Editor’s note at 11:05 pm: At tonight’s Golden Globes, 12 Years a Slave won the award for Best Picture in the Drama Category. Director Steve McQueen, along with members of the cast took the stage to accept the award. The film was snubbed in its six other nominations. Best actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor lost to Matthew McConaughey of the Dallas Buyers Club. Other nominees included supporting actor Michael Fassbender, supporting actress Lupita Nyong'o, director Steve McQueen, best screenplay and best original score.
The horrors of slavery in the American South come powerfully alive for audiences of 12 Years a Slave, as the film follows the agony of an individual man deprived of his freedom. And a real man, not a made-up one, for the freeborn man of color Solomon Northup, kidnapped and brutally enslaved, lived to publish the tale the year after his dramatic rescue in 1852. He told, as well, of two slave women who appear in the film: Eliza, cruelly separated from her children, and the plucky and skilled Patsey, the object of her master’s lust and his wife’s jealous fury.
“Is this really true?” viewers ask historians who have read Northup’s book. We can answer that for the themes selected by Steve McQueen and his scriptwriter, John Ridley, the film usually draws faithfully on Northup’s memoir. The haunting punishment scene in which Northup is hanged by his neck from a tree, his toes barely touching the ground, is close, if a little worse, to torture he himself described. The terrible scene in which Northup, under orders from his master Epps, lashes Patsey’s back to a sea of bloody welts is exactly as Northup remembered it. And such events can be documented on other plantations.
Viewers empathize with Solomon Northup partly because of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s compelling performance. But, as Steve McQueen may have intuited from his perch in England and Amsterdam, a freeborn, elegantly dressed family man of Saratoga, N.Y., can be identified with more directly by North American audiences, even by those of us seeking our roots in many lands, than can, say, the young Igbo Olaudah Equiano, kidnapped from Nigeria some 90 years earlier.
Through such identification McQueen leads us deep into the moral implications of slavery as an institution and to issues with resonance in our own day. In Epps, whose mixed passions are vividly expressed by Michael Fassbender, we see the license for appalling behavior permitted to owners. The benign master Ford, who gives Northup a fiddle, is still a slave-owner caught in the system. But Northup himself is implicated. He fiddles for white folks’ balls at the bayou plantations; how else to get a few coins? Cherishing his free origin and family, which he must hide under his slave name, Platt, he only gradually feels full solidarity with the women and men with whom he works, all of them born into slavery.
Even then, when commanded to beat Patsey, he throws down his lash only after 50 blows. And once rescuers come and establish his free status, he can leave, though his face is anguished as he looks back at the crying Patsey and the other slaves. The moral tension is eased only by the text flashed up at the end of the film telling us that Northup published his book with all their stories and became an active abolitionist.
Slaves had other ways to cope with massive control, as do people incarcerated in prison camps and occupied territories: forms of collective life and resistance. McQueen’s film does rather little with this, and some American reviewers have yearned for more group backbone. The slaves apply salve to each other’s wounds, and sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” as they bury an overworked comrade, but that’s about it. Northup fights an overseer threatening to kill him and secretly tries to contact people up North who can help him, but he’s on his own. In his book, Northup actually described a group contrivance to trick master Epps and to ease his own conscience as a black slave-driver, a role he had for eight years. When Epps was near the cotton fields, Northup would flick the whip vigorously but never touch the slaves, who would meanwhile shout, writhe and complain loudly about the driver’s blows—potentially a great scene.
The social critic Frank Rich, who liked the film and hoped it would “touch young minds,” thought it naive to believe that because you had a “good cry” at a movie, its “magic” was going to change anything profound about American racism. But 12 Years a Slave generates more than “a good cry.” It leaves searing images in viewers’ memories and a striking tale talked about afterward, questioned and debated. The outpouring of articles and blogs on the film has been enormous and has included calls for other kinds of films. So we can expect feature films drawn like 12 Years from an ex-slave narrative: Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Jacobs, and Hannah Crafts may come into their own on screen. But we can also expect films that prefer to take slave revolts in the Americas and the Caribbean as their entry into this troubling history.
The Maritime Museum in Amsterdam has a current exhibition on slavery in the Dutch colonies, which centers on the shipwreck of the slave ship Leusden. Five hundred African men and women, locked in their holds, were left to drown near the Suriname shore. On the way out of the museum, visitors are asked to cast their vote, yes or no, whether reparations should be given for slavery. I wonder what would happen if movie-goers were asked that question after seeing 12 Years a Slave, with its intimate story and moral complexity. For sure, reparations should pay for what this film invites: more truth-telling and a quest for justice.
Natalie Zemon Davis is professor of history emeritus at Princeton University and currently associated with the University of Toronto. Her books include The Return of Martin Guerre (she also served as historical consultant for the French movie by that name) and Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. She has recently published a study on slaves' experience of criminal justice in colonial Suriname and is also completing a book entitled Braided Histories: Four Generations of a Slave Family in Colonial Suriname.