12 Years a Slave: A Review

 12 Years a Slave Commentary Video

People often confuse memoir with an autobiography.  An autobiography is, for the most part, a factual account of someone’s life story written in their own hand.  A memoir is somewhat more specific.  The focus of a memoir tends to be narrower in its scope, instead choosing to focus on a particular aspect, or aspects relating to a particular experience, of someone’s life.  Yet, the purpose of both, however, is to weave others through an experience and leave the audience with an impression that lingers.  Whether this end is achieved through the printed word or a dramatized rendition projected onto a screen, Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, retains a personal poignancy and poetic power that transcends whatever distinctions exist between these artistic approaches.

Twelve Years a Slave, originally, was a memoir written by a freeman named Solomon Northup.  Northup was a native of Saratoga Springs, New York, skilled at various trades; he was married with three children, living a comfortable life.[1]  Then in 1841, while seeking employment, he was met by two men, unknown to him, who engaged his services as an expert violin player for a circus company they worked for in Washington, D.C.  Or so they said.  Taking his violin and linens and no time to leave his family, who were away at the time, word of where he was going nor his activities, Northup leapt at the opportunity, not realizing that he was taking a leap into a darkness he could not anticipate.  Much darker than anything he had ever experienced before.  Betrayed by his companions, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, Northup was sold into slavery where he was robbed of not only his freedom, but also his dignity and decency as a human being.  Once ensnared within this peculiar institution, his identity ceased to exist.  He was robbed even of his own name.  No longer was he Solomon Northup; thereafter he would be known as Platt.[2]  After being parsed around like a piece of cattle, he eventually ended up in the charge of a rough, rude, vindictive master named Edwin Epps, who had a reputation for being a “nigger breaker.”[3]  As Northup recalled:

Ten years I toiled for that man compelled to address him with down-cast eyes and uncovered head-in the attitude and language of a slave.  I am indebted to him for nothing, save undeserved abuse and stripes.[4]

Northup’s experience under Epps’ ownership would offer some of the most incisive insights into how slavery could cut through your soul.  From religious ravings to verbal epithets, to savage beating of the slave woman named Patsey, to the daily monotonous toil of the fields, Northup tried to hold on to his hope while having his heart broken more times than he could count.[5]

Eventually, with a little luck and the help of a man named Bass, in 1853, Northup was able to make his journey out of the darkness that had colored his existence permanently.  Once free, Northup was reunited with his family and began to rebuild his life.  Out of the haunting shadows and piercing echoes of that savage darkness, Northup was able to shed light on the devastating nature of slavery and be a voice for those who had none.  And yet, like so many, he eventually faded into the mists of time.[6]

Film director Steve McQueen’s 2013 film 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup’s memoir by the same name.  While the opening of the film purports that this dramatization is “based on a true story,” almost all of the artistic elements, from the set designs, costumes, attitudes, and actors’ performances, are consistent with the reminiscences recorded by Northup.  While there are a few things that were left out, possibly for time constraints, such as people, places, and moments, the overall narrative structure is consistent with the historical evidence.  However, what makes this film distinctively unique, aside from its achieving both critical and commercial success, is the way in which it depicts the horrors of slavery in America, in such a graphic and visceral way.[7]

While traditionally most films, such as Roots, that depict the horrors of slavery offer fleeting, indeed tame, glimpses of imagery that are stark and heartbreaking, the imagery that they contain has been recreated in other films on the subject, such as Nightjohn and Race to Freedom, so often, in much the same way, that audiences seem to have become accustomed to them.  When such imagery as the whipping boy, the lynched victim, and women being degraded verbally or slapped has been reproduced time after time it eventually loses it shock value, if not its heartbreak.[8]  McQueen’s film succeeds in breaking that mold by offering audiences something only rarely seen in other films, like Beloved, Amistad, and even a film like Django Unchained.  It offers an unapologetic damning portrayal of just how dehumanizing the psychology and practice of slavery could be without sparing the harsher realities in any way.  We see men being gaged and abused with torture devices; a man dangling from rope by his neck trying to survive, and women being physically and sexually assaulted in deplorable and dehumanizing ways.[9]  If a film with such emotional depth and boldness of conviction can show audiences the horrific nature of what slavery meant in such a compelling way, not only repelling them but compelling them to want to know more, it will be interesting to see what other leaps and bounds artists will take in pushing the limits of this art form and audiences even further.

As a primary source, about the period in which this film was made, it is interesting to note that prior to this film’s release other films that attempted to deal with the harsher realities of slavery in America, such as the aforementioned films, were mostly critical but not commercial success.  What was different?  Perhaps what was different was that America was a nation that had not yet, in its entire 200 plus year history, elected a nonwhite president.  With the election, and then reelection, of Barack Obama, America’s first African-American President, the nation suddenly developed a renewed interest into aspects of our shared national narrative that have often been pushed aside or ignored.  With his elections, Americans found a renewed interest in examining issues of race on a national level, tackling the deep seeded divisions and inequities within society.  Timing is an important factor in determining the effectiveness of an artistic endeavor.  So perhaps the timing was right for this film.[10]

As a secondary source, for historical reference, you would be hard-pressed to find many other films, other than McQueen’s, that are as historically and aesthetically authentic, if not strictly accurate, in their depiction of the spirit of a time, place, and experience lived by so many, yet seen through the lens of one man’s perspective.  McQueen is careful to maintain the integrity of Northup’s memoir in his translation as accurately as he can.

All in all, it is important to remember that people make history, history does not make itself.  In order for an audience to connect with something historic in nature it helps to present things through the experiences of a particular person or set of individuals.  History is not simply cerebral, it is an emotional experience as well; because we as human beings are not just thinking, we are feeling creatures.  And as John Ernest pointedly reminds us, “Northup’s narrative was one among many, one hopes that 12 Years a Slave will inspire an industry devoted to purposeful eruptions in the nation’s racial landscape.”[11]  This film will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the way films depicting slavery are made in the future.

Bibliography

12 Years a Slave. DVD. Directed by Steve McQueen. 2013. Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2014.

Doherty, Thomas. “Movie Reviews: 12 Years a Slave.” The Journal of American History 101, no.1 (June 2014): 357-360. http://jah.oxfordjournals.org.ezproxy.umw.edu/content/101/1/357.full.pdf+html (accessed September 6, 2014).

Ernest, John. “(Re)Mediated History: 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (April 3, 2014): 367-373. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju022 (accessed September 5, 2014).

Li, Stephanie. “12 Years a Slave as a Neo-Slave Narrative.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 326-331. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju009 (accessed September 5, 2014).

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853. New York: 37Ink/Atria Books, 2013.

Smith, Valerie. “Black Life in the Balance: 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (February 10, 2014): 362-366. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju015 (accessed October 15, 2014).

Stauffer, John. “12 Years between Life and Death.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 317-325. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju012 (accessed October 15, 2014).

Thaggert, Miriam. “12 Years a Slave: Jasper’s Look.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 332-338. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju013 (accessedOctober 15, 2014).

Tillet, Salamishah. “I Got No Comfort in This Life’: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 354-361. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju010 (accessed September 6, 2014).

Toplin, Robert Brent. “Making a Slavery Docudrama.” OAH Magazine of History 1, no.2,Teaching about Slavery (Fall, 1985): 17-19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25162463 (accessed September 9, 2014).

Williams, Andrea N. “Sex, Marriage, and 12 Years a (Single) Slave.” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 347-353. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju014 (accessed October 15, 2014).

Williams, Chad L. “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey: From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave.” Humanities 35, no.1 (Jan/Feb., 2014): 16-19, 52. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy. umw.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=abf1d8ff-4327-45c6-b8e6-5f3c815a8e74%40sessionmgr114&vid=5&hid=107 (accessed September 9, 2014).

I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work: Alex Young

Footnotes:


[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (New York: 37Ink/Atria Books, 2013), 9-10.

 [2] Ibid., 11-54.

 [3] Ibid., 149.

 [4] Ibid.

 [5] Ibid., 131-224.

[6] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, 225-282.

 [7] 12 Years a Slave, DVD, directed by Steve McQueen (2013; Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2014).

 [8] Chad L. Williams, “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey: From American Playhouse to 12 Years a Slave,” Humanities 35, no.1 (Jan/Feb., 2014): 16-18. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.umw.edu/ehost/pdfveiwer?sid=ab f1d8ff-4327-45c6-b8e6-5f3c815a8e74%40sessionmgr114&vid=5&hid=107 (accessed September 9, 2014).

 [9] Salamishah Tillet, “I Got No Comfort in This Life’: The Increasing Importance of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 354-361. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aJu010 (accessed September 6, 2014).

[10] Miriam Thaggert, “12 Years a Slave: Jasper’s Look,” American Literary History 26, no.2 (January 31, 2014): 333. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju013 (accessed October 15, 2014).

[11] John Ernest, “(Re)Mediated History: 12 Years a Slave,” American Literary History 26, no.2 (April 3, 2014): 373. http://alh.oxfordjournals.org/10.1093/alh/aju022 (accessed September 5, 2014).