realities influence the resurrection of the Amistad while Gabrielle Prosser and Harriet Tubman suffocate in obscurity.
One conventional thought is that white audiences should never be left feeling guilty about their ancestors’ sins. They should be able to walk out of the theater and say to themselves: “I would’ve been more like Brad Pitt if I was alive during slavery.”