Slavery’s Harrowing Reality

Against the Current, No. 168, January/February 2014

Xiomara Santamarina

MANY HAVE DESCRIBED the visceral experience of viewing “12 Years as a Slave,” Steve McQueen’s film, as harrowing. But as a longtime teacher of 19th century U.S. slave narratives, I think the best term that describes the film is “uncanny.”

Resisting an impulse to leave the theater during the scene of Solomon Northup’s violent initiation into slavery, I was taken aback by its on-the-nail dramatization of tropes that 19th century abolitionists — white and Black alike — employed in their anti-slavery pitches to national, racist audiences.

Even as critics of the film — many in the Black media — chastise McQueen for aestheticizing Black suffering with its graphic violence, it’s worth recognizing that this sophisticated 21st century film owes much of its raw power to the language and images of one of the most popular literary genres of the 19th century, the slave narrative.

The source of the film’s realism is something of a paradox, emerging from an uncanny recreation of the sentimental tropes in 19th century American slave narratives rather than from any modern, sophisticated discourse of trauma. In this respect, McQueen could be described as Northup’s 21st century amanuensis and/or dramatizer, a present-day contributor to the long tradition of slave narratives.

Historians describe McQueen’s adaptation as closely following the original narrative, the meticulous details of which — including names of persons, places, local flora and fauna — suggest that Northup, who retold his experience to an amanuensis, had something of a photographic memory.

As such, Northup’s descriptions were most likely the main inspiration for the 1853 narrative’s visual lexicon and original seven illustrations.  This makes McQueen’s film adaptation all the more interesting; the filmmaker clearly borrowed, and in some cases reenacted, the original illustrations in all their glorious sentimental iconicity.

Northup’s bestselling narrative probably owed much of its popularity to these illustrations for the same reasons we are hypnotized by some of the film’s central images: for example, the slaves standing, arrested, in the cane field during the film’s opening scene; the slave mother Eliza on her knees, imploring a prospective buyer to let her daughter remain with her; the moment Solomon recognizes his rescue is at hand.

Explosive Emotional Intensity

The film’s novelty derives, not from a 21st century screen imaginary that innovates ways of seeing slavery, but in the explosive emotional potential it recovers from the 1853 illustrations — illustrations that today appear to us as highly stylized, conventional and sentimentally iconic. McQueen’s staging of these tableaux infuses life and blood into the narrative’s sentimental frame, overwhelming unsuspecting film viewers with the surprising, graphic, and nauseating power of 19th century sentimentality.

Some scenes from the film reproduce the narrative’s image bank almost to the last detail, for example, the narrative’s frontispiece, captioned “Solomon in his plantation suit,” is evoked in the film’s opening scene when newly arrived slaves are standing in rows in a cane field, silent and tense as they are initiated into the brutal work of cutting cane.

One of the film’s most gruesome scenes — the vicious paddling and symbolic rape that takes place after Northup is kidnapped — is meticulously restaged inside the stone walls of a slave pen cell, depicting the almost naked Northup cowering on the ground, a broken paddle lying beside him and the slaver’s whip in mid-air. Solomon’s rescue by a northern friend was filmed on a set — the planting field outside the house and featuring the friend, Mr. Barker, and Epps, Solomon’s depraved owner — that restages the narrative’s illustration in every detail.

Remarkably, McQueen’s (and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s) enactment of the poses and props from this particular illustration reveals how the seemingly paternalistic image of a slave’s deference to his white rescuer evokes something much more powerful — Solomon’s surreal, dream-like disbelief at being redeemed from a nightmare.

McQueen’s indebtedness to the narrative’s sentimental aesthetic is clear, even in one scene that appears to diverge from its matching illustration, Patsy’s brutal whipping. This is the slave woman many viewers have identified as the film’s central character.

While in both narrative and film the slave woman appears naked, bloodied and tethered to stakes, the film compels us to witness the intensity of the slave woman’s pain in closeup face shots that are truly overwhelming. With this artistic choice, McQueen may appear to violate the narrative’s adherence to sentimental representation, but the fact is he is being faithful to another of the narrative’s important features, an uncommon one in its day: Solomon’s insistent, proto-feminist spotlighting of slave women’s subjectivity.

Patsy’s centrality, unanticipated in the dramatic story of a man enslaved for 12 years, conveys perhaps the film’s most powerful message: if “12 Years a Slave” represents the tragedy and abjection of a free man precipitated into slavery, that amount of suffering does not begin to compare to the pain to which slave women are condemned from birth.

If the narrative’s dramatic power originates in Solomon’s sudden fall into what Harriet Jacobs, a slave woman, described in 1861 as a “cage of obscene birds,” Northup’s narrative ethos and McQueen’s film aesthetic converge in the irrefutable recognition that slavery for women was a national tragedy, on a scale unimaginable then and now.

When Solomon climbs onto the coach that will take him from slavery, his look back — in the narrative as in the film — takes in Patsy’s stare of wonder and despair just before she falls down into the dirt. In this poignant moment, Northup and McQueen have fully realized the pathos of what Jacobs experienced at her daughter’s birth:

“When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”

That viewers 150 years later can finally comprehend this sentiment is perhaps the film’s most meaningful and significant achievement.

January/February 2014, ATC 168