Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave                                                                                 

by

Howard Adelman

 

Last evening, Nancy and I went to the movies and saw Twelve Years a Slave. I have no intention of giving the story away and depriving you of your enjoyment, even though there is little to “enjoy” in this brilliant, compelling, mesmerizing movie. You will have to take it on trust that there is relatively little plot in any case – just a series of events cascading unremittingly downwards. Appropriately, given the film’s structure, I will use analogy to depict the film, but you may prefer to see the movie first before you read the blog.

Twelve Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is to the American institution of slavery what Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg (that other Steven) is to the Holocaust. Only Twelve Years a Slave is a better film as terrific as Schindler’s List was as a movie. It is better because it is even more gritty and horrific than Spielberg’s authentic account of the clearing of the Krakow ghetto while also much more profound. The surrounding story of Oscar Schindler was a Hollywood fictional character even if based on a historical one, one so successful that it has largely been adopted by official accounts, including that of Yad Vashem. Oscar Schindler was, in reality, a spy against the Nazis for the Abswehr, a money runner for the Zionists and a philo-semite from youth when his two best friends who lived next door to him were sons of a rabbi. Though in real life also a philanderer and gambler, in the movie he is also portrayed as an opportunistic Nazi who undergoes an epiphany when he sees the girl in the red coat during the clearing of the Krakow ghetto – the only colour scene in the movie before the ending. Oscar Schindler henceforth dedicates himself to saving a small remnant of about 1100 Jews. This Christian overlay of simplistic personal sin and redemption is so typical of Hollywood films on the Holocaust; the film ends not only with Christian redemption but with the redemption of the Jews in the promised land of Israel continuing the link in the imaginary eye of the triumphal creation of Israel with the horror of the Holocaust as its precondition. This contrasts markedly with the role of Christianity in Twelve Years a Slave – but more on this later.

Both movies are about a very tiny minority, Schindler’s List about one relatively small group among an absolute relatively small total who were actually saved from the Holocaust, while Twelve Years a Slave is about an even smaller group of relatively free Blacks captured and sold into slavery and an even much tinier group of Blacks who were restored to their free status. But Schindler’s List focused on seeing the Holocaust through the eyes of a redeemed Christian through whom the redemption of the Jews in general is made possible. Twelve Years a Slave shows slavery as it was perceived, experienced and felt, slavery as it was beaten into the flesh and the mindset of one man, a former free man from Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon Northup, born free, well educated and relatively prosperous with his own home and thriving musical career as a violinist, is tricked and sold into slavery at a slave sale in New Orleans in Louisiana.

Steve McQueen and Steve Spielberg share another element in common. Spielberg cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in his 1997 critically acclaimed film Amistad. In Twelve Years a Slave, Ejiofor plays the main character (Pratt, née Solomon Northrup) utilizing very few words but a myriad of facial expressions and bodily movements to reveal his character and thoughts. Both films are about non-gratuitous, almost banal, violence and racism. But the differences far outweigh the similarities between the two films, especially the main subject matter of each. Though Schindler’s List is unequivocally a Holocaust film, Twelve Years a Slave is about much more than slavery. It is about the inferno, purgatory and heaven that one man goes through depicted with the poetic imagery of a modern-day Dante.

The film is based on Solomon Northup’s best-selling memoir of his life when he was captured as a free man and sold into slavery in 1841. We know from the title of the film that he will be rescued and redeemed after twelve years of unremitting torture. Solomon, presumably the wise, but actually naïve northern prosperous Black, is, like Dante, in his mid-thirties when he begins his descent. Solomon is like one of those ancient soothsayers with his head screwed on backwards as he wallows in his success and glories in his prosperity just as Job once did. But his face is really “twisted toward his haunches
and (he) found it necessary to walk backward because he could not see ahead.”  The film is a backward path and a downward descent beyond hell into purgatory before Solomon is rescued and restored to paradise.

The first part of the film quickly traduced begins with a prosperous Solomon seen with his wife and two children in Saratoga in New YorkState. Solomon tucks his two children into bed insisting they go to sleep quietly and make no noise, an ironic adumbration of his own future where his own voice had to be shut down lest he give offence to whites after he is sold into slavery. The family owns their own home and Solomon travels extensively on concert tours. He has white friends. He, his wife and children are all well dressed. In one incident at a general store, a black man, who has presumably slipped away from his master, approaches Solomon to speak to him, but Solomon is distracted by his wife’s demand to purchase a new handbag of the latest design and the approaching black man is found by his master before he has a chance to speak. The descent into Hell begins with this most casual sin of indulgence and the “poetic justice” meted out against Solomon. So passes the first sin and the beginning of the descent into hell disguised by the peace and generally non-racist tenor of this superficially idyllic scene.

The animal in Dante’s Commedia first encountered is the black and white leopard, which, for Dante, represented the radical political split between the Black Guelphs (the political papists), in this film, actual Blacks who were to be saved by what the state rights advocates argued was the new imperial president in Washington, and the White Guelphs, in this film, the white southerners who opposed the imperialist or strong federalist claims of Washington. Dante was then the Chief Magistrate of Florence and saw himself as a keeper of the peace by serving as a bridge between two radically divided worlds. What begins in mild material indulgence quickly descends into the other sins of indulgence on the first level of the inferno, before descending further into the hell of violence and malice.

At the upper level of Hell we encounter four other types of self-indulgent sins before we descend lower into the middle reaches of hell where two types of violent sin await Solomon and then, at the base, the two types of malicious sin. In 1841, Northup met Merrill Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Abram Hamilton (Taran Killam) who claim to be entertainers. They offer Solomon a position with a very high pay – one dollar for each day on the road and an extra three dollars for every show he plays – for playing the violin as part of a travelling Circus Company. They meet Solomon in Washington, where the deeds they practiced were not then illegal, and they ply Solomon with both drink and flattery. As a result of his naiveré and lack of sufficient wariness, Solomon ends up drunk and wakes up only to find himself bound in chains in a slave cell in Washington cast into the second circle of the first level of hell and insensibility.

Solomon refuses to believe he has been tricked and betrayed by Brown and Hamilton and insists that his new-found friends were artists, not kidnappers. Solomon is in denial. He threatens his jailers, John Birch (Christopher Berry) and his turnkey, Ebenezer Radburn (Bill Camp), with justice and has no true recognition of the perilous state in which he finds himself. This appeal to and belief justice in the face of blatant evil is the third circle of indulgence expressed by Solomon.

Radburn beats Northup to silence his claim that he is a free man and insists he is a Georgian runaway slave whose name is Pratt. On top of the material indulgence, Solomon’s sense of pride, his belief and faith in justice, he now has to surrender his faith in truth and even his own identity. In the upper level of hell, Solomon is stripped of all he believes in – prosperity, success, self pride, a belief in justice and in truth, and even his own sense of self. Solomon is ready to be transported to middle-Hell.

With other slaves he purchased, Birch ships Solomon by sea to New Orleans to his partner, Theophilus Freeman, played magnificently by Paul Giamatti. En route, it is clear we are in hell as coal is shoveled into the furnaces of the steamer and as we watch the ripples of water left behind and viewed through the repetitive slats of the paddlewheel of the steamer. The circle goes round and round and down and down. In New Orleans, we encounter gratuitous violence, violence rooted in ideology rather than utility, and we are now beyond the level of indulgence. Upon his arrival in the middle level of hell, Solomon watches helplessly as his Virgil, who taught him the ways of survival, how to stay hidden and betray yourself to save yourself, is set free, if not from slavery, at least from the horrors that Solomon will continue to face. Solomon has been cast into his hell by what are otherwise ordinary or even noble beliefs, conceived as indulgences in a country strongly rooted in institutionalized slavery. Solomon now must truly encounter the sins of others.

The first circle of violence is the treatment of the captives as less than human. Freeman tells his buyers that the young boy, whom he ruthlessly separates form his mother, will grow into a fine and strong beast. It is as if he is displaying cattle for sale as he lauds the bodies of the slaves and haggles over the monetary value of each. He will not compromise on a sale in consideration of the feeling of the inconsolable mother, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who is separated from her two children by the garrulous Freeman who wallows in his own logorrhea.

We experience a twofold violence, violation of the individuals treated as mere meat and violation of any human relationships. But that violence will bear little resemblance to the third and bottom circle of hell when Solomon is confronted, not with simple greed and inhumanity, but with actual malice. The malice stands in stark contrast with William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the “good slave owner” who purchases Solomon and Eliza. Ford ineffectually tried to convince Freeman to at least keep the girl with her mother, but to no avail. Though a good and sincere man, he is still a slave owner, but also a moral coward as Eliza points out to Solomon. Ford’s wife is less sensitive; she tells the grieving and inconsolable Eliza who will not be comforted that she will soon forget her children.

Solomon’s intelligence and creativity flourish under Ford and he successfully suggests tying the cleared logs to together to ship them down river to the saw mill or market. John M. Tibault, in an outstanding performance by Paul Dano, oversees the work of Ford’s slaves picking cotton to the tune of Tibault singing “Run Nigger Run”, ironically, originally a Negro folk song cheering slave flight and warning that time is running out, but sung as a demeaning song about Blacks who steal crops and run from the “pattarolls”.

Oh run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run nigger flew

Nigger tore his shirt in two

Run run the patty roller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run through the field

Black slick coal and barley heel

Run nigger run the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Some folks say a nigger won’t steal

I caught three in my corn field

One has a bushel

And one has a peck

One had a rope and it was hung around his neck

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Oh nigger run and nigger flew

Why in the devil can’t a white man chew

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Hey Mr. Patty roller don’t catch me

Catch that nigger behind that tree

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

Nigger run, run so fast

Stoved his head in a hornets nest

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away 

Nigger run, run so fast

Nigger, he got away at last

Run nigger run well the pattyroller will get you

Run nigger run well you better get away

However, for an unexplained reason, Ford gets into financial difficulties and has to sell some slaves to settle his debts to Tibaut. But Ford continues to hold a chattel mortgage on Solomon for the unpaid part of the sale. Tibault is the exemplification of malice driving violence. He resents Solomon’s smarts. Tibault challenges Solomon’s uses of nails provided by Ford’s overseer, Chapin. Chapin intervenes and Solomon speaks up, asserting that Tibault wanted to beat him for using the nails that Chapin provided. When Chapin challenges Tibault, asking what’s wrong with the nails, Tibault does not reply but stares malevolently at Solomon. Chapin walks away with Tibault evidently trying to quiet Tibault’s furious resentment at being upstaged and put in his place by a black slave.

In a subsequent confrontation, Tibault attacks Solomon for a second time when he arrives with two others (Cook and Ramsey) on horseback with whips and a rope. Thibault attempts to hang Solomon, but Ford’s overseer, Chapin, intervenes, and reminds Tibault that he has a debt to Ford, secured by a chattel mortgage on Solomon, so hurting or killing Solomon would in law be an attack on Ford’s property. Chapin also threatens Thibault’s two companions and they ride off. Tibault sneaks off in shame. However, Chapin does not cut Solomon down even though Solomon’s toes barely touch the ground. After a number of hours, Ford comes to the rescue and releases Solomon from his noose.

Why did Chapin allow Solomon to continue to hang just after having rescued him? The implied answer is that Chapin’s malice is even worse and a different order of sin than Thibault’s overt hatred and resentment even as he appears as a rescuer. For at least Tibault’s malice was worn on his sleeve, whereas Chapin’s resentment goes much deeper and his violence is more indirect and cloaked in protectionism and the rule of law. 

When we reach the bottom of hell, the movie’s real horrors are just about to really begin. For we now transition from hell to purgatory when Solomon transits through a short period clearing land of cane, trees and undergrowth to prepare the land for planting cotton before title to himself as a chattel is sold to the venomous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender who starred in McQuuen’s two previous feature films – Hunger about the 1981 northern Irish hunger strike and Shame about a sexaholic) on a cotton plantation where slavery is pure torture but where repression is finally linked to desire and not just survival, to eros, admittedly a perverted eros in the various forms of lust, gluttony and greed, sloth and malicious love mixing wrath, envy and pride as Patsey, played in an Oscar winning performance by Lupita Nyong’o, becomes the object of Epp’s passion and wrath, his pride and disdain, as he whips Patsey in the most horrendous scene of the movie as black skin is torn open by the lashes to reveal the pink and blood soaked  bloody flesh beneath.

 

Tomorrow; Purgatory and Paradise

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s