Directed by Steve McQueen
Script by John Ridley
Music by Hans Zimmer
13 January 2014
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Adepero Oduye as Eliza
Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford
Paul Dano as Tibeats
Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps
Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps
Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey
Brad Pitt as Bass
A true story of Solomon Northup, a free man and a violinist from Saratoga, New York, who was lured to Washington DC in 1841 on the pretext of a job, drugged, kidnapped and “sold down in New Orleans.” When he finally got a message to his friends in the north in 1853, he was rescued, and wrote “12 Years A Slave” describing his experiences.
In 1841, with the slave trade closed off … by British warships, see Amistad, set in 1839 … the supply of slaves to the Southern states was squeezed. Incidentally, Chiwetel Ejiofor was in Amistad too. Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway is a recent novel set in the 1950s in Ohio, where slave catchers roamed with free writ to round up escaped slaves. It was the same supply issue after 1830.
slave market scene
It has been said that it needed the distancing of a British director, McQueen, to put slavery up on screen with such clarity. We were seeing it just 14 hours after it won Best Motion Picture, Drama at the Golden Globes. Astonishingly, only one of twenty-odd local screens was showing it, and an hour before most seats were available, though I’d say it was two thirds full by the start.
I studied slavery as my special subject in American Studies and then while doing my MA had to complete an American history module on the slave trade too. I confess that I had never heard of Solomon Northrup’s book, though it must be a key source on slavery. However, after many 19th century editions it faded from view, being re-published in an annotated academic edition in 1968. I was studying this in 1968 to 1969. I feel I should send my degree back really … There are several editions of the book on line (being out of copyright) and it’s written with clarity and formal dignity. I read the first chapter and it’s notable how well John Ridley’s script has captured the formal tone of the original book. I wish I’d read it years ago. I did an index check on my dozen plus 1960s books on slavery, and only one, The Peculiar Institution by Kenneth Stamp mentions him, and then snottily:
How much was Northups book influenced by his amanuensis and by the preconceptions of his potential northern readers?
I think he’s saying his (white) co-writer bigged it up large. In contrast, I think the film of Northup’s story should be compulsory viewing in all schools, because I feel it captures both historical accuracy and emotional truth. It’s also a beautifully filmed and directed piece of work, with phenomenal shots of scenery and Southern ambience. The film drips with Spanish moss and I wanted to shake the cicadas out of my shoes.
Patsey is so desperate to escape that she begs Northup to kill her
The writer and director also studied slavery and bring out major points. The chattel slavery / property issue, the perceived role of God in rewarding slave owners and setting them above slaves, the African inferiority argument are all in there. I have a book of apologist essays from the ante-bellum South called Slavery Defended and they got the issues in. A key point comes out in comparative studies of slavery and WW2 concentration camps (see Stanley Elkins Slavery). Studies of concentration camp inmates showed that the totalitarian environment systematically destroyed their ability to resist, to plan, and to form positive relationships with one another. Elkins’ thesis was that Southern US slavery was a similar environment. The slaves in the ante-bellum South far outnumbered their masters and overseers, and they worked daily with axes and machetes. Why didn’t they just rise up and kill their masters? There was only one big slave revolt, the Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia in 1831, where the slaves killed around sixty people. The film, like the studies of concentration camps, brings this issue out early when Northup is being shipped south and they discuss overthrowing the boat crew. But only three of them are captured men – the rest are slaves or runaway slaves. They’re too conditioned and too cowed to be relied upon. Throughout the film you see how spirit and resistance is beaten out of people. If you’d grown up in it, you’d have little chance of being able to resist. Hostage studies in recent years bring out the same psychology.
This is a world where eye contact with a white person can get you whipped into submission. “You looking’ at me, boy?’ Interesting how the perceived insult of eye contact goes right on into Westerns, then gangster movies. Scene after scene we see slaves with eyes cast to the ground.
Chiwetel Ejiofor picking cotton
We first saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things and were so impressed we made great efforts to see him on stage, though it was Noel Coward’s The Vortex, in the intimate setting of the Donmar Warehouse. We’ve seen him close up before then, but not this close up. The camera loves his subtle and emotive face. A masterly long slow close up is after they bury a slave who dropped dead in the cotton field, and the slaves are singing Roll on Jordan, and he gradually joins in, and then starts to give it soul.
Northup (aka Platt), Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tibeats (Paul Dano)
Northup’s book describes the daily detail of slave life, and the film is excellent here. Unlike earlier movies, we are aware that no agricultural system could have people picking cotton 365 days a year, nor cutting sugar cane. (But see Grapes of Wrath for 1930s migrant labour following crops!) We need to be deep south too … even in Huckleberry Finn, Jim dreads being “sold down the river” (which became a well known phrase) because everyone knew that cotton plantations were a harsher regime than mixed agriculture, and that sugar cane was worse again. So as you moved south, in general, conditions got harsher due to the nature of the crop.
When they arrive in New Orleans, a particularly harrowing scene is where the slave Eliza is sold with Northup, and her children are sold to someone else. Later she tells Northup that her daughter was the child of their master, and that his wife had enforced their sale. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford buys Northup and Eliza, and is a religious man, not a hard owner.
There is a telling moment, when someone says that Ford is a good man. This is just how victims of a totalitarian system fool themselves. It is pointed out that how can he be a good man? He is a slave owner. And though Ford has guessed that this slave Platt is an educated man, he really does not want to know any further explanation, nor does he want to know his real name. He is like the people who drove past the concentration camps on the autobahn, but chose ‘not to see them.’ Don’t shake my world nor my system of belief. Studies have indeed suggested that some plantations were paternalistic rather than brutal … as long as no one stepped out of line. This made economic sense. Slaves were major business capital, so flogging one until they were unable to work was foolish. It’s like kicking your car. In the movie, we see the abused Patsey going to have tea at a neighboring plantation with the beautifully dressed black mistress of a plantation owner. She’s a slave, but survives the system. There was plenty of rape, but there was also “miscegenation”(as they called it in 1841) of a more gentle kind. Early on we see a kidnapped slave being rescued by his real master at the slave market and embracing him with doglike joy. The system engendered dependence. The truly evil Epps (Fassbender) had child “pet slaves.” A common phenomenon, especially for pretty little girls.
I thought the slightly leaning over backwards points came on Ford’s plantation, as Northup turns out to be an expert canal engineer, as well as violinist and carpenter, thus arousing the ire of the po’ white trash overseer. After Northup, or Platt as he has been named, beats the white overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), Ford has to sell him on to Fassbender’s crueler Epps. Tibeats is a slight fellow, clearly no physical match for Northup, but can still exercise control.
Epps & Mistress Epps (Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson)
Epps is the archetype of the bad master. Sadistic, bible-thumping, preying on the young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), drunk, violent, mercurial, believing in his God-given right to own people. Mistress Epps (played by Sarah Paulson) is just about as nasty a piece of work as her husband. This is a true story and the film makers resist the temptation of giving these two their comeuppance. And when Northup is rescued, Patsey, who has been beaten near to death, is left behind to continue her existence as sex slave and victim. That was what happened. The film doesn’t follow the well-worn path of making Northup nobly heroic either … he is forced to flog the naked Patsey by Fassbender. There were black overseers with whips in the system (though we only glimpse one briefly, a mild cop-out) just as there were trustees in the concentration camps. The system can steamroller people.
Epps, Patsey, Northup
Brad Pitt comes to the rescue as Bass, an itinerant carpenter, from Canada originally, who agrees to write a letter to Northup’s friends back in New York state. Pitt gets to espouse anti-slavery arguments to the foul Fassbender … not something I think Bass could have dared in reality. But, hey, Pitt co-produced it and deserves to get the good guy lines.
Bass (Brad Pitt) agrees to help
The film is harrowing, though never stops being compelling. Messrs McQueen and Ridley and everyone involved in this masterly film should feel proud to have captured this era in American history and presented it so graphically. The point about a British director is, I think, free from PC constraints that would have made the slaves heroic and noble. Ridley is American. But note that of the principal actors, Ejiofor is British born (of Nigerian parents), Cumberbatch is British, Fassbender is German-Irish, brought up in Ireland, Nyong’o was raised in Kenya.
The next point is to start looking at all these cases of human trafficking in 2014. People are still cowed, exploited, unable to escape. It went underground. It didn’t go away, but here we see the formal institution in all its foulness at its height.