Last year Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln led to an outpouring of reviews by professional historians, who pointed out what they perceived to be a wide range of interpretive problems and omissions in the film. In sharp contrast, Steve McQueen’s powerful adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years A Slave has garnered a very different and even muted response from the academic community. I sense a collective sigh of relief that finally we have a Hollywood film that directly challenges Lost Cause nostalgia surrounding slavery in Gone With the Wind. It could also be an acknowledgment of just how closely the movie conforms to Northrup’s autobiography.
The violence (both physical and psychological) is emotionally draining and will leave you feeling numb by the end. I never thought I would be saying this, but the final whipping scene makes Denzel Washington’s Academy Award-winning moment in Glory seem mild in comparison. In that case Tripp’s whipping eventually leads to a demonstration of his manhood and defiance in the battle scenes that take place later in the movie. There is redemption in Glory where there is none in 12 Years. We follow Solomon home to Saratoga, New York for a very brief reunion with his family, but our hearts are still with the remaining slaves on the Epps plantation in Louisiana. And then the theater lights come on.
While the brutality depicted in the movie may have given us the clearest picture of the violent nature of slavery it does run the risk of leaving us with a view of slaves as lacking any humanity. If we’ve learned anything from the last 40 years of scholarship it is that slaves found innumerable ways of challenging masters’ authority and asserting their own humanity and agency. Historian Glenn David Brasher.
In the last 40-50 years, historians have demonstrated that antebellum slaves were far from docile automatons, and that they found creative and ingenious ways to reach within themselves to create a culture that resisted the complete domination of their lives. Slaves routinely played tricks on their owners, covertly left the plantation for moonlit social and religious gatherings, entertained themselves, and created strong bonds that enabled them to maintain sanity and hope. Slaves laughed at their master’s expense; told stories to teach their young how to outwit, control, and fool their owners; engaged in slow downs and “laid out” to negotiate their work load; and worshipped a Christian God that they believed would one day free their people and damn their masters to hell. There are few and only fleeting glimpses of this type of resistance, self-determination, and hope depicted in 12 Years a Slave.
First, I am not sure the situation is as dire as Glenn makes it out to be. Depending on how you view the characters and individual scenes, it seems to me that there are numerous examples of slaves doing just the kinds of things pointed out in this review. The slave Anna refuses to forget the children that have recently been taken from her. She weeps during Sunday service as her master reads from the Bible. Is this submissiveness or defiance? I guess McQueen could have gone further in the direction outlined by Glenn, but I also wonder how this transfers to the big screen. Will the average audience pick up on what were incredibly subtle forms of defiance?
As in the case of Lincoln why is it that we expect filmmakers to be familiar with scholarship? This is not a work of academic history. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with raising questions that have come to shape recent historiography, but I tend to think that these discussions are more appropriate for the classroom.
One of the features of this film – in addition to its portrayal of violence – that clearly reflects a significant step in the direction (intentional or not) toward recent scholarship is its depiction of the relationship between Epps and his wife. We see how slavery has come to dominate and shape their relationship. More importantly, we see the wife’s direct involvement in the management of the slave community in all of its forms. I can’t help but think of Thavolia Glymph’s book, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household.
Regardless of where you stand on these issues, I know I speak for Glenn when I say, GO SEE THE MOVIE.