12 YEARS A SLAVE: Glory Without Redemption

12 YEARS A SLAVE: Glory Without Redemption

12 Years a Slave has arrived in
theatres already barnacled with expectations. In its festival appearances, it
met with critical acclaim, and Oscar odds-makers had already slated it for various
awards. Viewers buy their tickets, sit down in their seats, wait for the lights
to dim, and expect great things. But viewers also have other, deeper
expectations. The dominant cinematic story of slavery has been the story of
white redemption and white heroism against an unfortunate institution
perpetuated only by the most sadistic of bad white men. Even today, it is
exceedingly rare to find a story about slavery that doesn’t emphasize how
good-hearted white people can be and how inherently just, good, and equal
America is. In American movies, black suffering redeems white characters and
affirms white nobility. 

12 Years
a Slave

tells a different story, but because the familiar narrative has conditioned us
to view “slave movies” as a genre, we — especially white viewers — may find our
expectations unsettled. This unsettling is one of the great virtues of the

This is a movie about slavery in the United
States from 1841 to 1853. We watch such a movie anticipating not entertainment
but enrichment, enlightenment even, though only after emotional hardship. We
expect to see terrible deeds committed by white men with Southern accents and
whips, we expect to see downtrodden, suffering black people. We expect
feelings. This affective and narrative pattern dates back at least to Uncle
Tom’s Cabin
, published a year before Solomon Northup, the movie’s
protagonist, was returned to freedom. The pattern was reiterated through
various slave narratives, where it usually served the specific and necessary
purposes of abolitionist propaganda: to educate white people, to help them see
and feel the horror of slavery, to teach them that slaves and escaped slaves
have emotions and thoughts, that such people can and should be empathized with,
that laws should be changed and slavery ended.

Solomon Northup contributed to this literature
with his own memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, one which was especially
detailed and forthright because, unlike many other ex-slaves (relatively few of
whom were able to escape from the deep south, as he did), Northup’s status as a
free man was well-established in court, so he had little to fear from his
former owners.

The average contemporary American viewer — and
particularly, like me, a white viewer — likely has a head full of ideas and
images of slavery not so much from primary sources, but elsewhere: various
novels, educational documentaries, television movies. Even Northup’s story,
which waned in popularity after the Civil War, was adapted for PBS’s American
in 1984 by director Gordon Parks as Solomon Northup’s Odyssey,
a staid, conventional, lugubrious adaptation. (Parks might have made a great
movie from the material, having directed not just Shaft but also an occasionally powerful biopic of Leadbelly. He was
not, though, able to break out of the standard formula for TV movies about
historical characters, and the performances often seem forced and amateur.)

Despite the images in our heads, though, there
have been few feature films that have sought to depict the everyday realities
and brutalities of slave life in any extended way, and most have been, at best,
problematic. The most viscerally affecting slavery films have both in some
manner been based in a tradition of gothicism and spectacle: Mandingo
(1975) and Django Unchained (2012). These films dig deep into the
sordidness and violence of the milieu, highlighting the sadistic psychopathy
bred by the system and, in the case of Mandingo especially, the flows of
psychosexual power. More than representations of any actual history, both are
in dialogue with the history of slavery’s representation on screen, and they
draw their effect not only from what they show but how they evoke, parody,
critique, and enact the cinematic past.

Too often, Hollywood has been unable to escape
the patterns established with The Birth of a Nation (the first movie to
be shown in the White House) and Gone with the Wind, those two great
gravitational forces that warped the depiction of race and slavery in cinema
for decades. “For many years,” Robin Wood wrote in Sexual Politics
and Narrative Cinema
, “Gone with the Wind, with its
overwhelming prestige and popularity (reinforced and perpetuated by its various
revivals), had offered general audiences a sentimental travesty of white/black
relations and the ‘realities’ of slavery in the Deep South: the proposition
that some Southern families were kind to ‘their’ blacks (the truth of which one
doesn’t have to doubt) not only distracted attention from the many that weren’t
but obliterated the fundamental humiliation, the fact of slavery itself.”

Wood points to a key fault with many of even the
most liberal and best-intentioned films depicting slavery: they distract
attention from fundamental evils by focusing on the sympathies and
sensitivities of white audiences. This tradition of appeasing white audiences
was central to the success, for instance, of the phenomenally popular 1984 TV
mini-series Roots. In that case, the producers were careful to highlight
white actors in promotional materials and to not only deliberately increase the
presence of white characters in the story, but also to provide more positive
and sympathetic white characters than Alex Haley’s book had. The head writer of
the TV series, William Blinn, said, “It was … unwise, we thought, to do
four hours of television without showing a white person with whom we could
identify.” Roots also deliberately emphasized the inherent goodness
of the United States and the exoticism of Africa in a way that Haley had not. Africa
became, in the words of scholars Lauren R. Tucker and Hemant Shah, more like
“an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute than the living, breathing,
thriving community Haley describes.”

The precedent of these patterns and proclivities may
condition many viewers’ expectations for what is acceptable and appropriate in
a movie that depicts slavery. Our idea of what a “slave movie” is or
should be gets coupled with our idea of what a “great movie” should
be, and that’s further coupled with our expectations for what makes a movie
Oscar-worthy. These assumptions shape the lenses we wear when we sit down to
watch 12 Years a Slave.

Steve McQueen is aware of these assumptions, and
part of the power of his film derives from his careful acknowledgment and then
undermining of those assumptions. The wonder of 12 Years a Slave is that
it is, indeed, fully a movie about slavery, a great movie, and an Oscar-worthy

It is a movie about slavery in a way that almost
all movies concerned with slavery have not been. It pays attention to details
of slave life with rare patience and precision, vividly conveying not only the
horrors and humiliations of that life, but the basic details of the labor
itself: what it is to pick cotton, what it is to cut sugar cane. Further,
because this is a film for an adult audience, a film not seeking to be shown as
an after-school special, it does not flinch from the violence inherent in the
slave system. As he did in his first film, Hunger, McQueen allows the
camera to linger on bodies in pain. This is not violence as spectacle — the
actual representation of blood and gore is no worse than the average episode of
Criminal Minds or Bones. But the violence feels more graphic than
anything in a splatter movie, never mind network TV, because McQueen is willing
to let pain linger.

Further, our identification is consistently with
the victims, which keeps the pain meaningful. In the book Twelve Years a
, Northup speaks of the power of the slave system to make callousness
contagious, and especially of the power that witnessing daily atrocities has to
numb even the best souls and turn otherwise peaceful people into brutes.
“The influence” he writes, “of the iniquitous system necessarily
fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosoms of those who, among
their equals, are regarded as humane and generous.” We similarly worry
about the effects of representations of violence on audiences — could watching
even the most honorably and realistically-presented acts of violence have the
effect of inuring us to its horror? Could a well-intentioned film about
slavery, one that tries to represent its viciousness without blinking, instead
dull viewers’ concern?

It’s a problem that 12 Years a Slave
confronts through the time it spends on particular people and images, and thus the
manner in which it asks us to think and feel our way through the narrative.

In an early scene, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a
man born into freedom in the north, has just woken to discover he has been
kidnapped and bound in chains. He denies that he is a slave to his jailer, who
takes a paddle and beats him. We see the board smash into Solomon’s back again
and again, but from a side angle, not one that shows us the damage being done.
We see some bits of blood here and there. We hear Solomon’s screams, see the
agony on his face, the torture through his muscles. We see the paddle splinter
and break. The scene goes on longer than most directors and editors would let
it, but it needs to: to cut too soon would be to allow it to be less painful,
more entertaining, more a spectacle. We may think: “Okay, I get it, he’s
being beaten. Okay, can’t we move on? Isn’t there a story to get to?”
Finally, it stops, and we are relieved. 

But McQueen is not done with this. We might relax
as the next scene begins, as we are ready for our emotions to be given some
moment of respite, but this is, in fact, masterful misdirection. As Solomon
talks with a slaver, the man tells Solomon to take off his ruined shirt. We see
Solomon from the front. The shirt is, indeed, torn and soiled. Reluctantly, he
removes it. Finally, we see the shirt’s back: fabric soaked with blood. The
audience I was with gasped at this moment. We had let our guard down. We knew,
of course, what the paddle would have done to his back. We knew,
intellectually, the pain inflicted. Here, though, we felt it in a deeper way
than if we had simply seen Solomon’s back as he is beaten, or immediately

12 Years a Slave is distinct because,
again and again, McQueen chooses to make his film more about experience than
information. Many incidents from Northup’s narrative are either barely glanced
at or skipped altogether. The challenge for any adaptation of this story is to
fit the experience of twelve years into two hours.

And this is where 12 Years a Slave reveals
its greatness. First, there is the triumph of its structure (how much of which
is the responsibility of screenwriter John Ridley, I don’t know, as I haven’t
seen the script). The film begins with Solomon having been a slave for at least
a few years, learning to cut sugar cane and trying desperately to figure some
way to write a letter to someone, anyone who might be able to help him. This
information is mostly established visually. At night, as Solomon is approached
by one of the female slaves (we don’t yet know anything about her) for sex, the
experience is unfulfilling for both, and then the film moves us back into the
past as he remembers a much more satisfying moment with his wife when he was

Why start here? Why not just tell the story in

There are many possible answers to these
questions, but I tend to think that opening segment forecasts the film’s
primary patterns. The story is similar enough to other tales of American
slavery that we don’t need any training in understanding it, but the style and
conventions of the film are not as familiar, and we do need to get accustomed
to those.

Consider, for instance, how the opening segment
helps us understand a potentially perplexing shot at the end of the movie.
Solomon has finally managed to get someone to take a letter from him to the
post office, but he does not know whether he can trust the person. Solomon looks
out at the landscape. The camera stays on his face for an extraordinary amount
of time. From the very beginning of the film, Solomon has been trying to get
word out to his family or anyone else who might be able to help him. In this film,
the relationship between shots can be associational rather than strictly linear
or expository, especially concerning Solomon’s attempts to communicate to the
free world. His desire, his yearning for freedom, shifts the representation of
time. Like Solomon, we, too, are bewildered: what is happening, what is going
on in the world beyond? Time freezes. We stare.

The next shots show us that the gazebo Solomon
had begun working on at the time he wrote his letter is now completed. Time
speeds forward.

Similarly, a refusal to cut a shot at the point
anyone conditioned by mainstream films would expect provides one of the most
powerful moments in the movie — indeed, it is among the most remarkable scenes
of any film I know. After Solomon attacks one of the white men who has been
tormenting him, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Tibeats returns with a friend and
tries to lynch the impertinent slave. He is halted by the general overseer of
the plantation, Chapin (J.D. Evermore), but Chapin does not then cut Solomon
down. Instead, he says they’ll have to wait for the plantation owner, William
Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), to return that night. And so Solomon remains, his
hands tied behind his back, his toes barely touching the ground, his throat
roped to a tree branch. The shot goes on and on. Solomon gasps and straining to
keep himself from strangling to death. Once, a slave sneaks to him with a small
cup of water.

The extraordinary, excruciating length of the
scene forces us to confront the physical reality of slavery to an extent
unparalleled by any other film. The audience becomes a body of witnesses. Here,
no soaring John Williams-style music plays our heartstrings, no character later
offers moral exposition. A man swings from a rope and tries to stay alive. We
watch. It is all the film allows us to do.

Yet, if the film’s power and importance come from
its careful construction of the audience as witness, what sort of witnesses are
we, and of what use is our witnessing?

These questions are hardly unique to 12 Years
a Slave
— they apply to some extent, at least, to any film with serious
intentions of recreating and representing historical atrocities. Toward an
answer, all I can offer is a hypothesis: what matters is not the recreation,
but the quality of witness, and the quality of humanity, it requires of us.

There is already a tremendous amount of Oscar
buzz around 12 Years a Slave, which more than one critic has dubbed
“the Schindler’s List of slavery movies”. In the sense of
carefully recreating a particular life from one of the great horrors of
history, and generating strong emotions in audiences, this is true. But the
Oscar talk gives a false impression of what McQueen’s film is up to.

Even in his most serious and self-consciously
“artistic” films, Steven Spielberg is a Hollywood director to the
core, a genius of audience manipulation. McQueen is no more Spielberg than Spielberg
is Michael Haneke. The kind of historical dramas and social justice dramas that
win Oscars flatter their more privileged and powerful audiences, allowing —
even encouraging — such audiences to feel good about themselves. The same choices
that propelled Roots to extraordinary popularity are the sorts of
choices approved and awarded by the Oscarati. They are also the choices that
Steve McQueen and his collaborators carefully and determinedly renounce.

And yet I would not be at all surprised to see 12
Years a Slave
sweep the Oscars–mostly because McQueen brilliantly chose to
apply his particular aesthetic to material that is deeply appealing to Oscar
voters. Northup’s original book, edited and perhaps ghostwritten for him by the
white lawyer and writer David Wilson, had to be aimed at a primarily white
audience, for, like any other slave narrative popularized through abolitionist
circles, it had a particular propagandistic purpose. An advertisement
for the book in the
abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator included
numerous quotations from reviews that testified to the book’s ability to
confirm the horror of slavery for an audience that previously might have
dismissed Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other novels as fictional exaggerations.
One reviewer, for the Cayuga Chief, highlighted the qualities of the
book which McQueen’s film emulates: “It is well told, and bears internal
evidence of being a clear statement of facts. There is no attempt at display,
but the events are so graphically portrayed, that the interest in the perusal
is deep and unabated to the last. The sunshine of kind treatment sheds a few
bright beams athwart the dark canvass of twelve years of bondage: but, in the
main, the darker cruelty and wickedness of oppression is still more revolting
by the contrast.”

There we have, too, the key to why characters
like William Ford and Bass (the man who ultimately delivered the letter that
would begin the process toward Northup’s freedom, here played by Brad Pitt) are
important to the story. They are not there to appease white sensibilities, but
rather are placed in the film in proportion to their presence in Northup’s
actual life, and they highlight the oppressiveness and irredeemability of any
system where people are considered property.

Further, audiences have very little chance to sympathize
with good white characters, because they simply have too little screen time.
This is as it should be. Our sympathies and identification should be with the

If the work of traditional, white-audience slave
movies is to encourage us to look for good white people to identify with, and
to make us witnesses to narratives in which there are good white people in even
the most hellish circumstances, then 12 Years a Slave works to undo
that. 12 Years a Slave deprives us of the familiar pathways to
identification with white saviors, and instead requires us to identify with the
people we should have been identifying with in the first place.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

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If I were on your dissertation committee, I'd award you your Ph.D. right now.

You've put into words many of my fleeting, embryonic thoughts about McQueen's film.

The comparison to Roots puts that film in an unfortunate light. It did not age well & now comes across as a comedy. Roots degraded Haley's book; Spike Lee's X honored Haley's Autobiography of Malcom X.

David Berona

Excellent review and insight!

Chip Delany

An interesting and thoughtful take, Matt. Here's a link you might find interesting–a conversation (warning is 90 minutes long) between bell hooks and Malissa Harris-Perry.
hooks hated it. Harris-Perry thought it had some redeeming qualities–but not that
many. Much of the conversation turns on *12 Years a Slave* though it is about much more. I posted this on FaceBook. I'd be curious what you thought:

All good thoughts to you–

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