Wednesday, 4 December 2013

“12 Years” treatment of slavery an improvement, but not a cigar

I’ve been trying to figure out why the all-the-rage new film 12 Years a Slave left me rather cold. It’s certainly an improvement over recent silliness like Django (admittedly never meant to be taken as a historical anything), but IMHO the suggestions that this picture is some sort of Roots II that will blow the remaining lids off American slavery are way off. I think we’re still a long way from a solid treatment of America’s Original Sin because we’re still focused on individuals as action figures of good and evil rather than appreciating the deeply perverting effects of the institution on everyone it touched. That is, on everyone.

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.


Anonymous said...

I particularly appreciate your comments about how powerful a film on slavery might be if it were to depict banal, decent-seeming whites—like Sarah Auld of Frederick Douglass's memoir—who become corrupted by a system that is evil at the institutional level. Such characters can cause us to view ourselves uncomfortably but usefully in the mirror—whatever our race. As you mention, many of us fantasize we would have done something to confront slavery back in the bad old days. Yet, what are we doing now to resist a morally corrupt system that supports unprecedented profit-making by multinational corporations, and incidentally provides most of the fashionable apparel we wear on our backs (an interesting parallel to the production of cotton) as well as other commodities, through a worldwide network of sweatshop labor that some compare to slavery?

This is not to minimize the abomination of one person having the legal right to own another.* But consider some of practices of today’s sweatshop system, most of which I’ve had occasion to hear about in direct testimony from human rights activists and sweatshop workers themselves: teenaged workers locked into factories to work 14 hour shifts; women who earn so little from their labors that they satisfy their babies’ hunger with sugar water by week’s end; workers routinely hit by supervisors; workers’ mouths taped shut with duct tape to keep them from talking on the factory floor; indigenous labor organizers targeted by corrupt police and/or death squads. And, lest we imagine such abuses happen only on foreign soil, the U.S. Marianas have been notorious during the past decade and earlier for the human trafficking of young Chinese laborers, made virtual prisoners while sewing for name brand labels there.** Forced abortions are among the cruelties they’ve been said to endure. And on a different part of the sweatshop spectrum is the abuse of immigrant laborers in our stateside underground economy.

For most of us, slavery’s closest modern equivalent is out of view. We may, in fact, be analogous to those pre-Civil War Northerners who chose not to acknowledge slavery as the engine that helped drive the young nation’s economy as a whole; feeling little connection to it, they did not perceive an obligation to resist it. If the popular imagination focuses on past evils as personified in individuals so abhorrent that we can’t possibly identify with them, we may be condemned to repeat the wrongs of well meaning ancestors (whether our literal ones were here then or not) who took far too long to hold their political and business leaders responsible for a system that was morally rotten at its core.

*Though slavery is illegal worldwide, modern slavery, as defined by UNESCO, does exist at one end of the sweatshop spectrum.
**In the Marianas, companies are conveniently allowed to label their garments “Made in the U.S.A.”


Tim Frasca said...

Very thought-provoking, and I would add that the 13th amendment did not fully abolish slavery in the here and now because there is an explicit loophole in it for PRISONERS, who in fact constitutionally can remain enslaved and in fact for all intents and purposes are.