Earlier this week, I saw Steve McQueen’s film, “12 Years A Slave,” and came away awe-struck but also dissatisfied, and perturbed about that dissatisfaction. The film is powerfully acted, carefully written, and, it has to be said, beautifully shot – there’s something especially disturbing about brutality looking so gorgeous. But something about the narrative irritated me, and I had to figure out what it was.
The story is a simple and brutal one. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man of Saratoga, travels to Washington with two white men who say they plan to employ him as a musician. Instead, they drug him, kidnap him, and sell him into slavery. Unable to prove his identity, Northrup is sold down the river, first to a plantation run by a relatively liberal owner (played by Benedict Cumberbatch); he’s a genuine liberal, not a phony, which shows just how little a liberal attitude is worth when enmeshed in systemic evil. Then, after he gets himself in trouble by fighting with an overseer, he’s sold to a sadistic tyrant, Epps (Michael Fassbender), the only man who will buy him, where he is trapped for years until the opportunity presents itself to get a message out (through a sympathetic white Canadian carpenter, a cameo by producer Brad Pitt), and he is rescued by friends from the North who prove he was born free.
Much of the commentary on the film has focused on its determination not to flinch, to show us the lash, the noose, the sexual violence that were integral to the enterprise. But another way in which the film doesn’t flinch is that it doesn’t frame Northrup’s story in a way that provides us with certain expected satisfactions: specifically, the satisfaction of the hero’s triumph over adversity (even though the hero does triumph in the minimal sense that he escapes, and returns to his family).
The most common way Hollywood engineers that triumph is directly, through manly violence. But there are alternatives. The hero could triumph through a rejection of violence. Or the hero could triumph by losing, sacrificing himself for some larger cause. Or the hero could triumph internally – and be changed profoundly by the experience in a way that brings him or her to some larger consciousness or greater state of satisfaction. Or, of course, this could be a tragedy, and the hero could triumph over adversity in ways that destroy something more fundamental, ways we ultimately reject. Whatever the outcome, the narrative structure will be designed to impart meaning to the hero’s experience, the suggestion that the experience happened for a reason, even if that reason was impossible to discern from the outset. As Joseph says when he reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt: you intended evil (by selling me into slavery), but God intended it for good – to save our family from famine.
Northrup’s story doesn’t work like that. Even though it’s his story, Northrup is, structurally, an observer character. I don’t mean to suggest he’s passive. He makes active choices all the time, though they avail him nothing until the very end. He chooses to use his engineering talent to help his first master, hoping to win favor and ultimately his freedom, which only winds up making him an enemy of the overseer. He chooses to beat the overseer who is unjustly abusing him, which nearly gets him killed and gets him sold to the sadistic Epps. He chooses to try to bolt from Epps’s plantation, only to run almost immediately into a lynching of two other runaways. He chooses to trust a white laborer for Epps, a former overseer who intimates a moral revulsion at slavery, to get a message out to the north; the man betrays him to Epps and thereby nearly gets him killed (he talks his way out of it in a scene that brilliantly reveals the genealogy of a whole tradition of African-American folk wisdom about how to fool the master – listen to how his voice changes in this scene).
And by saying he’s an observer, I don’t mean to suggest that he doesn’t suffer directly – because he clearly does. But I felt more strongly the horrible abuses he observes, and can do nothing about, than the beatings he receives, even his hanging – it was a relief, honestly, when he suffered directly, instead of having to be passive. The deepest pain is reserved for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the beautiful slave woman for whom Epps has conceived a fierce and jealous passion. Epps rapes her; his wife tortures her; and he, in a fit of jealous rage, flogs her almost to the point of death. And the worst pain Northrup himself experiences is the pain of having to participate in that flogging, unless it’s the pain of having to refuse her request to be murdered at his hands rather than continue suffering.
When I say he’s structurally an observer character, it’s because the the narrative is fundamentally a relation of his experience – what he saw and felt – in a way that doesn’t implicate him, neither in the sense of being truly at fault (though he clearly feels guilt at not being able to act in anyone’s defense), nor in the sense of being the one who rights a wrong. I don’t want to be misunderstood; I’m not saying Northrup is in any way emotionally detached. I’m saying he’s morally detached.
This is unquestionably deliberate on the part of the filmmaker, because it’s a fundamental truth about slavery, not merely in that the slaves were collectively the victims of a crime, suffering unjustly, but in that they did not themselves force an accounting for that crime. You can tell true stories of individual heroism, but in a fundamental way the truest story is one of victimhood. And victimhood as such is narratively unsatisfying – because it is politically unsatisfying.
Consider, by way of contrast, the ending of “Schindler’s List.” Now, in that movie, there’s a very clear protagonist – Schindler – which relegates the Jewish population to the status of object, of the Nazi extermination project and of Schindler’s efforts at rescue. That’s not a problem narratively – but it was a problem, for Spielberg, politically. So Spielberg did something at the end of the film: he introduced the Naomi Shemer song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” a song about longing for the unification of Jerusalem that just preceded the ’67 war. This is the music that carries us to the present in which the men and women Schindler saved can show their gratitude at Yad va-Shem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum. The film very explicitly “corrects” the narrative we’ve just witnessed by saying, in so many words: once, the Jews were objects, as they are in the story you just saw; but they aren’t anymore, because they have a state of their own. Now they are subjects – and, as subjects, they are in a position to show proper gratitude to people like Schindler, gratitude as something other than mere victims.
McQueen doesn’t give us that uplifting twist. The last thing we see Northrop do is break down and apologize to his family – for, presumably, being unable to escape and return to them for twelve years. (His daughter, now grown and married, mercifully tells him he has nothing to apologize for.) In text afterwards, we learn that Northrup was thereafter passionately involved in the abolitionist movement, and pursued his kidnappers in court. He pursued them unsuccessfully, but the more important point is that we don’t see him pursuing them. McQueen could have shown us a determined Northrup engaged in that pursuit, vowing never to rest, and ended his movie on an “up” note. He chose not to.
This broad, powerful choice has some fascinatingly perverse consequences. In my write-up of the movie, “Captain Phillips,” I pointed out how our sense of who the protagonist is changes in the middle of the movie. Initially, Phillips is the protagonist, actively working to outwit his would-be captors, and the Somali pirates are the antagonists. But once we’re in the lifeboat, he shifts to being more of an observer, just trying not to get killed, while the Somalis become the tragically doomed protagonists, facing the overwhelming might of the United States Navy as an antagonist. Something similar happens in “12 Years A Slave,” where Epps became the object of my most intense interest, the tragically doomed protagonist in love with his slave, disgusted by his own love, and flailing out with brutal violence in all directions. (I don’t know that it means anything, but “Captain Phillips” and “12 Years A Slave” also both end with the freed captive breaking down emotionally.)
Epps has set himself up as a kind of god on his plantation, and in his twisted way he thinks he’s a loving god. He’s remarkably intimate with his slaves in general, always putting his hands on them, fondling and carrying the children, and his rage at Northrup’s deliverance is not merely about money or pride; there’s a real sense of betrayal. It’s alarmingly easy to see him as a kind of outrageously abusive father, to forget that he is no father of any kind, that his authority is completely and totally without legitimate foundation.
I don’t know if that forgetting has something to do with my position as a white viewer, or if it’s the opposite, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome due to identification with the slaves – perhaps even a consequence, as a Jewish viewer, of refracting the slave experience through my own cultural memory of the Holocaust, and my feelings about that experience. But it might, again, be deliberate. McQueen has averred that he himself has profound sympathy for Epps, precisely because he cannot control his love for what he hates, or his hatred for what he loves.
In any event, I walked out of the theater on the one hand creepily enthralled by Epps, and on the other hand furious – at Northrup, for, well, for being a victim. This is the core emotion behind nationalism, the desire to no longer be the victim, and instead have a chance to be (or magnanimously avoid being) the oppressor. This is the reason why nationalism will always be a powerful force in human affairs.
And I have a sneaking suspicion that part of McQueen’s purpose is to point to the African-American experience as a paradigm of some other kind of response, precisely because nationalism has never been a realistic program for black Americans, howsoever appealing. (McQueen himself is a Britisher of Trinidadian descent.) But he’s not willing to point to liberalism or Christianity or any other historic response that seeks to make peace with the past by overcoming it, precisely because the terms of that peace have always involved a certain amount of discretion about what really happened. He’s looking, I think, for some kind of existential humanist response, for a global audience, with all varieties of historical connection with the Atlantic slave trade, including none to speak of, simply to confront the slave experience directly, without having their response dictated to them. To confront the past without contextualizing it in terms of its meaning today.
I’m fascinated to see if it works. I wonder if I’ll know if it has.