Last year, my favorite film of the year was Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It was a catharsis of sorts, a cartoonish revenge fantasy written and directed by a white man. It took the seriousness of its subject matter and mixed in elements of blaxploitation films to create a dark, but ultimately fun vision of Southern racism, slavery, and American injustice. The satire at its core was a powerful indictment of the savagery of entitled white males, and the double standard that African-Americans face when vying for a bit of that power themselves.
Many African-Americans were horrified and angry about Tarantino’s vision. Some, like Spike Lee, said they would never even see the film – yet another example of a white man trying to impose his views and understanding on a black man’s suffering. For a long time I was frustrated with these views. From my perspective, I thought Tarantino was fair, reflective, and ultimately empathetic.
After seeing Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, I understand why so many blacks were angry. The depiction of slavery, the discussions about it, and the heroes selected in our cinema have been the property of white men. Sensitive, thoughtful, caring white men, but white men nonetheless. McQueen has put together a remarkable film, a statement about the inhuman institution of slavery, but from the black perspective. His is the first film that treats whites—even the benevolent ones—as the “others” who become the audiences objects of scorn, ridicule, pity, and shame. His is also the first film in which white characters are not the heroes. Cinema has a long tradition of films involving race issues to feature liberal whites who come to the rescue of black characters. Most recently, we’ve had movies like The Help, The Blind Side, and even Django Unchained to remind us how forward thinking, kind-hearted white people can make life better for poor, pitiful black people.
Our hero is Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in Saratoga, NY with his beautiful young family. Solomon is a sought after violinist, a respected member of his community, and well-educated. But it is due to his talents and naïveté that he is able to be tricked by two white kidnappers into following them to Washington, D.C. as a performer. One night, Solomon is living the high life, dining and drinking with his new friends; the next morning, he finds himself in chains, sold by his “friends” and with no papers to prove his identity. His new slave owner, ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), bestows a slave name on Solomon – Platt.
As Platt, Solomon quickly learns that it doesn’t pay to show your humanity, your intelligence, or you compassion. He is eventually sold to another, more sympathetic owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a minister who warms up to Platt and even gifts him with a violin, which he hopes “will bring us both great happiness in the years to come.” But, as Platt’s fellow slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), points out, for all of Ford’s kindness, he still owns slaves, he still sees them as property. This becomes apparent as Platt comes into conflict with Ford’s hired white hand, Tibeats (Paul Dano), who tests Platt’s self-respect and dignity with his simpering, jealous abuse of power.
Platt eventually winds up in the ownership of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is every bit as crazy as he is a merciless taskmaster. Epps has developed a taste for the flesh of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), his best cotton picker, which has caused significant conflict between himself and his wife (Sarah Paulson). Their combined cruelty push Platt to the limits of despair, especially in a climactic scene in which the totality of the horror of slavery, both past, present, and future is laid bare.
McQueen’s cinema is brutal, uncompromising, but never exploitative. He uses his darkest imagery – of Platt hanging from a tree by a noose as life on the plantation goes on around him, of midnight dances in which bedclothed slaves are forced to dance merrily for the benefit of the sadistic Epps and his wife, of the worn, hopeless faces of the slaves – to force us to face the reality of our history. He refuses to give us moments of levity to undermine the horrors. There are negro spirituals, but they are sung with the despair of those who only seem to half believe the words. Even the ending, which inevitably features Solomon’s return home, is a moment of devastating beauty, a culmination of pain and misery as opposed to the triumphant moment designed to allow the audience to leave the theater feeling inspired and satisfied in the knowledge of “well, glad that’s history.” Instead we are left to ponder the fates of those who were not as fortunate as Solomon Northrup – slaves like Patsey, whom he left behind to endure more unspeakable acts and abuses at the hands of the Epps.
After watching 12 Years a Slave, I found myself questioning the way our society views racism and slavery. There are many who believe that since there are no survivors of that era, we just need to let it go. There are many who say we live in a post-racism society. This film makes it clear that there is no end to it all. We may not be able to own slaves any longer, but we can still own the philosophy, the inhuman attitude that allows for discrimination and racism to exist. Our world is a far cry from the world of Solomon Northrup, but it is still crying.