In his treatment of slavery in the American South in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville contrasts modern with ancient slavery. While ancient slavery, he wrote, typically aimed to constrain only the body — to force the enslaved into servile work – modern slavery aims to entrap the mind. It “overturns the order of nature,” constituting what Tocqueville chillingly called “spiritualized despotism and violence.” That thesis is amply illustrated in the compelling new film from the London-born black director Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, which boasts an all-star cast and a gripping story based on a mid-19th-century autobiography by a free black man, Solomon Northrup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.
A talented musician living in New York in 1841 with his family, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) accepts an attractive financial offer from a group of traveling performers. Without leaving word for his wife, who is away at the time, he travels with the group to Washington, D.C., where he awakens to find himself drugged and bound in chains. Severed from his previous life, he is given the name Platt, shipped off to Louisiana, and forced into slavery. Early on, Solomon, untrained in the ways of servitude, resists. He responds to his circumstances as one would hope any free individual would do, not just denying that he is a slave but also adding, “I will have satisfaction for this wrong.” That line might give viewers the false expectation of a revenge film — something 12 Years a Slave most definitely is not. It is rather a story of endurance, courage, and hope in the midst of grave injustice.
For his resistance, Solomon/Platt is given severe beatings and taunted with the not-so-rhetorical question, “Are you a slave?” Another slave warns him: “Tell no one who you are and tell no one you can read or write, unless you want to be a dead nigger.” The incompatibility between education and slavery is a leitmotif of 19th-century writing about slavery. Tocqueville notes it, as does Frederick Douglass, who concludes: “to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”
To survive, Solomon/Platt must not only avoid active resistance; he must also pretend to be what he is not, a contented slave. His path from freedom to slavery makes him a fitting vehicle for the communication of the evils of slavery to those who cannot imagine themselves as slaves. He begins where every ordinary free citizen begins. The focus of the film is on the dramatic contrast between, on the one hand, the expectation of an ordinary life rich with work, leisure, and family and, on the other, a nightmare condition of barbaric injustice. Ejiofor is magnificent as Solomon/Platt. He manages to accommodate himself, sometimes with great anguish, to his state of servitude without ever surrendering to it. He maintains his sense of dignity throughout, and his life is testimony to the possibility of transcendence in the midst of the most oppressive of conditions.
The film is organized around a series of harrowing scenes, including the initial violence of the kidnapping. In an early, emotionally wrenching scene, a mother is mercilessly separated from her children. As the slave owner insouciantly advises her that children are soon forgotten, she is consumed by grief. Yet the horror of these scenes is modest in comparison with what is to come.
Solomon/Platt’s first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), has some sense of fairness. Still, Platt runs into trouble. He gets into a scrap with one of the white hired hands on the plantation over the quality of his work. The confrontation spirals out of control, in part because the white man cannot abide to have a black slave question his judgment. With the help of his co-workers, the hired hand manages to find a noose and hang Platt from a tree. Thanks to the intervention of a higher-up in the chain of command, Platt is saved from death, but he is left in the noose with his toes barely touching the ground. What is especially striking about this scene is the way life simply goes on around Platt as he struggles mightily to keep himself from asphyxiation. The woman of the house pauses to observe him before turning coldly away; slave children play merrily in the yard.
After this confrontation, Ford decides to sell Platt to Master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic tyrant with a twisted sense of divine vengeance. He attributes the failure of his crops to a biblical curse brought on by the presence of the black slaves. He humiliates slaves by waking them in the middle of the night and forcing them to dance for the white residents. But these incidents pale by comparison to the physical punishments he inflicts on those whom he deems disobedient.
Epps’s malice is eclipsed only by that of his wife (Sarah Paulson), whose jealousy over Epps’s sexual obsession with a female slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), sets up the most stomach-churning scene of the film. Caught in a minor act of disobedience, Patsey incurs the censure of Edwin Epps and the wrath of his wife. Mrs. Epps demands an extensive whipping, which Epps initiates before forcing Platt to finish the torture, with the threat that if he doesn’t comply, Epps will start killing slaves.
The camera captures everything here, as does the microphone. The graphic and relentless depiction of violence might call to mind Quentin Tarantino’s slave-era film Django Unchained, but, as is typical of Tarantino films, the violence there is so outlandish that it has a cartoonish feel to it. No such detachment is permitted viewers of 12 Years a Slave. In fact, in its unflinching presentation of violence, 12 Years a Slave most closely resembles the flogging scenes in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.
In addition to the visual violence, which makes us feel the horror of slavery, 12 Years a Slave includes dialogue about the evil of slavery. Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), an abolitionist who works on the Epps plantation, attempts to engage Epps in a debate about the morality of slavery. Epps cites the legality of slavery. When Bass asks what Epps would think about the passing of a law that would take away his liberty, Epps can only say that he finds that inconceivable. Expanding on this point, Bass contrasts the mutability of conventional laws with “universal truths” in the eyes of God. He warns that the “fearful ill” of slavery necessitates a “day of reckoning.”
The argument of the film is that there is some sort of standard (human nature, natural law, divine sanction) that provides a basis for adjudicating between just and unjust customs, fair and unfair laws.
The film also captures the complex presence of religion in the world of slavery. The slave owner Master Ford is a Baptist preacher, whose hypocrisy is subtly suggested in a scene in which his reading of the Gospel is drowned out by the grieving moans of the mother who has been separated from her children. But the promise and hope of Scripture as inspiration for slaves is also evident. It is powerfully depicted in a scene in which the slaves sing the spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll.” Their singing of the “sorrow songs” encapsulates the brilliance of the entire film, its success in communicating the anguish and defiance, the sorrow and hope — in short, the full humanity of the slave.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published last year by Baylor University Press.