12 Years a Slave: Film as History

Few recent movies have received the acclaim accorded to 12 Years A Slave, currently owner of a 95% “fresh” rating at the critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. But then few recent movies attempt to immerse audiences in the antebellum experience of a free black man taken into bondage from 1841 to 1853 — working from the memoir that he dictated upon his return to the North. (Previously filmed as a PBS movie in 1984, you can read the memoir for yourself here.)

The performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as his sadistic, Bible-quoting owner, and Lupita Nyong’o and Alfre Woodward as two other slaves with very different experiences of the “Peculiar Institution” have drawn universal acclaim, and director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have also received lavish praise. (With occasional dissenters like The Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek, who regrets McQueen’s “artisanal remoteness,” in which one horrifying moment “comes off as weirdly antiseptic, history made safe through art.”) But for a number of critics, 12 Years A Slave seems to have surpassed the standard of being a great movie, or even of being essential art, and instead become a work of history:

Movie audiences have never been presented with anything quite like the intertwined beauty and savagery of “12 Years a Slave,” so it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll extend the embrace that Steve McQueen’s film deserves. Such is the power of this landmark event, though, that it seems certain to transcend the movie realm and become a new reference point in contemporary culture—a defining vision of what slavery looked like, and felt like, in the U.S. before the Civil War. (Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal)

12 Years a Slave is a scarifying, unblinking portrayal of life as it was for tens of thousands of people less than 200 years ago. It pulls no punches. But neither does it lecture. (Paul MacInnes, The Guardian)

Can a feature film be a work of history?

We were having this debate last year because of another movie set in mid-19th century America. But while Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln received criticism from some historians for keeping African Americans largely on the sidelines of a film about the abolition of slavery, 12 Years immerses viewers in the experience of slavery itself.

The notion of the film as history is aided in part by regularly invoked contrasts to other kinds of movies about slavery that don’t achieve, or strive for, historical authenticity: “McQueen makes it impossible to regard slavery from the safe remove of TV screens (Roots), Hollywood sugarcoating (Gone With the Wind) and Tarantino satire (Django Unchained). This prickly renegade restores your faith in the harsh power of movies. You don’t just watch 12 Years a Slave. You bleed with it, share its immediacy and feel the wounds that may be beyond healing” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone).

Indeed, some have wondered if the film isn’t too successful at evoking this particular chapter in American history. Richard Brody (in a New Yorker essay that also considers films about the Holocaust) frames the problem, “The question is whether the director Steve McQueen has trivialized or exploited Solomon Northup’s and other slaves’ sufferings by the very act of treating slavery as a collection of dramatic incidents no less ripe for naturalistic cinematic depiction than any novel or latter-day true-crime story.”

Yet Brody ultimately applauds McQueen for producing what’s a “didactic film in the very best sense of the word,” one that teaches us anew that slavery in the American South was inherently violent:

Poster for 12 Years A SlaveMcQueen shows that slavery is, first and foremost, a matter of dominion over the slave’s body—that the economic and legal concept of owning another person implies the unchecked authority to kill, rape, maim, wound, torture, and terrorize, and that only the constant threat of death and agony keeps people docile in their enslavement. The story of “12 Years a Slave” is fundamentally one of pain and terror, and McQueen—bravely, unshrinkingly, and with no apparent pleasure—compels himself to represent it.

Interestingly, Atlantic correspondent Noah Berlatsky argues the film is actually more “true” for its occasional lapses in verisimilitude. The film’s historical “embellishments” (or omissions – e.g., that Northup contracted smallpox is left out) actually “make the film’s depiction of slavery seem more real.” Expanding on critic Isaac Butler, he writes that a successful narrative “manages to create an illusion not just of truth, but also of accuracy” — and that, he writes, was equally true of slave narratives like Northup’s 1853 memoir. In the end, writes Berlatsky, the film is both fictional and true, but not necessarily historical and true:

A story about slavery, a real, horrible crime, inevitably involves an appeal to reality—the story has to seem accurate if it is to be accepted as true. But that seeming accuracy requires artifice and fiction…. Given the difficulties and contradictions, one might conclude that it would be better to openly acknowledge fiction. From this perspective, Django Unchained, which deliberately treats slavery as genre, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which acknowledges the role of the present in shaping the past through a fantasy time-travel narrative, are, more true than 12 Years a Slave or Glory precisely because they do not make a claim to historical accuracy. We can’t “actually witness … American slavery” on film or in a book. You can only experience it by experiencing it. Pretending otherwise is presumptuous.

And that doesn’t make it any less important a work:

The writers of the original slave narratives knew that to end injustice, you must first acknowledge that injustice exists. Accurate stories about slavery—or, more precisely, stories that carried the conviction of accuracy, were vital to the abolitionist cause.

And, for that matter, they’re still vital. Outright lies about slavery and its aftermath, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind, have defaced American cinema for a long time. To go forward more honestly, we need accounts of our past that, like the slave narratives themselves, use accuracy and art in the interest of being more true. That’s what McQueen, Ejiofor, and the rest of the cast and crew are trying to do in 12 Years a Slave. Pointing out the complexity of the task is not meant to belittle their attempt, but to honor it.

What do you think: Does the very act of making a commercial film about so radical an evil as slavery trivialize or exploit its victims? If not, what do you think of Berlatsky’s claim that “we need accounts of our past that… use accuracy and art in the interest of being more true”? If you’ve seen 12 Years a Slave, does it offer a “a defining vision of what slavery looked like, and felt like, in the U.S. before the Civil War”?

Cross-posted at AC 2nd


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