Wednesday, 4 December 2013
“12 Years” treatment of slavery an improvement, but not a cigar
Frederick Douglass in his brilliant autobiography pointed out 150 years ago that even Sophia Auld, the decent slavemistress he landed with in Maryland as a young adult, could not overcome the moral rot that inevitably accompanied the owning of another human being by another. He paints her as a rather nice lady who at first thought he should learn to read the Bible; soon, however, she evolves into a stinking harpie vigilantly enforcing slavery’s rules.
Twelve Years doesn’t probe in that direction at all. On a superficial level, the film seems to play rather fast and loose with historical accuracy. In an early scene Solomon Northrup is enjoying a rather fancy meal in a Washington, D.C., restaurant with the two white men who would later kidnap and sell him. A viewer would never suspect that segregation in public facilities in this border city lasted well into the 1950s when organized civil rights agitators forced an end to it. While a flashback scene shows that racism was alive and flourishing in the North, the active color bar that operated in the minds of most whites, both North and South, is whitewashed out and replaced with an anachronistic—and audience-comforting—Northern attitude of respectful equality.
In another peculiar incident, Solomon fights back against a white overseer early in the film who then vows to murder him and is about to do so—rather strange since the overseer did not ‘own’ Northrup and would not have had the right to dispose of the master’s ‘property’ in that way. Later, Northrup stumbles upon a lynching of two slaves in a forest clearing.
But as first-person slave accounts such as those in the recent book A Slave No More make clear, while the pre-war environment for slaves could include horrific beatings and torture for misbehavior, executions were rare—slaves were too valuable alive. Once slavery ended after the Civil War, however, lynchings became epidemic throughout the former Confederacy since social control now had to be enacted indirectly. As there was no profit in keeping alive individual blacks when their labor was plentiful and easily substituted, terrorism via the rope and the bonfire made sense and remained highly effective for a century.
Still, there is a deeper problem with 12 Years than this or that possible distortion. We don’t really get a coherent look at how the slave system systematically crushed the human spirit. The characters who populate the film tilt into caricature: evil owners, whip-cracking Simon Legrees, a frustrated and vengeful plantation wife, the heroic Canadian dissident, noble and long-suffering slaves who are unfailingly kind to each other. (The briefest exception is a house servant who shoos Northrup off the plantation porch.)
These characters existed, in one form or another, to be sure, but they are simply immoral monsters, and that’s a cop-out because it permits us, watching this version of history, to suppose that any decent-minded individual (ourselves, of course, in our fantasy landscape) could and would make a difference, resist, somehow breach the slave system. Brad Pitt, the good lad who engineers Northrup’s return to freedom, even challenges the slaveowner to his face and is not immediately run off the property as a nigger-lover. He stands in for us, helping us refuse to countenance the far uglier likelihood that in that nightmarish environment, even decent-minded folks who might improbably pop up probably couldn’t have done much.
Even lovely Patsy, whom we watch being beaten to a bloody pulp by her jealous owner who is also sexually fixated on her, is an angel of unreality. She regularly picks 500 pounds of cotton compared to the others’ measly 200-250 pounds, causing the latter to be taken off and whipped. One would expect therefore to see a hint of resentment from them at her Stakhanovite over-production. But the other slaves don’t seem to mind her sterling performance as a work mule making their own lives more miserable.
Nor do we get any real insight into how the total control exercised by the owners, accompanied by the constant threat of violence, would have colonized slaves psychologically, led them to identify with the masters and obey them instinctively. Concentration camp literature and even accounts of women trafficked for prostitution provide plenty of accounts of how easily and quickly even a modicum of judiciously applied trauma will cripple the victims mentally and turn them into passive cooperators. We see Northrup betrayed by a white cotton picker--how much more disturbing to our facile categories would it be to see him betrayed by a fellow slave.
On the flip side, amidst all the brutality we get little sense of the owners' version of affection for individual slaves, that essential form of self=delusion that would have provided the plantation class easy confidence that they had the welfare and well-being of their ignorant servants at heart.
Twelve Years is clearly a shocking tale for an American viewer—several people in the audience with me had to leave in the first half hour. But like Holocaust films such as Schindler’s List in which the victims manage somehow to escape, this latest attempt to plumb the depths of American slavery is weak tea with a conveniently happy ending. For all its brutality, even this reminder doesn’t really come close to giving us a picture of the soul-putrefying sickness of slavery during the early centuries of our nation. For that, we need to return to more authentic voices like those of Douglass and other, unfortunately rare, slave narratives—among them Solomon Northrup’s original text.
Posted by Tim Frasca at 20:48