12 Years A Slave is the greatest work of art about slavery that the world has ever known or ever will know. That was my assessment when I first saw the film nearly a month ago, and that’s my assessment now.
It’s taken some time for me to wade through the sea of emotions I felt in the wake of seeing 12 Years A Slave and engaging the critical conversation around it. I saw the movie at an industry screening and Q&A with the film’s director, Steve McQueen, the British fine artist turned filmmaker of African descent who’s previous films are the Michael Fassbinder starrers Hunger and Shame, and three of the film’s stars, the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the lead role of Solomon Northrop, the American actress Alfre Woodard who plays a former slaved turned planter’s mistress, and the great discovery of the year, the Kenyan born-Yale educated actress Lupita Ngong’o, who’s riveting turn as the slave Patsey has earned her a place in the acting pantheon. Ms. Woodard rightly tipped her hat as well to her white co-stars, whose courageous work was as essential to McQueen’s accomplishment as was that of the African diaspora stars — representing three continents! — who shared the stage that night. I want to make special note of the work of three of those actors, starting with Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s riding high this moviegoing season with lauded performances in three important films, 12 Years A Slave, The Fifth Estate, and the much anticipated August Osage County, which received a long and rousing standing ovation when I saw it on the Broadway stage. The miracle of Cumberbatch’s work as the slave owning Ford is his ability to imbue his compassionate master with genuine humanity and fellow-feeling towards Northrop, whom he clearly understood as his equal or, as he seemed to understand, his better, but who nonetheless did nothing to restore Northrop to the freedom from which he knew he’d been stolen, opting instead to use Northrop — his property no matter how that came to be — to satisfy his debts.
I can’t speak of 12 Years without mentioning Sarah Paulson, who delivers the performance of her storied career. Paulson is a fine, fine actress whom I hope to one day see in a lead role (perhaps on cable TV). As Mistress Epps, the wife of the brutal slave master Edwin Epps, she serves up, in just a few scenes, a complex analysis of the race, gender and sexual politics were born of the peculiar institution of American slavery, and given expression in the forcible rape of enslaved women by their masters, and the parallel bondage of their rapist’s and master’s wives, who being powerless to control their husbands and powerless to leave, took out their rage and pain the only place they could: upon the bodies and beings of the twice victimized slave women and their mixed race progeny.
Finally, I must speak the name of Michael Fassbender, who re-teams with McQueen for the third time, having played the Irish republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, and a sex addict, in McQueen’s other films. Fassbinder’s Edwin Epps is the living embodiment of human agony, and what human pain looks like when it is turned outward against the world. Fassbinder’s performance answers the question of what it is inside of a human being that allows us to commit barbaric acts of inhumanity against our fellow man.
McQueen’s great achievement with 12 Years A Slave is making slavery accessible, and, in so doing, creating a mandate and an opportunity for us to look deeply at the one thing we as Americans must not look away from, and that is our slave past. “Accessibility” can be a dirty word in creative circles, but as someone who’s interested in artistic and aesthetic achievement and in telling universal stories that speak to our common humanity, I consider the creation of an accessible work of art a high achievement.
McQueen’s work has been criticized for telling the story of an atypical slave, which Solomon Northrop, who was born free and lived a fairly elevated life in Saratoga, New York before he was enticed and kidnapped into slavery certainly was. I would contend, however, that in telling the story of Solomon Northrop, a man so like “us” that it’s impossible to maintain the distance we usually maintain from the horrors of slavery, McQueen leapfrogs over the racial empathy gap that causes all of us, including those of us who are African-American, to imagine that blacks experience less pain, a belief that has real world implications for pain management in medical settings, the rates of conviction and severity of sentencing African-Americans face relatives to white counterparts charged with similar crimes, and whether we are or are not upset when a black man is gunned down under questionable or even criminal circumstances.
In choosing a narrative direction that causes us to stand in Solomon Northrop’s moccasins, McQueen requires us to engage slavery not as an academic exercise, but as a human and visceral one. He causes us to know the unique emotional, physical and psychological brutality of slavery, and to know it as a slave. Early on, for example (spoiler alert) we meet a woman who’s “allowed” her body to be used by her master in hope of buying herself and her children a better life, a strategy that works until her master — whose child she has also born — dies and his mistress sells her and her children down the river where they are forcibly separated for what we can assume will be the balance of their lives. Along the way, we also meet a man who refuses to compromise his dignity (and who tries to intervene on behalf of a woman about to be raped) and pays for his refusal with his life. And we meet go along to get along slaves who understand that their very survival depends on their ability to be subservient enough, a lesson Northrop will learn along the way, in ways so painful that his education in what it means to be a slave becomes our education. In presenting the full range of slave and slave master “types,” which the film succeeds in presenting them as full-blown human beings, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley offer a master class on the psychological and factual truths of American slavery. Through their characters, they have presented the full range of strategies that African-Americans used to survive or defy slavery, strategies that find their subsequent expression in the participatory strategies of the Civil Rights era or the Reconstruction period, during which African-Americans held elected office and attempted to build conventional lives before Reconstruction was abounded in favor of white supremacist violence and the scourge of Jim Crow, and equally in the the black nationalist strategies, such as the Black Panther Party movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. 12 Years asks us to reconsider the judgments we sometimes make in the face of strategies that are discordant with our own. In the African-American community, we have typically disparaged the proverbial “Uncle Tom,” the black man or woman who we see as master’s yes man,” and yet it is undeniable that we stand on the shoulders of men and women who did what they had to do to survive and their forbearance is a model for those of us who have made compromises in the face of racism in order to achieve goals that not only advance our lives, but that also advance opportunities for the race.
Another criticism that 12 Years A Slave has received is that it’s too physically beautiful and that its beauty takes away from the brutality of the story it purports to tell. If you’ve seen the film, you know this isn’t true. The film is a beauty to look at and that distracts not one iota from the wretched pain I felt watching it or from the wretched pain that the sobbing woman next to me must have felt. It’s also just a silly criticism. I am from the Deep South and it is a lush and beautiful and magical place. That the brutality of slavery existed alongside this beauty is part of the point. Years ago, I visited a slave plantation on the James River in Virginia, where they somehow managed not to mention the slaves accept as an aside in the china room when the docent mentioned the selling off of property such as furniture or china or slaves. The James River is a magnificent thing, a big and wide and beautiful river fronted by sloping plantations with breathtaking views. Standing out on that lawn, gazing upon that beauty, the only thing I thought was, “If I was a slave, I would have had to rise up and kill my master just so I could spend one afternoon sipping a mint julep on this lawn.” The juxtaposition of all that beauty and all that wretchedness matters. McQueen, who is as brilliant as he is visually astute, surely knew that.
Finally, 12 Years A Slave has been criticized for the “sin” of depicting slavery at all. Some felt like it was too much already, as if we’re all drowning in the two inches of stories about slavery that we’ve been subjected to. I can personally think of three: Roots (which came out in the 70’s), Django Unchained and now 12 Years A Slave. Others, most notably the critic Richard Brody who, writing for The New Yorker, questioned whether McQueen trivialized or exploited the suffering of Northrop and other slaves by the act of depicting their lives on screen. It’s a peculiar and insulting criticism. We trivialize the lives of slaves when we don’t tell their stories, when we erase their particular humanity from the history books. If we want to make their suffering mean something, then we must tell those stories more often, and the particular stories, real and fictional, matter. It matters that we know the name and particular story of Frederick Douglas. It matters that we can speak Nat Turner’s name, and Harriet Tubman’s name, and Sojourner Truth’s name and, now, Solomon Northrop’s name. In speaking the names, in telling the stories, we give the lie to the peculiar institution’s insistence that African-American men, women and children are less human by virtue of the color of their skin, or by virtue of their condition of servitude and all the losses that attended that, losses that were so beautifully illustrated in McQueen’s film. Among these losses were the lost ability to develop intellectual gifts and the lost ability to pursue self-sufficiency. We are living with that legacy even today. When young black children accuse black children who are performing well academically of “acting white” (and trust me, it’s meant as an insult, as evidence of Uncle Tom-ism, if you will), it’s because we carry inside of us the psychological legacy of knowing that learning to read could cost you your life. And if black people are less entrepreneurial than other people (including blacks who have immigrated from other countries and therefore do not share our psychologically legacy), it’s because, black men and women in the era following Reconstruction faced laws that made it illegal for them to sell their goods at a living wage and sometimes faced death for being so “uppity” as to suppose that they could run a business of their own. In telling the story of Soloman Northrop, a man who is broken into slavery, gradually learning to shed the external expression of his knowledge and intellect in order to survive long enough to return to his family and their dignified life, McQueen helps us understand how African-Americans as a group learned to be less than we are.
And yet, as Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr’s informative documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross, airing this month on PBS, so clearly illustrates, American slaves and their descendants may have been altered by the adversity of slavery, Jim Crow and the continuing legacy of American racism, they also never let go of their understanding that they deserved to be free. If slaves adopted various strategies to survive slavery, they also adopted strategies to end their enslavement. During the American Revolution, enslaved men and women joined forces with the British to suppress the American rebellion in exchange for their freedom if the British won. Upon learning that Spanish-held St. Augustine, Florida was a free territory, enslaved men and women rose up in rebellion and marched toward freedom or simply slipped off into the night. Enslaved men and women led and participated in slave uprisings, they built the Underground Railroad, they negotiated with their masters to buy their freedom or the freedom of their loved ones. And always, free black men and women built lives of dignity for themselves and others, founding colleges and churches and building intellectual and entrepreneurial legacies that paved the way for generations of African-American achievement. I come from a long line of ministers in the A.M.E. church, founded by free blacks during slavery. I also come from a family of people who were college educated starting in the 1800’s. I owe that legacy, and the legacy of African-American success in all its forms, to those first free blacks who decided to make away, not just for themselves, but for us all.
I’ll say it again. 12 Years A Slave is the greatest work of art about slavery that the world has ever known or ever will know. It pulled a curtain back so that we might take another look at the legacy of slavery and decide that instead of telling ourselves the lie that “that was then” when the tentacles of slavery so clearly reach into our present, we can go back to first principles and consider, as the historian and Columbia University Professor Christopher Brown put it in Skip Gates’ film, that “None of it exists without slavery. There are no settlements. There is no 13 colonies without slavery. There is no United States without slavery. There’s no Independence movement without slavery. The whole thing is built upon slavery. That’s why they [the Founding Fathers] didn’t abolish it.” So central was the acquisition of slaves to the acquisition of wealth,” Brown continues, “that, without slavery, the American colonies would not have flourished and the American nation would not have been born.” From the earliest days, slavery in the Americas was based on race. Which is why American can never be done with race.
PHOTOGRAPHY via Fox Searchlight Pictures
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.