By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“12 Years a Slave” is a disturbing film based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. The author was a free Black man from upper New York, who enjoyed a life in many ways commensurate with whites. Like many other Black men and women, however, he was tricked, drugged, kidnapped, and sent to the South—a slave.
Black British director Steve McQueen’s film illustrates what happened to these unfortunate people. They, Northup among them, are rounded up like cattle, stripped naked, and hosed down. Wearing rough homespun shirts and pants, they’re loaded onto flatbed wagons, covered with canvas, and hauled south, where they are sold to brokers (ruthless Paul Giamatti), who auction them off to plantation owners.
Unlike Tarantino’s over-the-top, grisly, yet sometimes humorous, film, “Django Unchained,” “12 Years” is somber and harrowing from the moment of Northup’s capture. A mother’s children are yanked from her arms. Slaves live cramped in a dark room in a house within sight of the Master’s mansion. “Genteel” folk sip juleps on the veranda and glance at their slaves, toiling in cotton or sugar fields.
McQueen has said that he believes Alfre Woodard’s character in the film, as a wealthy ex-slave who is married to a slaver, is shocking because most people don’t realize that Black people owned slaves, or on the other hand, that some of them actually bought their relatives back.
Michael Fassbender plays an evil, insane plantation owner, obsessed by a young Black female slave. In the most harrowing scene, we witness her being beaten almost to death for having left the plantation to obtain a bar of soap. Ejiofor’s Northup comes off as relatively passive—yet heroic. In one scene, he is betrayed, beaten, and hung all day with his toes barely touching the ground as other slaves go about their work, not daring to glance his way.
To this day, many people are familiar with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”—which the white author had largely based on the published narrative of an escaped slave. McQueen made an interesting comment on TV personality Tavis Smiley’s show. He said that when “12 Years” came out in 1853, it sold 27,000 copies, which was a lot for those days. But “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, quickly overtook it in sales—selling 300,000 copies in a year. Northup’s memoir was quickly forgotten.
McQueen, in the same interview, said that he felt that the factual horror of slavery had never been fully captured on film and never told from an African American point of view. He wanted to hold the camera up, point it, and say, “Look at this, look at this.” He went on to explain that people were kept in servitude through the methods depicted in his film: Fear, beatings, lynching, threats, and rape. He felt that he had to dwell on such harrowing scenes. “We have to tell the truth, otherwise, there’s no point.”
He stressed, “This is neither Black American history nor white American history. This is about the history of America. Three-hundred years of slavery was the longest time an industry has survived in the United States.”
The general public has never heard of Solomon Northup, although it is a relatively well-known slave narrative to historians and scholars. Still, almost everyone knows Anne Frank. McQueen is optimistic in believing that it’s possible that Northup’s book could be required in schools in America and in Europe. He wants it to become as much a part of the world’s consciousness as is Anne Frank’s memoir.
McQueen stated that he feels there are a lot of Americans who say, “Get over this. You now have an African American president. We don’t need to be going back into revisiting what McQueen wants us to wrestle with. We’re past that now.”
He counters with: Would anyone ask a Jew to get over the Holocaust? He feels it should be very much in our minds, so it won’t happen again. “We feel the effects of slavery every day, and we need to deal with it. It’s just a case that the evidence is out there, and in our prisons and mental health, and it’s just a case of doing something about it, that’s all.”