Reflections on 12 Years a Slave

I recently got the chance to watch 12 Years a Slave, and I have to say that the reviews of it are not exaggerated. It is a great film, and I recommend that everyone fourteen and older go see it. As I sometimes do with historical films, I want to analyze it from a historian’s perspective.

Unfortunately, there are always some people who get angry when films about slavery or segregation come out, not because these atrocities took place, but because films are being made about them. To these people, any movie that depicts the oppression of African Americans is an anti-white guilt trip that should not be made. My response, besides asking these people if they want some cheese with their whine, is that it is vital to remember all parts of history. African Americans were denied equality under the law for most of our nation’s history, racism is still a significant problem, and pretending otherwise  does no good. If a movie implies that all white people in the 1800s were racist, that is damaging and false. But if anyone feels guilty from watching a movie about slavery, that is their problem and their problem alone.

One of the most powerful things about 12 Years a Slave is that it is based directly on a true story. Of course, every movie about slavery is based on true events to some degree, but the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup, really was a free black man who was kidnapped from New York and sold into slavery in the South, where he spent 12 years. Northup was not the only free black person in antebellum America to suffer such misfortune. There were other cases of free blacks being kidnapped, then giving fake identities to make it appear as if they had always been slaves. While Northern states such as New York had laws designed to prevent this, they were not always successful.

While fictional protagonists are easier to use for films and novels, due to the fact that directors and writers can portray them however they want, using real-life protagonists has the benefit of impressing upon the viewers that what they are seeing is a dramatization of true events. With a movie like 12 Years a Slave, viewers have a much more difficult time dismissing what they watch as simply Hollywood fabrication. Still, the important thing to remember is not that every single thing depicted in the film happened on the plantations where Solomon Northup was enslaved but that all of the horrors depicted did happen in slavery.

One of the best aspects of the film is the way in which it dispenses with the “kind master” archetype. There was only one type of “kind master” in slavery: the type like Edward Coles, and James G. Birney. These masters acknowledged that blacks had a right to be free and refused to keep holding their slaves in bondage, even when their states had laws designed to prevent emancipation. Because the law in Coles’s native Virginia expelled free blacks, he took his slaves to the Illinois Territory, where he freed them and gave them land. Birney freed all of his slaves and went on to run for president on an abolitionist platform. Those masters who did not take the Coles-Birney path and instead decided to treat their slaves “humanely” while still refusing to free them or allow them to assert their freedom were simply genteel tyrants. Just such a character is deiced in the film in the form of Mr. Ford. A devout Christian, Ford is first introduced when he buys Solomon and another slave named Eliza, a mother with two children. Upon seeing Eliza crying about being separated from her children, Ford attempts to buy the whole family, asking the slave trader if he has a heart. When his attempts to buy the whole family are unsuccessful, however, Ford demonstrates his own heartlessness by taking Eliza anyway, thus splitting up a family. At one point, Solomon describes Ford as a decent man under the circumstances, and Eliza reminds him that he is still willingly holding human beings as property. Eventually, Ford shows his true callousness by selling Solomn to an even more brutal master to prevent the overseer from killing Solomon–rather than, say, freeing Solomon or firing the overseer.

Epps, Solomon’s second master, is portrayed deftly by Michael Fassbender. Some people may argue that Epps, who has the flesh whipped off the backs of slaves and is a rapist and possibly a pedophile as well, is too over the top to be taken seriously. But to go back to an earlier point, there were plantations where all of these things happened, and viewers need to understand that. And in the end, Epps gets little in the way of comeuppance. He loses Solomon, but he faces no legal penalty for his actions, because slavery is still legal at the time Solomon is freed, and he still has a plantation full of slaves to whip and rape as he sees fit.

While the idea that slavery should have been ended gradually and that abolitionists were wrong to demand immediate emancipation is too absurd to warrant debate, it still has its adherents. Historian Thomas Fleming, for instance, once lamented that America had not averted a war by waiting “forty or fifty years” to end slavery. Apparently, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s admonition against thinking that one can set a date for another person’s freedom never made an impression on some people. 12 Years a Slave shows viewers some of what would have continued for a few decades if people like Fleming had been in charge. I wish that everyone who thinks slavery ended too quickly would watch this film.

12 Years a Slave is not the definitive film about slavery. There has never been a definitive film about slavery, and there never will be, because no single film can sum up the entire institution, let alone everything surrounding it. But 12 Years a Slave is perhaps the greatest historical film ever made.


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