W.E.B Du Bois said, famously, “Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good?; not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth?; nay, but that men know so little of men.”
I think his words would have even been truer had he substituted ‘age’ for ‘the entire reality of human existence’. It really is the tragedy of human life that we know so little of each other, that we prefer cloistered and vain pleasures over true brotherhood that is freely accessible by all; save empathy and compassion. But it is not an insurmountable tragedy.
From this truth springs the beauty of 12 Years a Slave. The recent film adaption of the 1853 memoir tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York during the mid-1800s who undergoes an immense and harrowing journey. Northup enjoys a family and comfortable life as a violinist until he is drugged and kidnapped by two imposters posing as traveling circus performers, inviting Solomon to play music with them for some quick money. The two imposters whisk him away and sell him into slavery in Louisiana. The result is a tale not unlike Homer’s Odyssey. Solomon is locked in the prison cell of Southern chattel slavery, in the heat of its ruthlessness, waiting on an opportunity to get back to his life and family.
From the outset of the story – and the title doesn’t hide much – you can feel trouble brewing underneath the surface. Chiwetel Ejiofor who stars as Solomon Northup, pulls the viewer in with his earnestness. He is so likable that his capture wrenches your stomach from the very beginning and doesn’t let up until it’s over. It makes the brutality more brutal. His likableness though is one aspect that upset the very small number of critics of the film. We shall come back to this later because how likable Solomon is, is an important issue to think about in relation to slavery as a real historical phenomenon. Critics at Slate saw his role as a ‘hero’ problematic because most people in slavery were never freed but died in total obscurity, whose stories will never be told. Heroism then, as the antidote to slavery – or Solomon’s being the heroic exception to the rule, and damn handsome – undermines in some way the normal, everyday slave life of historic Southern chattel slavery. I will explain why this point is vacuous but let’s move on for now.
After Solomon’s kidnapping, the movie is a long exposure to the barbarism of American slavery as Solomon is tossed around from owner to owner. But director Steve McQueen has said that it was very important for him to capture the complexities of even the villainous characters in the story. To this end he is triumphant. The slave owner Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, is the chief antagonist. He is ruthlessly brutal. His moral mirror image is William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. William Ford is the ‘nice guy’ slave owner who treats Solomon with kindness but sins by omission for not doing anything about what he knows is wrong.
Solomon is originally bought by William Ford. Ford’s lead carpenter Tibeats, played by Paul Dano, develops a special animosity towards Solomon because Solomon is constantly outshining him in his knowledge of practical workmanship, impressing Ford. Inferiority complexes abound and a confrontation arises. Solomon is consequently sent away to Epps.
Epps is easy to hate but is not without his complexities. He loves a slave named Patesy, played by Lupita Nyong’o, who ignites in him complex and severe emotion. The scenes where this sort of emotion is depicted are the hardest to watch but contain the most moral content to ponder. He rapes and whips Patesy in two separate scenes, both gruesome. It is in these scenes though, where one realizes the depths of the problem of slavery. Racism was only a small fraction of the point. Hate and love are closer than first glance may grant. Of course the question of whether Epps truly loves Patesy or simply lusts is a live question. But it is in these scenes where we see Epps clearly choose profit over love, social conformity over empathy, industry over compassion, and convenience over bravery. We see that what fuels his cruelty is not hate so much as weakness. For a small moment, during the whipping scene, a small look of love for Patesy flickers on Epps’ face but he is too weak to obey. Following those emotions would mean turning his back on his whole livelihood and his social role. It would mean a total upending of his life. But he is too selfish for that. He instead all but destroys her. This weakness is made even more apparent by him not being able to whip Patesy and making Solomon do it instead, at first.
Solomon’s relationship to Patesy is one of ambivalent friendship until one night she sneaks into his room and asks him to kill her. This scene is the most emotional in the film. She pleads, ‘I have no comfort in this life.’ Solomon refuses her request but afterward they share a more intimate friendship. Their connection doesn’t although have a clear cut, narratival reasoning behind it. Patesy and Solomon are not in love, they have no other connection other than both being slaves on the same plantation under the same cruel hand. The viewer though does see a sort of dichotomy between the two. One is loved by Epps and is punished for it; the other is threatening to Epps and is also punished for it. He loves one and does not love the other and yet the one he loves receives the harder blows. One escapes, one does not. The two represent W.E.B Du Bois’ quote in different ways: one is a free, learned man and yet cannot be known lest he be thrashed to death. And why would he be whipped for being learned? Suppression of the truth; the races are not different, we are one brotherhood. That is no secret to the slave holders. If that gets out you can say goodbye to the 1800s Southern economy. It is that refusal to know the man who is a slave – that unknowing – that produces the brutality. In the same way Patesy is lovable and deeply loved more than Epps’ wife. She represents the potential for true relationship and the direct refusal of it in servitude to the social economy. Solomon represents solidarity. Patesy represents love. Each one flares up and is consequently snuffed out.
The issue of likableness comes into play again here. Negative reviews have said the fact that Solomon is so likeable and the movie itself so aesthetic, something is under-minded about real, historical slavery. The reason this is an empty issue is because 12 Years a Slave is a work of art and it seems as if these reviewers have forgotten the only rule of art: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And this is the whole point of the movie. The heroism of Solomon and Patesy, their likableness as characters, is meant to represent the total oneness of mankind’s ability to be beautiful, to be loved. The point is every single person on earth has this in them, the divine spark. That is the thing that makes us equal. We may not all be equally smart, good-looking, moral, industrious, witty, whatever; but we are each part of an intricate, highly improbable system of life in which each constituent plays an important role. The negative reviewers seem unable to grasp that in a work of art, viewers have to be considered, and people must be moved. So those characteristics in Solomon and Patesey are relatable to us, yes; and they cater to modern sensibilities, yes; but what else can art accomplish? It is the point that these two represent, the human glow, for all.
The last crucial piece of the puzzle is the freeing of Solomon. If this is a spoiler for you, I’m sorry but the title more or less gives this away. Solomon is freed by the help of a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass who is played by Brad Pitt. Bass has a small but crucial role. He alerts Epps to his universal problem. That is, the law of the United States of America may grant you the legal right to own slaves, but there is something objectively wrong about that. It is this claim, the universality of certain moral values, and their usurpation over morals conjured up by man, that perhaps eludes us today since that is not how we think about morals. But that is how the abolitionists thought about them. Samuel Bass represents the adherence to a moral law that is the standard for all others, the one by which the rest are measured.
It is from this power that Civil Rights is fueled. If a country changes its laws to accommodate some higher standard, where could such a standard come from? G.K. Chesterton said it best: “All moral denunciation requires a standard.” If you repudiate a country and its laws, your proposed changes must be more than opinion, more than myopic if they are to actually be better. Difference is one thing, improvement is another. The whole point about American Civil Rights is that they are supposed to point America towards something larger than herself, larger than all of us that will bind us together and harmonize our differences.
The adhesion for this project, this harmony, is knowing. We must know one another or there is no point in even talking about Civil Rights or social ethics. 12 Years a Slave is about knowing Solomon Northup and knowing his struggle and the millions like him. It is hard to watch but the knowing is more important. We are about 150 years removed from his time and his culture, which is less than we tend to imagine it to be. We should remember that the human heart has not changed much since then; probably not at all. We have machines that do our work for us but we still all serve a social mechanism and economy that leaves others out of the equation.
His story, and the story of American slavery – and worldwide – is more relevant than ever.
The story is of course much more than a story. It accomplishes extra. But it’s not simply a moral exercise either. 12 Years a Slave recounts the predicament we humans find ourselves in in an unapologetic and brutalizing way; proving that just because a story has a happy ending and is told beautifully doesn’t mean it’s not a tragedy.