The Reception of “12 Years a Slave”

18 Feb

I meant to write this blog post several months ago when I saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, but my trip to Ethiopia in December and the stress of the new semester in January kept me so occupied that I never got around to it. Also the seriousness of the subject and the historical complexity made me feel like I had to do some research first, reading the other reviews, watching some other movies, and reading the original Narrative of Solomon Northup published in 1854 that the movie is based on. But now that it’s the middle of “African American History Month” and the Academy Awards are less than two weeks away — and it looks like Twelve Years a Slave has a good chance of winning best picture — I feel compelled to hurry it through. The movie is a spectacular achievement and deserves to win as much as any film does. Not having seen all of the other candidates, I must admit that I can’t say for sure, but in any case, that is not the argument I wish to make here. Rather, my primary concern is with the reception of the film in the media and with what that reception says about how Americans understand history — not only the history of slavery, but also the history of black culture — because I think the reception of the film in the mainstream media unwittingly betrays that history.

In quite a few of the interviews and reviews in the major venues (e.g., follow these links to the reviews in National Public Radio, The New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, and The New Yorker, and this interview with the director Steve McQueen and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) we hear a common refrain. The common refrain celebrates the film as a groundbreaking achievement, long overdue, because the movie industry has neglected this important subject for so long that average Americans continue to have little understanding of the truly horrific realities of slavery. The comparisons the reviews make are with nostalgic, racist films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) made during the height of the Jim Crow era or with non-serious exploitation films such as Mandingo (1975) and the more recent Django Unchained (2012). (Even though it is surely the case that high schools don’t actually rely on such Hollywood movies when they teach the history of slavery, the point is still well taken.) What all these reviews aim to do is conjure up what Walter Benjamin once described in his seminal 1936 essay on the nature of film “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as an “aura” of originality and authenticity by showing how superior and different 12 Years a Slave is when compared to these other movies.

In part, I agree with the basic idea of these reviews that, considering the centrality of slavery to American history, it is remarkable how few films about slavery have been made. I would also agree that this movie has some visually arresting scenes that brilliantly capture some of the legal complexity of a system when human beings are treated as property as well as the insane gender dynamics that it caused.  However, several things are missing in all this praise of the movie’s originality. The first and foremost is any mention of other serious films that have been made above slavery (all listed on Wikipedia, incidentally) — an odd omission indeed in reviews that place so much importance on this film being so original. Never mind Spielberg’s Amistad. I’m talking about the well-known TV series way back in 1977, Roots (written by Alex Haley who also co-authored the Autobiography of Malcolm X), and the well-regarded movie Sankofa (1993) directed by the acclaimed Haile Gerima. Even more strangely, they neglect to mention that Solomon Northup’s book had already been made into a movie before called Solomon Northup’s Odyssey in 1984 by one of the most celebrated African-American photographers (and also the director of Shaft), Gordon Parks. I do not blame the average American for not knowing about these films, all of them written and directed by black artists. But I do blame a reviewer for not doing his or her job (in the case of the above, all the reviews were written by white men), especially since by ignoring the history of black artistic achievement, they are also ignoring the years of cultural work and social activism that has galvanized black communities for decades. These are the earlier films that made 12 Years a Slave possible.

In addition to the loss of a sense of black cultural achievement in the art of film-making, by ignoring these other serious films about slavery, we also lose a critical perspective on 12 Years a Slave, because by celebrating 12 Years a Slave as so profoundly original, we are offered no real point of comparison. Indeed, the question nobody is asking is what makes this movie produced in the year 2013 any different from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, which was not just the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, but also one of the most popular stage plays and eventually adapted multiple times for the silver screen. It is also a novel that has been deeply problematic for black artists and leaders in the twentieth century, most famously James Baldwin’s scathing essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and Angela Davis’s Women, Race, and Class (as well as hip hop such as Public Enemy’s “Louder than a Bomb“) that indict the novel for its sentimental morality and disturbing fetishization of the suffering black body. The absence of any comparison in the mainstream media’s reviews is surprising considering that the original Narrative of Solomon Northup was dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and was advertised as “Another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — alluding to the “Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that Stowe published in 1853 in order to provide documentary evidence of the claims made in the novel. Why this matters is that certain dramatic features of the movie 12 Years a Slave actually follow some of the themes and narrative conventions of mid-nineteenth century story-telling, and other features don’t. As this excellent essay in the Atlantic argues, the book in 1854 and the movie in 2013 have a different sense of reality and of how to make their audiences feel the “truth” of the story — hence, the movie takes several liberties with the original story in order to heighten the dramatic intensity of the film. However, some problematic nineteenth-century conventions remain unquestioned. For instance, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the movie traces the protagonist’s movement from a moderate master to a psychotic and abusive one who is an alcoholic. The evils of alcohol are somehow mixed in with the evils of slavery, and in the nineteenth century, many of the members of the abolitionist movement were also members of the temperance movement. The effect is to tell the history of slavery in terms of individual morality and psychotic brutality to which slaves are the victims — a narrative that simplifies history into a good-versus-evil story. What is hard to imagine in such a narrative is how such a system of slavery could have been economically so successful in America for two centuries if the slave owners were merely brutish, insane drunks.

To be sure, the brutality, terrorism, and constant threat of violence of the institution of slavery is an important story to tell, but in telling the story this way, the movie is missing two things, not just two things that are present in the original book, but also two things that are present in other works of literature and movies about slavery, notably the movie Sankofa, which I am arguing here is the movie about slavery that everyone should be talking about. These two things are (1) a conscious reflection on one’s roots and our enduring cultural connection to the past, and (2) a sense of the positive culture of resistance and survival that would give African Americans a sense of pride in their identity as a people who overcame this institution rather than an image of absolute deprivation and horror. Let’s contrast 12 Years a Slave with the more politically Pan-Africanist film Sankofa, since I think Haile Gerima’s Sankofa remains the best movie on slavery in terms of its narrative content. Sankofa‘s narrative technique is a bit more complex, since it begins with the present — a young black fashion model doing a photo shoot in Ghana near the ruins of a slave-trading fort. She experiences a deep psychic transference that puts her consciousness in the body of a slave. The narrative technique relates thematically to the title of the movie: the word Sankofa in the Akan language means that one must look back to the past in order to move forward in the future. (The image is of a bird looking backward.) This movie very directly asks the audience to think about who they are now and where they came from. In contrast, the relatively simple narrative of 12 Years a Slave shows us a past that seems to have no enduring relation to our present and creates a moral distance between the viewer and the movie that never really demands that we ask ourselves what we would do if we were in the position of the slave or in the position of the slave owner. We the audience leave the movie theater with the feeling of moral superiority  to the slave owners in the film — what we have seen is the horrors of a past that has since been corrected, and we are not them. Hence, as much as the reviews of 12 Years a Slave claim to be righting the wrongs of the past, they may actually have the opposite effect, serving an aesthetic escape from any real questioning of our own ethical position today. After all, does not slavery still exist in the world, and are not the clothes that we buy manufactured in sweatshops for multinational corporations? How do we understand our identities as citizens of the United States still today in relation to the reality of our global economy and the legacy of our political institutions that continue to support that economy?

In addition, Sankofa tells the story of the positive attributes of slave society including a slave community’s efforts to organize a revolt. Much of  Sankofa focuses quite accurately on how slaves actually lived and supported each other, the day-by-day successes of the community to maintain itself despite the many tragedies and abuses and failures. It celebrates the cultural memory through the songs they sang, the traditions of medicine they brought from Africa, the food they cultivated and prepared, and the personal and social relationships they struggled to maintain. As much of the past century of scholarly research has revealed, the slaves were not simply victims, but rather they profoundly influenced American culture and actively resisted slavery sometimes through direct revolts but more often in subtle ways. Often the slaves were able to exploit legal loopholes and the inherent contradictions in a system that valued the slave as property and not as a human being.

But this is not the story 12 Years a Slave tells. Focusing on the deprivation of slaves under a brutal, terrorist regime, it has little about the positive culture of resistance and widespread political organization by blacks against that regime. If a white audience is never really asked to identify with the slave owners in the film and never really forced to ask the question of what we would do if we were in that position, likewise, the film doesn’t give the descendents of slaves much to identify with either. Ironically, here the movie and the book differ. The book includes many in-depth scenes of slave culture and forms of solidarity that the movie leaves out. The book also focuses more intently on the economics of running a plantation including the laws of property ownership and debt that actually keep Northup from getting killed by his master since he is not simply owned but actually is actually part of a network of debt relations among the wealthy elite. In the movie this is dramatized brilliantly (as is described in many of the reviews) when Tibeats tries to kill him, but he is protected by the overseer who leaves him hanging in a noose until the master Ford cuts him down. (Unlike the book, however, the movie does little to explain the contradictory legal structures and economic relations of debt that would cause all this to happen.) Likewise, the book also shows the efficiency of the plantation economy including the use of slaves as overseers. In the movie, this troubling history of black-on-black violence is represented only as the psychotic episode of a drunk master when Epps forces Northup to abuse Patsey, but the movie cuts out the part of the book when Northup is just an ordinary overseer who regularly manages other slaves with his whip. This reality of the lives of slaves was far more morally conflicted and confusing than the movie shows. In other books and movies about slavery, such as Sankofa, this common feature in the ordinary and efficient management of a plantation is presented as a very real political problem and challenge to black solidarity — an important issue for the black communities and audiences during the twentieth-century Civil Rights and Black Power movements to be sure, though not an issue explored with much nuance and understanding in 12 Years a Slave. The challenge of black solidarity was also an important issue for black abolitionists in the nineteenth century such as Fredrick Douglass and Martin Delany, though we never see much evidence of the abolitionist movement and black social networks in the new movie 12 Years a Slave (In contrast, we do see all this in the 1984 version directed by Gordon Parks.) Noticeably, although the original book indicates awareness of the importance of the abolitionist movement and organized resistance to slavery, as well as the challenges of black solidarity within a brutal, contradictory system, the movie emphasizes individual suffering and Northup’s exceptional personality.

What is my point here? I do not mean to detract from the importance of this new movie, which I expect to win the Academy Award for best picture. It’s a brilliantly made film, and probably I will include it in my own teaching of early nineteenth-century literature when I teach Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many other canonical authors who wrote about the issue of slavery. It may not be the original film on slavery or even the best film on slavery as the reviewers suggest, but it is certainly doing something that no big-budget film has done before (including the winning of the Golden Globe award for best picture already.) My criticism is directed less at the movie itself than at how the mainstream media has presented it to the public. Ultimately, in my view, the movie is a story of a black man who experiences the terrors of slavery and is eventually rescued by a white man (Brad Pitt), instead of the story that black film makers in the 1970s and 1980s were more interested in — the story of black communities working to rescue themselves. Indeed, what is missing from 12 Years a Slave and the mainstream media’s discussion of it is the same historical fact that is missing from Spielberg’s Lincoln (as I wrote about in this blog [see here] and discussed in a public forum [see here]) — and that is the heroic work not of individuals, but of organized communities.

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