12 Years Slave reviewed by Norman Douglas
Run, Piggy, Run! Nigger’s Gonna Gitcha!12 Years A Slave, a film review by Norman Douglas
Directed by................................................. Steve McQueen
Screenplay by............................................ John Ridley
Based on the book Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Chiwetel Ejiofor.......................................... Solomon Northup
Adepero Oduye........................................... Eliza
Benedict Cumberbatch............................. Ford
Liza J. Bennett............................................ Mistress Ford
Paul Dano.................................................... Tibeats
J.D. Evermore.............................................. Chapin
Michael Fassbender.................................. Edwin Epps
Sarah Paulson............................................ Mistress Epps
Scott Michael Jefferson............................. Master Shaw
Alfre Woodard............................................. Mistress Shaw
Garret Dillahunt.......................................... Armsby
In 1968, LSU Press published a historically annotated version of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853) co-edited by Louisiana State University at Alexandria historian Sue Eakin and historian Joseph Logsdon of the University of New Orleans. Sub-titled Narrative of Solomon Northup, citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana, this reprint enjoyed popularity among students and civil rights activists alongside other 19th century texts by black writers and activists like Frederick Douglass and James Weldon Johnson. Originally published in 1853, Northup’s tale appeared not long after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and enjoyed a wide readership, especially among abolitionists. Last year, a film directed by Turner award-winning artist Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender and a sweaty- and furrow-browed Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Solomon Northup saw wide release in cinemas, and is currently nominated for several awards by the Academy of film and theater artists in America, having already won best picture from the judges of the British Academy last week.
As in the book that gives the film its story, we follow the tragic events that tear Solomon Northup—born a Free Negro in New York State, where he lives as a carpenter and fiddler with his wife and children—away from freedom to the hell of bondage in the deepest South of Louisiana’s Red River region. The film opens on his first day cutting cane, chronologically—we later learn—near the end of his captivity. That night, he attempts to fashion a pen from a thin stalk, and ink from the blackberries he saves from his meal. The effort proves fruitless (forgive the pun), as do the amorous advances of a Negress next to whom he lies abed. Instead, her efforts spark our hero’s recall of his real love for his wife, at which point the title appears typeset on paper, presumably the title page of the manuscript the story follows.
At this point, we’re treated via flashback to the happy life Northup enjoys in New York: applauded as fiddler at a square dance for well-to-do whites, tucking in his son and daughter, bidding his wife and kids farewell as she goes off to cook for another (presumably white) family, and finally, his introduction as an exceptional player and community member to a couple of circus impresarios who offer him good money to join their Washington DC sojourn. Unhappily, his benefactors get Solomon drunk, and he ends up shackled in a dank cell, an ugly turn of events that this reviewer saw coming, knowing nothing of the story before this screening. Paddled mercilessly to silence his protests that he’s a free man, Solomon peers through the bars of his cell and cries for help as the camera rises up from the prison’s alley to reveal the capital city’s skyline in the distance, the congressional dome under construction.
Transported south by boat, he meets two others he deems of equal mettle: one is swiftly dispatched as he moves to defend a woman, the other suddenly turns “Tom,” rushing to his “Massa” as he bawls in contrition. Sold to the hapless plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), along with Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a mother separated from her kids—her mulatto daughter judged particularly valuable by a despicable seller of slaves named Freeman, in a brief but unnervingly convincing portrayal by Paul Giamatti—Solomon is renamed Platt. Though Ford is relatively sympathetic, his head carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) butts heads with Solomon. Dano quickly reaffirms his chops as an actor here, singing a capella after ordering the new niggers to clap in accompaniment, “Run nigger run, paddy gonna gitcha / Run nigger run, ya better git away,” the verse continuing as the scene changes to Master Ford delivering a civilizing sermon to his assembled property. Ultimately, the tension between Tibeats and Northup leads to a dust-up, the slave besting the overseer. Enraged, Tibeats nearly lynches Northup, but the head overseer stops him. Even so, he doesn’t cut Solomon down, and we watch for several harrowing minutes—hours in film time—as he stands on tiptoe to avoid hanging himself, while the rest of the slaves go about their business. When Master Ford finally returns, he cuts his prized slave down, but must quickly sell him to the far more ruthless slaver, Master Epps, as a means of protecting him from Tibeats’ certain, fatal vengeance.
Solomon’s situation deteriorates at Epps’ place, with the tension assuming a more carnal air: the Master’s fickle and lascivious attentions to the dark and lovely, pubescent and petite Patsy fuel his wife’s jealous ire—at the same time, one can’t help suspect the Mistress harbors her own lusty longing for Solomon. This steamy brew simmers and boils over often enough to keep viewers on edge for most of the rest of the film, a maddening concupiscence the actors convey with well-oiled aplomb against the steamy visual tableaus McQueen cuts in of the lush landscape. Louisiana’s fertile swamps appear a perfect Eden unduly perverted into a vast and foreboding country in innocent collusion with the dark hearts and minds that dwell there and truck no escape. Once, when Solomon starts to run instead of going to market, he chances on a clearing. There, a handful of white men have two Negroes bound hand and foot. “Where you going, boy?” the ringleader quizzes a startled Solomon. When he answers “To market,” the cracker kicks Solomon in the butt, admonishes him to get there fast and, never missing a beat, the two slaves are strung up.
Eventually, Northup meets a sympathetic white, a Canadian named Bass (Brad Pitt), who gets a letter to Solomon’s white friend and neighbor, Parker. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley create this character for the film from the real life Henry Northup, the owner who freed Solomon’s father and the man who pursued Northup’s release through the courts. Apparently, the filmmakers thought this would be simpler for audiences to digest. Backed by the local sheriff, Parker arrives at Epps’ plantation and removes Solomon post-haste over the angry owner’s threats and protestations. Back home, Solomon meets his grandson, whom his daughter has christened after him, and the film ends with the family engaged in a clumsy-looking group hug.
Twelve Years A Slave somehow comes across as a necessary film, though why it strikes critics as more necessary than Django: Unchained, I’m not sure. When the latter film appeared, there were cries about the frequency of the word “nigger,”a complaint I haven’t noticed about this film, though every character uses it. Transported downriver early in the film, as Solomon and his two high-minded pals plot their resistance, one of them even says, “Three against the whole crew is impossible; the rest of these is niggers, slave-born.” In fact, this remains Solomon’s perspective throughout the film. He speaks to none of his fellow slaves—evidently, they are not his fellows—apart from the two women, Eliza and Patsy. Eliza, he berates to “Shut up” her ceaseless weeping over her lost babies. When she counters by telling him he’s no better than Master’s prized livestock, he speaks of his scars, his will to survive. She goes on weeping, which ultimately leads the Mistress to sell her away: “I can’t abide such depression; it’s not healthy.”
With Patsy, his only conversation arises when she begs him to end her life, her misery. “Why ask for my damnation?” Solomon argues. And although she tells him “God forgives mercy,” he refuses.
A third black woman, Mrs. Shaw, married to a planter, also speaks to Solomon and Patsy about knowing “the predilections and peculiarities” of the Master. But she speaks in an idiom that mocks both master and slave, exuding a command of all their circumstances that astounds Northup and amuses her husband. Other than these few scenes, Northup speaks only to the whites, a faithful representation of the book. It’s this rather telling perspective that makes Twelve Years A Slave far more politically charged than anyone I’ve read since seeing the film seems to have noticed.
Of course, pointing out Northup’s self-consciousness with respect to class would mean broaching a topic Americans refuse to acknowledge “by any means necessary.” All the violence and all the different ways of saying “nigger” are more than enough to validate American consensus that slavery was bad. The film presents this with a raw and harrowing explicitness we’ve come to expect from our rap music and our horror films. Concentrating on the faithfulness of the film’s depictions of this rather standard fare is what gives this film an impact less powerful than that of Django. In Tarantino’s film, the pure fantasy delivered in the story—its comic book arc and resurrected hero—are elemental truths that forced debate and outrage. Django escapes castration, a punishment all of McQueen’s sexual innuendo never hints at. Of course, Northup doesn’t write about castration in his narrative, but more’s the pity. What has America’s Black History been if not a history of castration? And not only the castration of black men, but the fear of castration displayed by white men in their perpetuation of the myth of big black dick. Tarantino went there. McQueen does not. That’s why McQueen’s film—which really tells black folks no more about our history than Tarantino’s (Tarantino simply "Superflied" It)—will win some Oscars. Like many Academy winners, it apologizes to the right people in the right manner, and the class question remains glossed over once again. Where Django was full of types, McQueen is careful to—and adept at—portraying individual personalities. Thus, the history of individual personalities places the history of class struggle behind the curtain with the great Oz, and the history of slavery becomes a story about a bad owner, a mean overseer and a twisted wife versus a good owner, a nice Canadian and a Northern friend who come to the aid of a wronged and worthy fiddler who happens to be Negro. A very well made film, with a very calculated effect, Twelve Years A Slave will eventually get the critical beat-down it deserves—not for its rich, sweeping cinematography, not for its authentic soundtrack of fiddling, field chants, work songs, spirituals, and ambient scoring, not for its believable portrayals of antebellum whites and a proud, free Negro—but its avoidance of class distinctions.
Since I saw Twelve Years A Slave in February, a month begrudgingly or mockingly or derisively or annoyingly known as Black History Month, I could turn to a short essay I’d just posted about Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church. In it, I include the following quote from my primary source about Allen’s dissatisfaction with the class divisions among free blacks in the City of Brotherly Love, about a decade before the events recounted in Twelve Years begin:
The top 5 percent of the free black population was composed of an economic elite. Below them was a middling group of small property owners who practiced trades and ran small shops. At the bottom simmered a much larger group who rented squalid homes in alleys and courtyards and possessed negligible personal property. In stark statistical terms, there were roughly one thousand black worthies and fourteen thousand “poor people” of color in Philadelphia by the time of the first major abolitionist census in the 1830s. A decade before that, some members of the underclass had already begun turning away from Allen’s lectures on moral rectitude, piety, and temperance. [my italics]
— Richard S. Newman, “Revolutionary Black Founders,
Revolutionary Black Communities,”
in Young, Nash, Raphael, editors, p. 315.
Sifting through the comments posted concerning the film to various reviewers on the internet, I noticed that maybe a third of them (according to my purely intuited, non-scientific tally) felt that something was missing from the film, despite its well done, welcome message. I’d wager that this class element is what’s lacking, an aspect Northup’s inability to address other blacks clearly reflects. Writing in the New Yorker, critic David Denby notices this glaring class omission, “But the movie leaves us grieving for the thousands who never knew freedom, who were never able to tell their stories for future generations.” [David Denby, “Fighting to Survive,” New Yorker, 21 Oct 2013.] Still, he doesn’t know what to make of it, doesn’t even articulate what he means, since—like too many Americans—he’s loathe to bring up class at this point. That’s okay; when we do finally get around to seriously talking about class in this country, we can steal the tune sung by Paul Dano’s character, John Tibeats, reworking it so: “Run, piggy, run, niggers gonna gitchu / Run, piggy, run, ya better git away…”