The Director of the African-American History and Culture Museum on What Makes “12 Years a Slave” a Powerful Film

Lonnie Bunch offers his response to the stunning movie, a favorite for the Best Picture Oscar

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave”
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” Feedloader (Limelight Networks)

As I sat in the theater crowded with nervous patrons, unsure of what to expect from a movie about slavery, I was startled by the audience’s visceral reaction to a scene depicting the violence that was so much a part of what 19th century America called the “peculiar institution.” And then I found myself beginning to smile, not at the violence but with the realization that this movie, this brilliant movie, just might help to illuminate one of the darkest corners of American history. In many ways, American slavery is one of the last great unmentionables in public discourse. Few places, outside of history classes in universities, help Americans wrestle with an institution that dominated American life for more than two centuries. The imprint of slavery was once omnipresent, from the economy to foreign policy, from the pulpit to the halls of Congress, from westward expansion to the educational system. I smiled because if 12 Years a Slave garnered a viewership, it just might help America overcome its inability to understand the centrality of slavery and its continuing impact on our society.

12 Years a Slave, imaginatively directed by Steve McQueen with an Oscar worthy performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American living in New York who is kidnapped, “sold south” and brutally enslaved. Northup’s struggle to refuse to let his enslavement strip him of his humanity and his dignity and his 12-year fight to reclaim his freedom and his family are the dramatic heart of this amazing movie. Part of what makes this film experience so powerful is that it is based on the true story of Northup, a musician and man of family and community who had known only freedom until his kidnapping transplanted him into the violent world of Southern slavery.

The film’s depiction of slavery is raw and real. From the moment of his capture, Northup experiences the violence, the confinement, the sense of loss and the uncertainty that came with being enslaved. It is interesting that some of the criticism heaped on this film revolves around its use of violence. The scenes where Northup is beaten into submission or where the brutal plantation owner, Edwin Epps (played with nuance and depth by Michael Fassbender) whips Patsy, an enslaved woman who could not avoid the owner’s sexual abuse and rape have been called excessive. In actuality, these scenes force us to confront the reality that the use of violence was a key element used to maintain the institution of slavery. It is interesting that movie audiences accept and revel in the violence that dominates films from Westerns to horror flicks to the recently lauded Django Unchained, and yet, have a difficult time accepting the notion that some Americans used violence to attempt to control other Americans. This is a result of the fact that the violence in this movie makes it problematic for Americans not to see our historical culpability, something unusual for a nation that traditionally views itself as on the side of the right and the righteous.

12 Years a Slave is such an important movie because it entertains and educates in a manner that is ripe with nuance, historical accuracy and dramatic tension. It reveals stories about the African-American experience that are rarely seen or rarely as well depicted. Northup’s life as a free person of color is revelatory because it hints at the existence of the more than 500,000 African-Americans who experienced freedom while living in the north in the years just prior to the Civil War. Northup’s life of middling class respectability and community acceptance was not the norm; most free blacks lived on the margins with lives and communities limited by laws and customs that sought to enforce notions of racial inequality. Yet Northup’s very presence belied many of the racial beliefs of the period. There is a scene in the movie where Northup and his well-dressed family are walking down the street about to enter into a shop and they are being observed by an enslaved man whose southern owner has brought him north to serve the owner while he is on holiday in Saratoga. The enslaved man is amazed at the sight of a black family strolling freely and being greeted with respect by the shopkeeper. The owner quickly calls the man away as if to ensure that he not be infected by the freedom exhibited by the Northup family.

The importance of family is also a key element in the film. While Northup’s desire to be reunited with his wife and children is part of what motivates him to survive his time of bondage, the power of kinship is revealed in the scenes where a mother struggles to keep her family together. Like Northup, a young boy is kidnapped and held in a slave pen in Washington, D.C. (ironically, I am writing this piece within 30 yards of where the slave pen where Northup was first enslaved stood). When the mother learns where her son has been detained she enters the pen with her daughter hoping to reclaim her child. She is devastated when she and her daughter are also captured and readied to be sold into slavery. As the family is offered at auction, the pain the mother feels is almost unbearable as she begs, ultimately in vain, for someone to buy them all and to not destroy her family. During the months that follow the sale, the woman is inconsolable. On the plantation where she and Northup now live, she cries almost non-stop, whether serving the owner’s family or attending church service. Eventually she is sold to another owner because the mistress of the plantation does not understand why she cannot just get over the loss of her children. These scenes make clear that time could not heal all the wounds inflicted by slavery. In the years immediately following emancipation, thousands of the enslaved searched for any hint that would help them reunite with their family. Letters were sent to the Freedman Bureau seeking assistance and well into the 1880s, the formerly enslaved placed ads in newspapers searching for love ones cruelly separated by slavery. Rarely did these hoped for reunions occur.

While 12 Years a Slave rightfully and appropriately privileges Solomon Northup’s resiliency and resolve, it also reminds us that men and women of good will crossed the color line, stood against the popular sentiments of the period and risked much to help abolish slavery. Northup’s encounter with a Canadian sympathetic to the cause of abolition played by Brad Pitt revealed much about Northup’s ingenuity and the need to enlist the help of sympathetic whites. After hearing Pitt’s character engage in a debate with the plantation owner, Epps, over the morality of slavery, Northup cautiously convinces the Canadian to send a letter to the shopkeeper who knew him in New York and could prove that Northup was a free man. This begins a process that eventually returns Northup to his family in upstate New York. While Solomon Northup reunited with his family, most who were kidnapped never escaped the brutality of enslavement.

12 Years a Slave is a marvel. It works as a film and it works as a story that helps us to remember a part of the American past that is too often forgotten. We have all been made better by this film if we remember the shadow that slavery cast and if we draw strength and inspiration from those who refused to let their enslavement define them and those who, by refusing, helped make real the American ideals of freedom and equality.

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