Review

Pulled into the Maze: 12 Years a Slave

By | February 5, 2014

(AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Francois Duhamel)

(AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Francois Duhamel)

One of the most haunting scenes in the film 12 Years a Slave comes shortly after the main character Solomon Northup—now known by his enslavers as Platt—arrives in New Orleans. In the minutes leading to this scene, Northup (Chiwetal Ejiofor) has transformed before our eyes from a free man who adores his wife and children to an enslaved man who is introduced to the incalculable violence of the slave trade. His plight is paralleled by that of a woman named Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who, along with her two children, has been sold by a jealous mistress—a half sister of Eliza’s daughter—at the exact moment she had been pledged her freedom. In New Orleans, Northup and Eliza are auctioned by the trader Theophilus Freeman, and as Eliza is sold away from her children, Northup is instructed to play the violin to swallow Eliza’s tormented cries. The scene is not unexpected. But rather than softening the edges, the film lingers on the event. While Eliza screams for her children, the camera cuts to Northup incongruously lively on the violin. We want him to do something. But he plays while she screams.

And in this moment we, the audience, are Northup, playing into the distraction rather than confronting the evil.

By staging a conversation about public memory, history, and race, the film 12 Years a Slave is a political act. This participation—this implication—of the audience in the multiple narratives the film introduces was not incidental to the film’s direction. As he explained in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross in November 2013, the film’s director Steve McQueen fears that Americans, among other populations, have fallen into a “deafening silence” on enslavement and its legacies. In his interview with Gross, McQueen refers to racial politics in both Britain and America as one such enduring legacy. What is less apparent are the ways through which cinematic strategies and narrative devices present religion as a mechanism of the film’s political efforts.

David Denby of the New Yorker has pronounced 12 Years a Slave as “easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery” and it has already garnered a number of awards and accolades, among them a Golden Globe for best drama and nine Academy Award nominations. By all accounts this is a powerful film that commands recognition. It brings character-depth to a cinematic genre that has historically been defined by caricature—a genealogy that extends from such titles as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), Birth of a Nation (1915), and Gone with the Wind (1939). Films produced later in the twentieth century began to correct these early representations by demonstrating the medium’s ability to stage new ways of thinking about the history and legacy of slavery, including the 1977 miniseries Roots (based on Alex Haley’s novel by the same name) and the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust. By the time 12 Years a Slave was released last fall, cinematic representations of slavery and their legacies in American culture covered a spectrum of sophistication. With its carefully crafted scene construction and deliberately disarticulated chronology, which refuses to establish a narrative present, 12 Years a Slave is a marvelous film that requires our attention, both in the theater and as it haunts us long after.

As we are told at the outset, 12 Years a Slave is based on the story of Solomon Northup. According to his 1853 narrative, which was edited by the New York abolitionist David Wilson, Northup was born in 1808 and had lived his entire life in New York as a free man where he earned a living through a variety of trades, married, and raised three children with his wife, Anne. In 1841, at the age of thirty-two, Northup was deceived under false pretenses into traveling as a performer to Washington City, where he was kidnapped by his would-be partners and sold into bondage. He spent his first several weeks as a slave in Washington, eventually to be known only as “Platt” (and adopting the surname of his several masters), before being transported to New Orleans and the slave market of Louisiana. Upon gaining his freedom in January 1853, Northup became active in the abolitionist movement to emancipate slaves and published his own account in support of that cause. He died decades later in obscurity.

Although the film is drawn largely from Northup’s 1853 narrative, the connection between the text and the film is more complicated than one of adaptation. In his interview with Terry Gross, McQueen describes the film in its earliest stages as “an idea of having a free man from the north … who gets kidnapped and pulled into the maze of slavery.” At that time he and screenwriter John Ridley had begun working on a script but were frustrated in their efforts. It was not until after they had begun writing the screenplay that McQueen came across Northup’s narrative. Rather than being a film based on a book, then, the cinematic vision influenced how the original account was read. And that vision had everything to do with the politics of public memory.

In short, this is not a film about American slavery. Or rather, slavery is where the film begins, not where it ends. 

From the opening frame—a medium-long shot of Northup standing in a field of sugar cane—audiences are invited to experience the film as ethnographic, as a documentary of the particular experiences of a specific man whose story illuminates an unquantifiable system of oppression. In these first long moments of the film, time is still and the stillness of the image is compounded by the silence of the soundtrack. No commentary. No music. No screams or singing or praying. Nothing but the locked gaze of the audience upon Northup. We are asked to abandon our expectations for distraction—this film asks us to watch differently. For two hours and fourteen minutes, audiences view Northup and others being beaten until their bodies break in unfathomable ways. We sit paralyzed in our seats when a mother is sold away from her children. We squirm uncomfortably while the lyrics of John Tibeats’s (Paul Dano) folksong “Run N—r Run” overlay a sermon by Northup’s owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch)—who, in Northup’s narrative, we learn was a Baptist minister.  There are multiple scenes where the beauty of the Louisiana landscape is punctured by the horror of violence. 

And yet 12 Years a Slave is not a documentary of a historical event. Audiences are not expected simply to walk away content with their knowledge about the life of Solomon Northup or the circumstances in which his story could transpire. To the extent that the film is based on a textual narrative that was composed with deliberate political intentions—namely, the abolition of slavery—and at a time when the nation was caught in a moral, scientific, theological, and political gridlock on the matter of slavery, means that the film must not only translate Northup’s text into cinema but also translate the political message of 1853 into something that resonates with audiences 160 years later. The film is not about slavery. It is about us. We are asked to realize that the story is still unfolding; and that our inability to intervene in the action underscores our own participation, our own complicity, in the story’s unfolding.

As Northup realizes the extent of his betrayal in Washington, and his cries for help are swallowed by a soundscape of indifference, the camera pans up from the barred window to which he clings to frame the dome of the nation’s Capitol. In this scene, the slave pen is literally in the shadow of what was then the most powerful branch of the federal government, which becomes a silent witness to the atrocious conditions of enslavement. The soul-wrenching irony was not lost on Northup, who bemoaned in his 1853 narrative how “the voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled” in that city of power. For moviegoers today, the scene pierces with a haunting question—what lurks in the shadow of the Capitol today? While directed to very different audiences, the film, like the book, is wrapped up in the cultural politics of its day.

As a storyteller, McQueen wanted his movie to do something more than translate Northup’s testimony to the medium of film. Earlier filmmakers had stuck closer to the text, such as Gordon Parks’ 1984 production Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. But McQueen was less interested in textual fidelity than in the cinematic effect. He wanted audiences “to be present.” This, he explains, is why the camera lingers on certain scenes, why we are made to look a little longer, to feel uncomfortable and powerless to intervene. As he explained to Gross, it all goes back to “being present as a viewer, to being there, to shoot things in real time rather than movie time.” 

The idea that photographic technologies, of which modern digital filmmaking is a descendant, have the power to make things present has been around since the 1840s (the first photographic technique in the United States was introduced in 1839 and popularized in 1840—just months before Northup was kidnapped). For nearly two centuries Americans have looked to photographs and, later, cinema as vehicles of presence, of making us present when we are absent and of making present what is absent from us—whether it is the Holy Land or a lover, the beach or a baby picture. In this sense, McQueen is drawing on a long history of the camera’s cultural magic.

But these technologies have also long performed different cultural operations. In addition to allowing audiences “to be there in a kind of reality,” photography and cinema have also been used to create the conditions of reality by defining the categories with which people identify and assign to others. In the late 1840s, while Solomon Northup was enslaved to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in Louisiana, the Harvard ethnologist Louis Agassiz commissioned a series of daguerreotypes of enslaved Africans in South Carolina to substantiate his theory of the empirical inferiority of persons of color. The daguerreotypist James Zealy created the images by stripping the slaves of their clothing and positioning them as scientific specimen. A scene in 12 Years a Slave echoes these daguerreotypes when, upon arriving in New Orleans, Northup finds himself in the slave pen of Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti). The film seems to replicate the harsh pseudo-scientific aesthetics of Zealy’s daguerreotypes. In the film, the slaves are stripped of all clothing, displayed in a parlor, and inspected by potential buyers. McQueen denies the influence of Zealy’s daguerreotypes in his orchestration of the scene, and it may be that he did not intentionally consult them as part of his direction. And yet the scene juxtaposes Agassiz’s categories, authorized by Zealy’s camera, with Freeman’s classifications of the “livestock” in his parlor.

For McQueen, it is the very medium of film that generates and stages public conversations around race, memory, and nation by bridging the gap between the 1840s and the 2010s. But religion is wrapped up in the cultural politics of the film as well. Like definitions of race and ethnicity, the cultural category of “religion” has been constructed through visual media and cinematic devices—what we recognize as “religion” in movies and elsewhere is often unspoken, but clearly discernible. And just as the immediate cultural context of racial politics differs between antebellum and contemporary America—slavery has been replaced by other forms of institutionally and politically sanctioned forms of oppression—so too does the film’s representation of religion fit within larger political paradigms.

Religion is represented at several points in the film: two of Platt’s owners deliver sermons to their slaves; on Ford’s plantation, Platt and his “fellowthralls” encounter a group of Native American men and then join them in a ritual dance and feast; and on Epps’s plantation, slaves sing the classic Negro spiritual, “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Narratively, religion in this film is underdeveloped. Despite taking place in Louisiana, there is no Catholicism, no creolized religious practice, and only oblique gestures to the religious practices of enslaved persons. Even Northup’s own religious background, which becomes important in the developing plot, is left to speculation.

When religion is represented, it is done so bluntly, falling into one of two expressions. The sermons, even that of William Ford, who Northup esteems, smack of coercion. Edwin Epps, the owner whose reputation is built upon “breaking” slaves, punctuates his reading of the Gospel of Luke with a warning:

That nigger that don’t take care—that don’t obey his lord—that’s his master—d’ye see?—that ‘ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes. Now, ‘many’ signifies a great many—forty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty lashes. That’s Scripter!

The coerciveness of the Bible readings, the way in which religion becomes a mechanism of control, is countered only by the opposite extreme. In the film’s only scene depicting the religiosity of slaves—and an ambiguous one at that—slaves on Epps’s plantation gather to mourn Uncle Abram, who had recently died while picking cotton, and sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Their song carries the name and tune of a classic slave spiritual but was composed especially for the film. This version starts with the singer waking “the devil in hell” to gloat “John he baptized me.” About halfway though, Northup joins in the chorus, singing with increasing conviction until he is belting “my soul gonna rise in heaven, Lord, for the year when Jordan roll” along with everyone else. The song might be interpreted as a moment of spiritual triumph, wherein Northup resolves to steel himself against the possibility of continued enslavement by submitting to a higher power. NPR’s Ann Powers writes that the song uses a religious vocabulary as “a tool of empowerment within the system designed to dehumanize him.” Given the way the song is framed within the film, her conclusion is hardly surprising. The song is beautiful, and we are supposed to recognize it as a turning point in Northup’s story where the narrative tension culminates in his renewed determination to overcome his present hell. The problem is that the scene is at best more confusing than clarifying. Without anything else to go on, audiences are left with the impression that slaves were disgusted with the Christianity of their masters and used the semblance of religion as a vehicle of protest or escape. On the surface, then, religion in 12 Years a Slave is one of two things: it is a mechanism of coercion or it is a pressure valve. For a film that is sophisticated in so many regards, this treatment of religion falls short.

But we also need to look at what is not in the film.

Epps’s scriptural exegesis is taken verbatim from the 1853 text. Slave narratives published in the U.S. in the years leading up to the American Civil War frequently parsed Christianity from the religion of enslavers. In her Incidents published in 1861, Harriet Jacobs wrote that “there is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south.” Sixteen years earlier, Frederick Douglass was troubled enough about the portrayal of religion in his Narrative that he composed an appendix to explain that “what I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” The testimony that Northup delivered to the abolitionist David Wilson in May 1853, and that was published later that year as Twelve Years a Slave, also had a great deal to say about religion. In the book, Northup evinces a biblical sensibility, a habit of filtering his present experiences through biblical events; he describes the religiosity (or lack thereof) of both his masters and fellow slaves; he transcribes his many prayers and “supplications of a broken spirit”; and he employs a cosmological paradigm throughout the narrative, wherein slavers become “the incarnate devil … uttering the most fiendish oaths” and freedom was figured as a “pillar of fire.” And despite his own tendency to interpret his experiences and those of others through a biblical lens, like Jacobs and Douglass, Northup “could not comprehend the justice of that law, or that religion, which upholds or recognizes the principle of Slavery.”

If the film’s grappling with religion is so thin, and the narrative’s is so rich, it is because “religion,” as a cultural category, means different things to moviegoers today than it meant to folks who read slave narratives more than a century and a half ago. This also means that connections among religion, politics, and race play out differently in the film than they do in the text. But these differences also point to the fact that religion is a cinematic device, a storehouse of images and sounds and ideas that are worked out through the arrangements of the camera and the connections crisscrossing audiences, movies, and filmmakers. 12 Years a Slave is a film that works on multiple cultural registers. In the initial wake of its release, it has already been successful in staging important conversations about public memory, history, and race; and its critical acclaim promises to carry these conversations well into the future. But it also demonstrates how film itself, as part of the larger media culture, plays an important role in defining the very terms around which those conversations take shape.

Rachel McBride Lindsey is associate director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics.

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