12 Years A Slave

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. 

Our children see this, and learn to imitate it…. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. 

The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances … if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is to be born to live and labor for another … or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him … Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.

Jefferson owned several hundred people, freeing just a handful of them during his life.

America’s attitude towards slavery (and their equally dreadful treatment of the Native Americans) has always been conflicted. Most sane, sentient white people knew it to be a grotesque wrong. But they mostly went along with it anyway. Land of the Free? Only if you’re white. Many people took Robert E. Lee’s line: that slavery was  in some way necessary to “improve” the African race. By such hypocrisy, does evil fester. This is why ’12 years a slave’ was made by an Englishman: America still hasn’t reconciled itself to its original sin. It’s noticeable the first black president is not a descendent of those slaves who built American prosperity, but a child of more recent, willing immigrants.

12 years a slave is a great film dealing with things that actually happened: things that are hard to understand or stomach today.

There’s a scene where having been saved from a lynching by his master’s overseer, Solomon Northup, played with real feeling by Chiwetel Ejiofor is left with his hands bound and tiptoes touching the floor. The scene lingers with the tortured man just off centre of the screen, being near throttled as he struggles to use his feet in the mud to relieve the pressure on his neck. The scene lasts for several minutes. The camera does not look away. There is no music to distract you. And then you notice what’s going on in the background…. other slaves get back to whatever it was they were doing, so inured were they to the violence around them. The Master’s wife calmly looks on, and walks away. As the pressure builds, you can feel the discomfort in the audience. The camera’s eye does not move or blink. The courage of that long, steady, quiet shot, driving home the enormous cruelty of the institution of slavery, is an stunning piece of film-making. The message is clear. Solomon Northup’s life is not his own, but belongs to his Master.

This scene unfolded on the plantation of the “good” Master, Ford (played by Benedict Cumerbach) of whom Northup wrote

 The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness 

This reflects well on Ford, but also on Northup himself who shows a Mandela-like ability to forgive. In the film, however, Ford is shown as a self-serving hypocrite.

So why didn’t Ford free his slaves, if he was such a decent man? It was illegal to do so in Louisiana in 1841/2. Help him escape? This too was illegal, even for whites, and punishable by severe fines. So too was teaching a slave to read, or employing a slave as a clerk. The institution of slavery evolved into the totalitarian system one law at a time, and Northup believed he would be killed rather than allowed to escape, because he faced southern chattel slavery at its most complete and cruel.

However good and Christian Ford may have been, it was on Epp’s plantation Northup discovered the brutal reality of Chattel Slavery in the Southern States, with regular whippings when insufficient cotton is picked. Or when a drunken Epps wants his slaves to dance. Or when he just feels like whipping them. Sometimes the camera draws your eye to the savagery. Sometimes it’s just happening in the background while a scene of dull domestication is played out in focus. This too is profoundly uncomfortable for the audience, whom you could feel and hear turning their faces away from the suffering.

The film does not let the audience off easily. There’s no-one with whom the audience can identify – save Solomon himself. Few other slaves are given a voice. The mistress is not good cop to the master’s bad cop. Instead a profound state of war exists between the slave owners and their property. This led the plantation caste in the Antebellum south to live in perpetual fear of slave uprisings. This must have been felt keener on the white women, who were themselves largely prisoners in a gilded cage, and who wouldn’t have felt able to protect themselves from a workforce which both hated and outnumbered them. The white men were inured to the violence.

“Every man carries his bowie knife, and when two fall out, they set to work hacking and thrusting at each other more like savages than civilised and enlightened beings.”

And in many cases, their husbands took slave concubines which explain’s mistress Epps’ savage jealousy of Patsy. The bitter cruelty and hate in the Epps’ household rings true. Many plantation owners slept upstairs, armed, with the step-ladder to their beds withdrawn in perpetual fear of being murdered in their beds by their own “property”.

The film deals brilliantly with not just the brutality casually and routinely meted out to slaves, but also the effect doing so has on the overseers and plantation owners. The challenge to the film-goer is to find some sympathy with Epps, who would have had a whip placed in his hands at a very early age. He is not happy. He both loves and hates his slaves, especially his Patsy as he loves and hates himself. The alcoholism, the rages, the manic moods tell of a mind under profound stress from fear, violence, loathing and the corruption of power. The institution of slavery is wholly evil, damaging people with the power it grants. The people within the institution – the slaves who informed on runaways and the overseers and masters who whipped and beat them simply lacked the strength to deal with the evil in their midsts.

Few slaves ran, though running became more common as the underground railroad developed in the 1840s and 50s. Fewer than 1,000 slaves a year ever made it to Canada. Fugitive slave laws were enforced in the north intermittently and the regular patrols who question every “nigger” they see about his destination, made running near impossible while in southern states. Slaves were subjected to beatings, rapes, and lived in constant fear of the whip but in reality, lynchings were less common in the antebellum south than the film would have you believe, and certainly less so than in the 80 or so years between Civil War and Civil Rights. Runaway slaves were flogged then returned to their owners, not hanged, because slaves were extremely valuable property for whom a reward was offered for the safe return. Nor would a ship’s crew be free to casually murder a slave as depicted in the movie. Slaves were simply too valuable.

Northup himself was kidnapped for $650, and initially put up for sale at $1500, but following a near-death experience with smallpox (the real reason Northup threw a corpse over the side of the ship) he was eventually sold by Freeman to Ford for $900. To put this in perspective, the average annual wage was around $150 at the time. By the time he’d demonstrated his intelligence and resourcefulness to Ford and Tibeats, his price had risen to $1400.

Which brings us to Northup’s escape.

He does escape. The film’s name should alert you to the fact that there is a happy ending, to this part of Solomon Northup’s story at least should not surprise you. And in doing so, he meets a Canadian abolitionist carpenter called Bass, played by Brad Pitt, who mails a letter to Northup’s friends in the north, and secures (eventually) his release. This part is true to the narrative in laid out by Northup. In reality, Bass did more than just mail a letter, he wrote several, and travelled to the north to seek out Northup’s friends. But success ultimately came from the very first letter he sent. It was Henry B. Northup, the son of Solomon’s Father’s master who eventually rescued Solomon.

Very few people escaped from slavery and as Northup is driven away from the Epps plantation a free man, I was left thinking about the fate of the other slaves we’d come to know and the countless others to toiled and died in the cotton fields who remain nameless.

This is a profoundly moving and powerful film dealing with an important subject with the gravity and tact it deserves. If 12 years a slave doesn’t win lots of Oscars – best picture, best actor and best supporting actor plus a number of others, then a great injustice will have been done. Director, Steve McQueen has created a masterpiece, albeit one extremely uncomfortable to watch. But watch it you should.

The book is available for free, from a number of sources. I recommend reading that too.

1 reply
  1. Tim Newman
    Tim Newman says:

    Many people took Robert E. Lee's line: that slavery was in some way necessary to "improve" the African race. By such hypocrisy, does evil fester.

    The justifications for the continuation of slavery were bullshit to the last detail, but it's worth noting that Lee fought not in defence of slavery but for the cause of Virginia. He was a nationalist, at state level, like a lot of the combatants were.

    On the same subject, I found the depiction of Samuel L. Jackson's character in Django Unchained to be interesting in that he was a black slave who was slavishly loyal to his master. Gone With The Wind mentions such people too, who certainly existed.

    The relationship between master and slave was far more complicated than a first glance would tell you, and depended much on the role of the slave (i.e. house slave or field hand). It could be argued that a lot of slaves were almost there on a voluntary basis, although this would be a shit argument in support of anything other than a general observation.

    On all the occasions I've read about slavery, or seen it depicted on film, I've always had trouble coming to terms with how absolutely barking mad it is. Owning people? It's nuts.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *