If we wanted to applaud a movie for superb acting, for faithful and dedicated adherence to an original text, for a sensory and almost tactile aesthetic of complicated brutality, then we must look no further than Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years A Slave’, the current darling of the film world, critically applauded almost universally across the board. Based upon Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative ’12 Years A Slave’, directed by a (black) British director, Steve McQueen, adapted by a (black) writer, Philip Ridley, and starring the incredible (black) actor Chiwetal Ejiofor, the movie itself is unusual in that its production team and cast challenges – or seems to challenge – the mainstream conventions of Hollywood whitewashing. I say “seems” to challenge because at its heart, I find this movie deeply conventional and troubling in its failure to engage with any message other than that slavery was brutal, that slavery was disgusting, that slavery was wrong. I’m echoing James Baldwin in his criticism of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ – “her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong; was, in fact, perfectly horrible. This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel . . . .”
Unlike the white, Christian Stowe whose experience of slavery was obviously second-hand and fictionalized, Northup wrote about his own autobiographical experiences as a free-born black male kidnapped into slavery. However, like most slave narratives, his experiences are framed and filtered through a white lens. Specifically, Northup’s own experiences are recorded “as told” to a white abolitionist writer, David Wilson. In this, he was not unusual. Scholars, including Henry Louis Gates, one of the consultants on the movie, have written extensively about the unreliability of slave narratives due to their frequent collaboration with white abolitionists, who were crafting stories intended to be consumed by a literate, white, sympathetic audience: the kind of people who had read, enjoyed and been moved by the “sentimentality” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work, to whom Northup’s own book is dedicated.
I err on the side of Baldwin: I find the diktat that slavery is bad too simplistic a message. I think the mainstream success of ’12 Years A Slave’ lies in the simple fact that once again, we have been provided with a work of art which does not challenge the dark heart of American racism, but simply reconfirms a moral that we all knew: slavery is a very bad thing. Of course, we have not been subject to McQueen’s unique aesthetic on the subject before, nor Ejiofor’s incredible acting, nor Ridley’s excellent script, but watching ’12 Years A Slave’ is not revelatory in any way – certainly not to black American audiences, at least.
Solomon Northup is an educated, free-born, black man living in Saratoga, New York. He dresses like his white contemporaries, he talks like his white contemporaries, he expects – and receives – the same freedoms as his white contemporaries. By framing the slave’s experience with an unexamined nod towards respectability politics, the movie sends a disturbing message which is echoed by Solomon’s own lines on the slave ship going South, where he differentiates between he and his two educated free companions all of whom have been kidnapped into slavery, to the “other niggers” who are born into slavery, or who have been directly shipped over from Africa.
There is something deeply disturbing to me that if Hollywood cannot place at the center of its narrative a white male, it instead places a black male acting like a white male. My criticism is not focused towards the Director nor the Writer of this movie, nor towards the obvious fact that they are working from historically accurate material. My criticism, or rather, my disappointment in this fact stems from their understanding – their correct understanding – of the racial politics and dynamics of American society which are reflected in the tastes of the commercial, predominantly white, movie-going audience today. McQueen made a movie which is digestible for the racist, produced by Pitt’s production company Plan B, complete with long list of famous white male stars – Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giametti – who usually demand top billing, graciously allowing Ejiofor the top spot, but not, apparently, his excellent female co-star Lupita Nyong’o. This allows the white liberal to talk proudly and short-sightedly about how “important” this movie is, overlooking the white supremacy of the cast and production team, and allowing Manohla Dargis to over-optimistically declare in The New York Times that, “It may be the [movie] that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century”.
In Baldwin’s stunning essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, he examines Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture”. The same could be said, here, of McQueen’s direction, his long hours in rehearsal, his respect for the original text, his diligent research with respectable scholars such as Henry Louis Gates “…an explanation which falters only if we pause to ask whether or not her picture is indeed complete, and what constriction or failure of perception forced her to so depend on the description of brutality – unmotivated, senseless – and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her people to such deeds” (emphasis mine)
We might say that Northup’s narrative need not answer these questions: after all, it is a first person narrative, not a fictional novel. These are the words of the oppressed, not the liberal, guilt-ridden white skinned oppressor with a political motive. The Director and Writer, two black males, do not have the urgent weight of their ancestors’ guilt whispering in their ear, forcing them to confront – or rather, avoid – difficult truths. Yet the white lens surrounding Northup’s original narrative ‘as told to’ David Wilson, the white scribe, is mirrored here by the white lens of Hollywood, the production team, the demands of commercial viability, the knowledge that this movie is not, really, that far removed from ‘The Help’ in terms of prioritizing and excusing the white experience within the framework of slavery. For all of Fassbender’s hideous, plantation-owning, foul, drunken, raping savagery (What a role! What an actor! And such “bravery” of him to take this challenging part!) we are provided with the delicate foil of Pitt’s morally upstanding white savior, Bass. For the kind but weak and morally ambiguous Ford (played by Cumberbatch) who obviously finds some aspects of slavery reprehensible, but nonetheless remains complicit within it, we are shown the dehumanizing and difficult paradoxes which play out in Northup’s own character, which culminates in his whipping Patsey, at his Master’s request.
Northup repeatedly chooses survival over ethics, and in doing so, deprives us of the right to regard him as a hero. He instead earns our sympathy as a complex and flawed human being. Let’s think about that for a moment. One of the few main characters in a mainstream, commercial Hollywood film to be black, is a character whom we do not actually like, and cannot entirely respect. We can, however, pity him.
While it is profoundly moving and distressing that we both see and feel Northup’s humiliation and his dehumanization at the hands of white supremacy, while it is entirely accurate that he can be rescued only by his white friends from the North, the narrative’s failure to reflect upon the significance of a flawed protagonist in an industry which adores those it can place upon a pedestal, its George Clooneys and its Brad Pitts, ensures that “the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar” – and that he continues to function in this role, preserved, petrified, immutably fixed there by Hollywood and our obsession with ourselves as white people. Instead, what is prioritized is the role of the white man in Northup’s liberation, and by extension, that of all slaves. It allows us whites to watch and applaud this movie, to be OK with the horrors perpetuated by our people because they are cancelled out by Brad Pitt’s quiet five minutes of goodness, and the complicated and broken black male protagonist whom Pitt saves and returns home to a loving family who act just like white people!
This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” an American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right”. (Baldwin)
Many people will argue with my reading of this movie. They will declare that it is not the role of a movie to educate, to challenge, to define history, to shape convention. A movie is an aesthetic experience, not a political commentary on history, on politics, on culture, on race. What Steve McQueen did was to expertly, and uncomfortably, portray the horrors of being a slave to the ignorant, selfish white masses using the historical account of a slave to do so. But the responsibility we have to the tremendous weight of slavery, the overwhelming burden of racism we still labor under in a society which has black men incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, which kills a black male every 27 hours, where a young black teenager’s senseless murderer can be acquited, a life lost over a bag of skittles and a hoodie, dictates that this is not enough.
There’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question. (Baldwin)
Steve McQueen has given us an impressive achievement: a celluloid journey into America’s heart of darkness, its under-examined Holocaust. But by failing to pose the question of ‘Why?’, by failing to portray Northup as the impressive individual that he became, aiding fugitive slaves and lecturing against slavery – professions which, no doubt, held little literary and political interest for white abolitionists – McQueen’s movie has failed to deserve the praise it’s been showered with. Ultimately the movie fails to achieve anything apart from turning a problematic book into a problematic movie, a movie which elides difficult and important questions, which is peppered with ellipses (the perspective of black females is, to my mind, unexamined even with Patsey and Eliza’s small but pivotal roles), and ensures that black people will once again be seen on screen as slaves, as maids, as cotton pickers, as victims, as a race of people incapable of articulating their own oppressions, rescued only once they put on a bonnet, learn how to hold a teacup properly. It is only with our generous approval, with gushing reviews, with the pompous declaration by white liberals that the movie we funded, based on a book we half-wrote, published and disseminated, is worthy of an accolade we created, do we white people authenticate the experience of our black brothers and sisters, avoiding the question in our hearts: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man...”
Ruth Fowler is a journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Girl Undressed. She can be followed on Twitter at @fowlerruth.