When the film ends – over two hours of a harsh reality I have never seen so blatantly exposed on a Hollywood screen – words come across the screen declaring that there is no knowledge of how, when, or where Solomon Northup died. There it is, the value of Black life in our society. Solomon Northup survived being drugged and sold into slavery, wrote his own story, and then worked as an abolitionist, only to be forgotten and swept under the proverbial rug. I began to think back on my public school education in Fairfax County Virginia – one of the wealthiest and (boasting) most diverse school districts in the United States. The topic of slavery was glossed over. There was never any room for debate – an agreed upon bad thing from our past, but there was never any examination of slavery and its impact on African-Americans and the entire country.
While slavery was never up for debate in the classroom (I guess good job on that front teachers), there was a definite period – primarily in elementary school – when we were taught about Columbus, Ponce de Leon, and other colonizers as if they were heroes. If these men were heroes then presumably their actions were heroic. Thankfully, I was raised in a house where we were told the truth in regard to colonization – after all, I am from two heritages that have been colonized – and the subsequent genocide of indigenous tribes on North and South American soil, and then the slave trade. But still, that was my fortune at home – the school system made little effort to expose the horrors of colonization and slavery.
As I watched 12 Years a Slave I kept thinking about how important Northup’s story is. Steve McQueen does a brilliant job of not shying away from the brutality of slavery. And there are no white saviors. Yes, Brad Pitt portrays a man (Bass) who assists Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in regaining his freedom, but when Bass is first introduced he uses the “n” word when speaking in reference to the enslaved men he is working with – at the same time, arguing with Epps (Michael Fassbender) over the immorality of slavery. Bass’ use of the word and hesitation at helping Northup set him apart as not a clear hero – too often stories about oppressions against people of color are told from a White perspective (Dances With Wolves, Geronimo, Cry Freedom), and the writers could have easily tried to make Bass a completely likable character. But this is Northup’s story, not Bass’, not Epps’, no one but his.
The film is a reminder of the ways in which slavery and the oppression of African-Americans is still so engrained in US culture. That Northup could not trust White people, the rifts created between Black and White women, pitting Black folks against each other, denying proper education and disenfranchising Black youth – all these experiences that Northup and other Black folks in the film endured, are in effect today as well. Yes, I know that Black folks are not in shackles, so don’t bother commenting that. And I know that there are people who would argue this point – White people, let’s be real – and ask for specific examples. The thing is, if you don’t know this to be the case and refuse to believe it, I have zero interest in engaging in a debate. There is nothing to debate. There are DC public schools that are a reflection of how our country values or devalues Black life and education, there is Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s current celebrity status, there is Miley Cyrus co-opting Black culture and identity along with a long list of other White pop stars, there is the fact that the majority of men in prisons are Black, and I could continue. But these are only the blatant discriminations, not even the micro-aggressions that occur on a daily basis. And as I stated, there is no debate.
When Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) throws the liquor bottle at Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) I was so stunned by the pure cruelty of the act. As Mistress Epps’ jealousy of Patsey grew and violence toward Patsey escalated, I began to think about the layers of complexity within the story. There are moments of sadness for Mistress Epps – I was shocked at the sadness I felt for Mistress Epps, stuck in a marriage to a cruel man who has no interest in her sexually. Slavery and the constant rape of Black women by White men created animosity from White women, only the anger was directed at Black women. As if Patsey and other Black women had some say in the actions of these White men. That Mistress Epps’ rage was directed at Patsey and not her husband goes to show the depth and reach of racism. I was also reminded of the ways in which patriarchy prevails, pitting women against each other, while men remain without fault.
Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) and Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) were fascinating characters as well. tHe latter because he seems in some ways genuinely kind, but when it came down to it, he was just as scary as Epps. In some ways, a man like Ford is more terrifying because at least Epps was clear in his cruelty. There was no question that Epps could not be trusted. Ford seemed perhaps to have goodness to him, but ultimately, Ford only wanted to protect himself and refused to hear Northup’s truth. Ford also gave Northup to Epps. Armsby though, is the perfect example of White guilt and White supremacy. Armsby works the cotton fields along the African-Americans who have been enslaved. It is a reminder that poor White people were also subjected to some of the labors of slavery. Armsby, though, is not beaten and is publicly forgiven and shown kindness for doing a terrible job, while the African-Americans are whipped and beaten routinely. Armsby reveals to Northup – as he helps salve Northup’s lashed back – that he was once in charge of regulating slaves for a plantation owner. Armsby became a drunk and could not work, and was then sentenced to the cotton fields. Armsby tells Northup that the task of hitting another human takes its toll, which led him to drink. He said that some men buried the pain of it, and others drank it away. Armsby’s acknowledgment that his work was inhumane causes Northup to think he can trust Armsby with the task of helping him regain his freedom. Armsby’s quick betrayal is yet another reminder of White supremacy – Armsby saw a way to gain himself loyalty from Epps and get money from Northup. By the time Bass was on screen all I could think was “No, don’t trust him! He’s white!”
When Bass came through for Northup I wondered at the casting of Brad Pitt. I could not help but think that as one of the producers Pitt would rather be in a favorable light. And I wondered at the extent to which White guilt can dictate actions. Did Pitt want to be a “good guy” in a film with so many horrible White characters? And can we blame him? I can’t say that I wouldn’t necessarily want the same. It made me wonder at Ejiofor and Fassbender as well. The former is an English native of Nigerian heritage and the latter a German native of Irish and German descent. This particular story is not native to their homes, but as Fassbender stated in his Daily Show interview, it is a universal and important story. Slavery was common in other colonizing parts of the world – it lasted longer in the United States, but not exclusive to it. And I wondered more at McQueen, a Black Englishman. Perhaps this story is best told from an outsider perspective. There is no desire to hide behind guilt or shame. The first McQueen film I saw was Hunger (starring Fassbender) about Irish nationals who went on a hunger strike under English imprisonment. I wondered at an Englishman telling this story, but upon realizing McQueen is Black my thought was “oh, he gets it. He knows what it’s like to be Othered”. The point is, Northup’s story, and the story of slavery in the United States is an important part of our history. It is part of what has shaped our nation, and we cannot ignore that fact. We cannot ignore the fact that its impact is prevalent. There are Black folks alive today who have relatives not that long dead who were enslaved, and there are Black folks alive today who lived under Jim Crow. To argue that slavery is a thing of the past is to diminish or straight out ignore the consequences of its existence.