Twelve Years a Slave (McQueen, 2015)
A notion once persisted (and may still among some) in this country that slavery was benign and that slave owners were often kind to human beings they held in bondage. Just recall Gone with the Wind and the literally romantic representation of slavery and the Old South. Kenneth Stampp dispelled this idea thoroughly in his 1956 history of slavery, Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. (If you’ve never read it, you should, as it continues to be among, if not the best, study of this blot on American history.)
Steve McQueen does the same by bringing Solomon Northup’s recounting (12 Years a Slave) of his firsthand experience to the screen. You’ll find the movie brutal because slavery was brutal.
McQueen’s cinematic choices, from the terrifying beginning when Solomon wakes to find himself ripped from his life as a musician and as a family man in upstate New York in a slave pen in Washington, D.C. to the slave auction showing the destruction of any semblance of family life among slaves, to his punishment at the hands of Edwin Epps by hanging in a stunning scene that’s unforgettable because it portrays so forcefully the acceptance of brutality, and to the hard-to-watch whipping by Epps of his favorite slave Patsey, whom he also rapes regularly, a barely teenage girl at his mercy and caprice. It’s a film filled with brutality because, as said, slavery was brutal.
Often forgotten, though, and vividly brought to life by McQueen is that slavery and the dehumanization of an entire race also forced slave holders into hypocritical rationalizations of their practices and into dehumanized beasts themselves. William Ford exemplifies the former and Epps and his wife Mary illustrate the latter, both of whom exhibit the most base emotions run unchecked and rampant beyond cruelty.
While many will find it a hard film to watch, it’s the very reason every American will benefit from watching it. Slavery is more than a stain on American history, the exact opposite of the ideals we strive for, and to which many of us, unfortunately, only pay lip service; it also goes a long way to explaining the economic and social plight of African Americans and the thinly submerged racism in the nation. The effects of such a peculiar institution don’t vanish in a generation, or two or three, not even in what many like to call, either in misbelief or mockery, a post-racial America. w/c