Ours are crummy and low times by all sorts of measures, but they do have their good sides. We finally, for example, seem able to cinematically look slavery in the eye.

We’ve had the material since the origins of film-making. Solomon Northup’s book about his experience as a free black kidnapped into slavery by a DC operation was one of the better-known slave narratives, especially in the 1850s, when it even outsold Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. It is a true story, many of whose main facts were carefully documented.

If it is not representative of the average experience of slavery, we must remember that the extreme cruelty of the worst masters and of the slavers under-girded the whole system. Moreover,it spoke the bottom-line truth about the system: everything depended on a intransigent insistence upon the slaves’ inhumanity, and that made every cruelty against them ultimately justifiable, whatever we might say about all the laws on the Southern books that indicated the contrary.

(The quibbles of fact that a few have voiced about the film, and the various chicken-a-la-prof claims that no slave narrative can ever be said to be really true, that some have also voiced, deserve to be ignored. The film-makers were true to Northup’s account, although some literary compression was necessary, and some literary addition was appropriate. Script-writer John Ridley did make one error about a key character when interpreting the text. However, that error, and the additions, do nothing to alter the justice done to the account, nor especially to the larger topic of American slavery. And if you wonder about veracity of Northup’s account itself, I think what David Fiske, who co-authored a book on the full life of Solomon Northup, says in this article will reassure you.)

The director is Steve McQueen, British and black, whose two films so far, HUNGER and SHAME, have respectively dealt with Bobby Sands’ IRA hunger-strike, and modern Manhattanite sexual individualism. I didn’t see them, and so rely upon reports, but it seems that 12 YEARS is his first stab at obviously black subject-matter. It also seems he is drawn to subjects which demand close examination of twisted sexuality and limit-experiences of bodily frailty. I suppose McQueen’s frank look in SHAME at what we might too-neatly categorize as a “sex addiction,” hinted at his ability to do justice to the sexual exploitations that flowered under America’s slave-system.

So if ours is an era where society poses no censorship resistance nor even any effective social resistance to a film like SHAME, or a TV series like GIRLS, such that the banal depravity of modern sexual relations can be fully depicted, ours is also an era where the true horrors that were always present in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and in the story of American slavery generally, can finally be depicted with full cinematic impact.

That’s one angle. But in truth, we could have had 98-99% of 12 YEARS A SLAVE twelve or even twenty-four years ago had anyone had had the guts, perhaps particularly the financial guts, to do it(apparently a much-tamer PBS-movie version was made). I say this while nonetheless being grateful it fell to McQueen and his main collaborators—if I’ve so far made McQueen seem particularly interested in sexual perversion and bodily trauma, I want to stress that his artistry in a whole number of respects is unique, powerful, and very thoughtful.

The film provides marvels of pacing, surprise, and juxtaposition throughout, excellent cinematography, two particularly bold lingering close-up shots of the lead actor, and a number of well-chosen archetypal aspects or comparisons. With McQueen, we are in the hands of  master, and a wise one.  Here’s a trailer .

You should see it. And in a theatre.

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There are two reasons you might have for not going that I’d like to address.

First, you’re wrong if you’re worried this is going to be another film about slavery or segregation where a white hero character helps save the black victim/hero character . The facts of the Northup case are what they are, so yes, we could say that he is only able to be freed by the efforts of his NY white friends. But the “rescuers” are minor characters, bit parts, whereas Northup is anything but a passive victim character that our heart-strings are pulled to feel oh-so-sorry for. Rather, he’s constantly calculating about what to do.

One of the more archetypal scenes presents the raw choice that slavery posed to those under its yoke: submit and survive, perhaps destroying one’s self-respect, or risk all for dignity, likely only to exchange an action of unknown heroism for death. The scene I have in mind places Northup between a fellow captive who represents the voice of total self-concealing submission for survival’s sake, and another who represents the voice of total resistance for honor’s sake.

There is also a scene, and here I issue a slight spoiler alert for the remainder of this post , where Northup won’t take it anymore, and beats up his abusive overseer, rather than let him whip him. Readers of Frederick Douglass’s autiography will recall the importance of his similarly beating up his overseer Covey, which Douglass described as follows:

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.

I immediately thought of this upon seeing Northup resist his overseer. Traumatized by McQueen’s cinematic kidnapping of me into this horrible world, I guess I was grasping  for the kind of hope a usual script would give me, and remembering the noble words of Douglass, I thought, “Okay, whew . . . finally some relief . . . here comes the beginning of the up-swing!”

But it was not to be.

For in truth, the 16-year-old Douglass only avoided the common death penalty for daring to raise his hand against a white man because he was lucky, or blessed. It turned out his overseer wanted to keep his reputation as a Negro-breaker intact, and so had an incentive to remain silent about the incident. By contrast, Northup’s overseer immediately demands the death penalty, and resolves to administer a lynching himself, eventually coming quite close to succeeding.

image Douglass autobio

My point is that Northup’s Douglass-like moment of manly resistance could easily have resulted in a loathsome death under a false name, so that his family would have been forever in the dark about his fate, and the world unaware of his story. Nor does his fight does provide a positive turning point: in external terms, it lands him at one of the worst plantations in the region, and in internal ones, it does not seem to have boosted or have significantly redirected his spirit. We might see such a redirection happen in his self-surrendering response to the spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll,” but that remarkable scene is something else entirely, and there is more than one way to interpret it.

One of the more important things 12 YEARS is able to convey, I think, is a sense of the constant uncertainty that was a basic part of being a slave. Northup never knows what is coming next, and is often unsure about how far to pantomime for his masters mute servility on one hand, or on the other, whether and how far to signal “no further than this” lines of personal dignity. Often, no-one really knows what you can get away with, and what might get you killed. No-one knows whether the various compromises you consider making for survival’s sake will even gain you much of that.

But none of this has anything to do with sentimentalized victim-hood.

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Second, if you’re concerned that the film is all about subjecting the audience to one horror after another, perhaps with a white-guilt-inducing and black-enragement agenda at work to boot, I can say this: you will not feel manipulated by this film. You may feel crushed, overwhelmed, you may feel concern about how your fellow audience members, especially those who are black, are taking it, but you will not feel manipulated. Nor will you become irritated or bored by a common ennoble-most-the-black-characters trope, one conservative culture writer Mark Judge finally felt himself fed up with when considering whether to see THE BUTLER. The feel here is totally different. Everything is too life-and-death to waste time with that tired PBS-y stuff. Nor will you ever feel the film-maker is subjecting you to an image simply because doing so will establish his “edginess.” It is not a showily grim realism at work here, but a grim realism about character and human choice.

The film does in a sense man-handle you, but I think for the good artistic reason of making you feel the shocks that Northup, himself not bred to slavery, is going through.

So the portrayal of the violence and cruelty is stark. The camera does not turn away when we want it to. The beatings, the sobbings, and the rape-scene, all go on longer than we want or expect.

I’ll just say that somewhat like a tragedy, the intense experience of human suffering this film takes one through ultimately “pleases.” That is, one is glad one has gone through it.

I’m reminded of what I say to prospective readers of Alexsandr Solzhenitysn’s The Gulag Archipelago , who assume that a book describing the Soviet labor camps will be too stark, too depressing, too harrowing, just one grim thing after another. And it is true that many chapters, such as the ones on Soviet torture-methods or on the fate of children in the camps, are uniquely harrowing reading experiences. But it is also the case that Solzhenitsyn provides a certain verve to the whole affair. His voice, defiant, at times humorous, always passionate, in places appropriately philosophic, together with his artistry, somehow make it not a matter of one grim thing after another .

image of Gulag A

12 YEARS A SLAVE is only a two-hour experience, however, so it has less time for such an artistic strategy. Nor does it, like Gulag , involve an unexpected presentation of Christian Redemption, whatever we make of its “Roll Jordan, Roll” scene. (Moreover, the Biblical hope that is most important to the characters of 12 YEARS is that of Judgment.)

But something happens by means of McQueen’s artistry, that in a similar if less obvious way than Solzhenitsyn’s, overcomes the one-grim-thing-after-another problem. You leave truly shaken, but I think with a sense that a kind of justice has been done.

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In the introduction to mine and Flagg Taylor’s forthcoming book Totalitarianism on Screen: Essays on THE LIVES OF OTHERS we say that “a widely-seen film can decisively shape a nation’s imagistic impression, it’s ‘cinematic consciousness,’ of its own history.” We say this with immediate respect to the particularly leftist and German duty to properly remember, particularly in the arts, the vile oppression of the East German state, in which task we feel the film THE LIVES OF OTHERS has an important role to play; but the truth that everyone has a duty to arrive at an honest consciousness of the sins of their nation has a universal application. And one that falls with particular force upon our nation.

So while I know you will ultimately appreciate seeing this film, I cannot avoid also suggesting that you have a duty as an American to do so.

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