Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 14 min. Our advisories: Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
“We allude to the existence of the free black population in the United States, than which a more indolent, degraded, corrupting, miserable class of beings does not exist within the pale of civilized society. Destitute of moral principle, and devoid of native energy, their mode of life is in unison with the base propensities of their nature, which they seek alone to gratify.”
From p. 491 of “A Plan of National Colonization” in Bible Defense of Slavery, published in Glasgow, KY, 1853. (Same year as Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave.)
Director Steve McQueen’s film, based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup, gives quite a different picture of a free black person than the two ministers responsible for the above quoted book, a long and repetitious (“the curse on Ham” is constantly reiterated) attack on abolitionism. In 1841 Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a well-dressed married man whose skills include building, engineering, and playing the fiddle. He lives with his wife and children in an elegant frame house in Saratoga, New York, where leading white citizens hold him in high esteem (which will prove very important years later).
Lured by two smooth talking tricksters to Washington DC with the promise of a handsomely rewarding job playing his fiddle in a circus, he is treated to a dinner at which the pair keep replenishing his wine glass. (This was a surprising scene in that the upscale restaurant would serve a mixed race party, given the proslavery society of Washington in 1841!) He wakes the next morning manacled and chained in a slave holding cell. When he protests that he is a free man, the attendant beats him into silence, declaring that he is an escaped slave from Georgia.
A fellow prisoner warns him not to reveal that he can read and write if he wants to survive, to which Solomon replies, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” However, he will soon learn that if he is to live, he must first survive, and that that task is not easy, beatings and death occurring all around and, in the case of the former, to him. He and his fellow captives, some of whom actually are captured runaways, are taken by steamboat to New Orleans, where slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) inspects them and displays them as if they were cattle. He dismisses Solomon’s claim to his own name, telling him that he now is “Pratt.” Inviting his customers to partake of refreshments as they look over his merchandise, he praises one for his strength and Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a young mother, for her looks. Her young son and even younger daughter cling to her shirt.
“…and this is the circumstance of separating the families of slaves, by their being sometimes sold to other masters, On this subject, abolitionists argue the same as they would were the case their own, imagining that Negro parents feel such a circumstance as acutely, and as sentimentally as white families would under similar circumstances. But this is a mistake, we believe, and does not apply to the negro’s case, as it would to that of the whites on account of a want of the higher intellectual faculties of the mind of the blacks, On occasions of severe bereavement, the feelings of Negro parents seem to be of shorter duration…” Ibid, p. 382
The purchase of the slaves is accompanied by a black fiddler playing discretely. All is calm and orderly, with planter William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) buying Pratt and Eliza. Eliza begs Ford to buy her remaining child when the other is bought by a different planter, but Ford says that the price is too high, whereupon Eliza shrieks loudly, disrupting the proceedings. When Ford brings his new purchases home, his wife and house servants stand by the steps of the spacious white mansion, looking on as the slaves are unloaded from the wagon, Eliza still sobbing. The wife evinces a note of distaste when her husband tells her that Eliza’s children were sold to others, but then she says to the weeping mother, “Your children will soon be forgotten.”
Life on the plantation is harsh, and Eliza does not forget her children, weeks afterward still sobbing and moaning during waking hours. The Overseer (Dickie Gravois) and his Field Boss (Paul Dano) are cruel, warning the newcomers about whippings meted out as punishment for infringements of any rule. The slaves are put to work cutting down trees and bringing the stripped trunks to the plantation’s sawmill. Field Boss John Tibeats takes a special disliking for Pratt when the latter suggests that it would be a lot quicker to tie the tree trunks together for rafts and pole them along the canal rather than haul them overland through the brush to the mill. Tibeats scornfully turns down the suggestion, but the open-minded Ford tells Pratt to give it a try, and is delighted when Pratt proves to be right.
Tibeats, upset by this, criticizes and taunts Pratt until the latter resists, struggling against his oppressor, beating the smaller white man to the ground and whipping him. Tibeats runs off, returning with two burly men who start to hang the slave from a tree. The Overseer rushes in just in time to drive off the three, but he leaves Pratt strung up, barely able to keep himself from strangulation by supporting his body on tiptoe in the mud. The day drags on with Pratt struggling to stay up on his toes. Sadly, the mistress sees this but does nothing, and all the slaves but one go about their chores as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. The exception is a female slave who hurriedly gives Pratt a drink of water before running off. When Ford returns home that night, he cuts the rope and brings the prostrate mud-caked Pratt into the mansion, laying him on a blanket.
Pratt’s fortunes sink even lower when Ford comes upon hard times and Pratt is sold to the vicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has any field hand falling short of picking the daily allotment of cotton whipped.
“Here the well being of the slave is a matter of deep interest to the master. Like the venerable Patriarchs of olden time, they delight to administer to the wants and happiness of those whom God has committed to their hands. If the slave is sick, a physician administers to his wants; if hungry or naked, he has but to look to his master who provides what is necessary without any care on the part of the slave No constable or sheriff dogs his steps, for he is out of debt and free from all responsibility, save that of good and blessed behavior.” Ibid, p. 417
Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) always picks two or three times as much as the other hands, but a word of praise is her only reward. She bonds with Pratt, though he is reluctant to have sex with her. Epps isn’t however, frequently sneaking out and raping her right in the crude cabin where the men lie in their bunks pretending not to be awake. Thus everyone is aware of this, including Mary (Sarah Paulson), Epp’s jealous wife. In the book she tries to bribe Pratt to take Eliza to the edge of the swamp and drown her, but in the film, evidently to show how far into despair the slave girl has sunk, it is Patsey herself who pleads with Pratt to drown her. Either way, he refuses. He tells the girl he is worried about their souls, but she responds that God is a god of mercy and would not condemn him because his killing her would be an act of mercy.
As events unfold both Patsey and Pratt receive further degradation and whippings, these scenes being very difficult to watch, the raw wounds on their backs (and of many other’s as well) revealed in all their gruesomeness by the camera. One of the degradations is Epp’s rousing them from their sleep and forcing them to come into his mansion to perform a dance to a tune played by Pratt, while he and (sometimes) guests looked on with amusement. Pratt sinks into the same slough of despond engulfing Patsey, especially after one of the slaves dies from his mistreatment. In a scene sure to earn Chiwetel Ejiofor at least an Oscar nod, if not the award itself, we see him standing with his fellow slaves by the side of the pitiful little plot set aside for dead slaves. The others are singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” but Pratt stands silently for what seems like a long time. In a medium and then a close shot of his face we can see by the glacial change of his expression his spirit slowly being lifted up by the song. First he just mouths the words. Then we can hear his voice starting to blend with the others. By the time he is singing with enthusiasm, his earlier expressionless face has been transfigured into one of hope. His dream of returning to his family is reborn. We can see the return of his earlier determination, not just to survive, but to live.
“In the bosom of the a Negro man, the idea of liberty, freedom and independence, does not give rise to the same sensations, hopes, and expectations, that it does in the bosom of the whites. To the mind of a slave, or even of a free black man, with but small exception, the idea of liberty is but the idea of a holyday, in which they are to be let loose from all restraint or control; they are to play, work, or sleep, as may suit their inclination, following out to the utmost, the perfect indulgence of indolence, stupidity, and the animal passions.” Ibid, pp. 387-388.
A couple of times we expect Pratt to run away in order to achieve his dream of liberty, especially when sent into town on an errand for supplies. He does leave the well-trod trail through the woods, but is soon stopped by a party of whites about to hang some captured runaways. The whites no doubt constitute one of the patrols ubiquitous throughout the South, empowered to run down and capture any slave trying to escape to the North. Explaining his errand, Pratt heads to town. His eventual return to freedom is more prosaic, brought about through the good graces of an itinerant Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a rare man who dares to express to Epp his disdain for slavery. As Pratt works alongside the unorthodox white man, his protective reserve begins to dissolve—earlier another white man to whom he had revealed his desire for freedom had betrayed him—and he bares his soul, telling his incredible story. What happens next will warm your heart, though this will be tempered by the realization that those left behind by Solomon will secure no such justice for themselves.
Director Steve McQueen’s film is important in that most Americans have been raised on the false view of the South engendered in the masterfully made Gone With the Wind, in which the only blow struck against a slave was Scarlett’s slapping the overly excitable house slave Prissy. This and most films (including Westerns in which the hero is often a former rebel soldier) depicting the South show it as a land of cultivated people dedicated to a lost cause and victimized by rapacious Yankees after the War Between the States. 12 Years a Slave, rips the cover off the phrase The Southern Way of Life to reveal the brute force upon which it was built. To his credit Quinten Tarantino’s Django Unchained attempted to do this, the whippings and lynching shown in gory detail, but the film turned out to be a blood-soaked revenge fantasy so out of touch with reality as to make it more of a Marvel Comics tale than a slice of history.
Mr. McQueen reminds us of the brutal origins of the racism that still infects us as a society, despite our election of a black president. During the last election President Obama was often depicted as an African savage or an ape or monkey by organizations of the far right. (See the infamous Tea Party Comix .) If enough Americans go out and then discuss the film, it would be a sign of progress in our continual struggle against racism. The excerpts from the antebellum Bible Defense of Slavery juxtaposed throughout this review illustrate the racism prevalent not just among Southerners but also among all too many Northerners as well t that time. The Peculiar Institution may have been located south of the Ohio River, but the racism supporting it knew no bounds of geography—and, we must add, no boundaries of time as well. Alan Dershowitz called this film the African-American Schindler’s List. A pretty good comparison, though I think a more apt one would be to the popular 1977 TV adaptation of Alex Hailey’s Roots. A few days after its airing a white funeral director said to me on the way to the cemetery, “Now I understand why so many blacks are so angry.” I hope there will be a similar reaction among white viewers to this film. Now that I have written the review I can hardly wait to get to working on the Reflection/Discussion questions! This is a “must see” film for every adult and teenager.
Addendum on Bible Defense of Slavery
I came across this cloth bound book when preaching at Dryridge Presbyterian Church, located in the most southern part of Cincinnati Presbyter, almost 40 miles south of the Ohio River. I vowed that someday I would examine it more closely. Oddly enough, the very next Sunday I was filling in at the Ripley Presbyterian Church, once served by the most famous abolitionist of the region, John Rankin, who, with his wife and sons helped a large number of runaway slaves escape north to freedom in Canada. Thus in the course of a week I spanned the two irreconcilable sides that divided our nation in the 19th century.
As soon as Steve McQueen’s film came out, I sought permission to borrow the book (I am currently serving as moderator of the church’s session and occasionally still fill in for the pastor.) Scanning and speed-reading my way through the book’s yellowed pages, I came upon the above quoted passages that reveal the beliefs that motivated such slave owners and their white underlings in the film. This, the sixth edition of a book originally published in 1843, was issued 160 years ago, but the beliefs of its authors can still be found in the hearts and minds of too many Americans. After writing all of the above I came across an on-line edition of Bible Defense of Slavery provided by the University of Pittsburgh’s University Library System. You can also read the text of 12 Years a Slave, complete with its 7 illustrations–just click onto either title.
The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the December issue of Visual Parables, which will be available late in November.