Why I Probably Won’t Ever Watch Twelve Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave is based on the mem­oir of Solomon Northup, who was born in com­fort­able free­dom and kid­napped into slav­ery. Right there is the prob­lem. The movie is pre­sented as an indict­ment of the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery, and beyond that as a par­tic­u­larly vivid and real­is­tic account of the awful­ness of slav­ery. But it’s based on an extremely atyp­i­cal expe­ri­ence, and so while it may be an excel­lent film, as his­tory it’s just bad in really impor­tant ways.

To begin with, yes, slav­ery was awful, and deplorable, and an out­rage, and I would say the Civil War was not a tragedy, it was nec­es­sary and good because it ulti­mately ended slav­ery. I just want to get that out of the way now–slavery = very very inde­fen­si­bly bad.

But why is slav­ery bad? It’s not bad because men born in free­dom were kid­napped into it. That did hap­pen–here and in Africa–and clearly, that was bad. But the vast vast vast major­ity of slaves were born in slav­ery. There were about four mil­lion slaves in the US in 1860, and the num­ber who had been born free and kid­napped into the deep south was sta­tis­ti­cally insignif­i­cant. What’s bad about it was its normality.

It’s a plea­sure to con­demn slav­ery, espe­cially since the con­dem­na­tion of Amer­i­can racial slav­ery involves no cost what­so­ever for most of us today. It requires no courage, extracts no price. No one will even dis­ap­prove of our condemnation–quite the oppo­site. It’s almost impos­si­ble for mod­ern peo­ple to imag­ine the world view that made slav­ery pos­si­ble. That’s the hard­est thing to teach–what was it that made slav­ery not just pos­si­ble, but com­pletely accept­able? It’s com­mon to imag­ine that slave­own­ers were depraved and evil, and Twelve Years a Slave, the film, has been widely noted for its depic­tion of a depraved, sadis­tic and evil slaveowner.


Cer­tainly there were depraved and evil slave­own­ers, but you can’t just dis­miss all slave­own­ers as “evil and depraved.” It’s way too sim­plis­tic, and it doesn’t explain what made this evil thing–slavery–so acceptable.

What made it accept­able was its nor­mal­ity. All of us are com­plicit in morally doubt­ful acts–every time a drone, funded by my tax dol­lars, kills civil­ians in Afghanistan, I’m com­plicit in an evil act. Does that make me an evil per­son? You might say yes, but it’s not because I’m a depraved sadist, it’s because I live in world where killing dis­tant civil­ians from the air has become normalized.

And slav­ery was nor­mal, legit­i­mated by church and state and cus­tom. It was ubiq­ui­tous in the south­ern low coun­try. If you were born into slav­ery and your grand­par­ents were slaves, slav­ery was the way of the world. And that’s hard to get our heads around. Slav­ery, “unfree­dom,” is more or less unthink­able for most peo­ple. I reg­u­larly ask stu­dents “why is slav­ery wrong” and they have a hard time com­ing up with answers at first: it just is. It’s just evil. What was it like to be born into a world where slav­ery was nor­mal­ized? How did that world work?

Mak­ing a per­son born into free­dom the model for explain­ing slav­ery is never going to get you to an answer to that ques­tion. It’s going to get you a vehe­ment, pas­sion­ate and vis­ceral rejec­tion of the insti­tu­tion of slav­ery. In other words, it’s going to con­firm what we already believe, which is what Hol­ly­wood is really good at. Does any­one out there want to argue in favor of racial slav­ery? But it’s not going to explain how the sys­tem of racial slav­ery oper­ated as nor­mal for so long. That’s the really hard ques­tion, and the really inter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal ques­tion. It’s hard because ask­ing it involves think­ing about what we really mean by free­dom, and what it means to live in a world where evil acts are normalized.


I need to add that there are a large num­ber of slave nar­ra­tives that involve peo­ple, born into slav­ery, who think their way out of slav­ery and then act their way out. Two clas­sic exam­ples would be Fred­er­ick Dou­glass’ nar­ra­tives and Har­riet Jacob’s Inci­dents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Jacobs story is really fan­tas­tic, because she escapes slav­ery, but not patri­archy, and not the need to work for a liv­ing in a really rough “free” mar­ket­place, and her nar­ra­tive is really keen on the com­plex­i­ties of what it means to be free. Which is why it won’t make a good movie, unless you ignore the com­plex parts. It’s hard to think your way out of nor­mal­ity and the cri­tique you come up with might be unset­tling to every­one, not just a com­fort­able con­dem­na­tion of a rec­og­nized evil.




  • We, as US his­to­ri­ans, have stud­ied slav­ery at a much deeper level than the aver­age per­son out in the world. We can say it’s atyp­i­cal in some ways, but we also need to empha­size that it’s typ­i­cal in many oth­ers. I think this is where his­tory and film need to work together to enhance understanding.

    There isn’t really a “white sav­ior” in this film — because there wasn’t one for Northup or any of the other slaves. One of the rea­sons the movie is con­sid­ered unsat­is­fy­ing is because aside from him, none of the other slaves gain free­dom — they die enslaved. And that BOTHERS peo­ple. In 2014, I think we need to be able to look at our past hon­estly — not nec­es­sar­ily unflinch­ingly. We need to acknowl­edge the dev­as­ta­tion our for­bears have wrought instead of pat­ting our­selves on the back that we’ve come so far.

    For non-historian, non-academic audi­ences, the movie is hon­est about our col­lec­tive past and forces the audi­ence to con­front, even if it’s only for a moment, the hor­rors committed.

  • I went into the film assum­ing I’d have the response you antic­i­pate — but I didn’t. It’s not at all a story about how hor­ri­ble and unjust it is for him, Northup, but about how arbi­trary was the line between free and unfree. The film does not focus on the hor­ror of a free man ren­dered sud­denly a slave, but rather on how deplorable it was all around, as an insti­tu­tion. Cer­tain styl­is­tic conventions–in par­tic­u­lar the “long take”– force view­ers to endure a scene, from a sin­gle unchang­ing van­tage point, long beyond what is com­fort­able, beyond what can even be con­sid­ered bear­able. In one scene, an almost-lynching in par­tic­u­lar, the cam­era remains trained on the hang­ing body for sev­eral long min­utes, while in the back­ground peo­ple move about, engaged in their tasks as if noth­ing out of the ordi­nary were hap­pen­ing. But for me the most pow­er­ful moment–and one that I think works against some of your cri­tiques above–is when a female slave after hav­ing been beaten almost to death looks up, not at the char­ac­ters in the film, but into the cam­era, at us. We as view­ers are being impli­cated, by her, in what has hap­pened. I think you should see the film.

  • Well why make it the story of Solomon Northrup then? The story you’re telling could be told about any slave who escapes from slav­ery, or really, any slave who doesn’t. I mean the choice of Northrup can’t be mean­ing­less; right? We would have to agree on that, I think. There are so many extremely com­pelling slave nar­ra­tives you could choose, but he picks the only one writ­ten by a per­son born in freedom.

    This is why I feel jus­ti­fied in crit­i­ciz­ing a movie I haven’t seen–a dubi­ous posi­tion, agreed–it starts from a strange place and a place designed to nor­mal­ize a mod­ern state of “free­dom.” I don’t see how that can be avoided–it starts and ends with bour­geoise free­dom as the norm.

  • I agree that the con­ceit, free man-to-slave, func­tions as a nar­ra­tive hook; it has the effect, though, of get­ting peo­ple in the door. We could cer­tainly debate the mer­its of that. How­ever, a con­ceit does not pre­de­ter­mine the par­tic­u­lar forms of intel­lec­tual and affec­tive engage­ments a film solic­its. I still don’t think your last claim holds up; free­dom is not nat­u­ral­ized in the film, but ren­dered pre­car­i­ous. For African Amer­i­cans the line between free and unfree was at once invis­i­ble and mate­r­ial. As the film dra­ma­tizes, it was depen­dent on geog­ra­phy, on the good or ill will of strangers and friends; it was, fun­da­men­tally, arbi­trary, sit­u­a­tional, contingent.

  • We should have this dis­cus­sion some­where else maybe. Do you want to do a rebut­tal, and I’ll pub­lish it as a post?

    So I’d argue it mat­ters that he picked THIS nar­ra­tive and not another, because if it doesn’t mat­ter, then he might as well have just made the whole thing up. Which he could have, of course. But he didn’t, and the film is pred­i­cated on a notion of real­ism derived from the choice of the Northrup book. I mean, that’s just all over the thing, “based on a true story,” etc etc.

    So given that Northrup is born in free­dom, all his reac­tions are the reac­tions of a per­son born in free­dom, that is, most like yours and mine, and this of course col­ors any inter­pre­ta­tion of what he writes about slav­ery. This is the “truth” of it. So the movie begins by bas­ing itself on let’s call it a north­ern per­spec­tive, which mas­sively con­tra­dic­tory: free­dom is a pre­cious thing hard won, and free­dom is a birthright and every­body always already has it. The ter­ri­ble thing is los­ing it, which is why he wants to get back to his fam­ily. As I always point out, few peo­ple expe­ri­ence mar­riage and fam­ily as a state of free­dom, how­ever much they may like both.

    This is where I’m a Fou­cault guy, and free­dom is not at all the really inter­est­ing ques­tion, and why I’d always point out that Har­riet Jacobs is still unable to unite her fam­ily after free­dom, and still sub­ject to sex­ual harass­ment, though she clearly prefers not being a slave. (“My story ends not in the con­ven­tional way, with mar­riage, but with free­dom” isn’t that what she says?)

    I don’t have an objec­tively ver­i­fi­able foun­da­tion for “accu­racy” in his­tor­i­cal writ­ing. But I’m highly skep­ti­cal of the way “vivid” sub­sti­tutes for accu­rate, as you know. Why don’t you write your response up and I’ll post it?

  • Would love to talk more. I don’t have time to write a full rebut­tal now, but just for a quick response to your last response. First, on why this par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive. Not every nar­ra­tive lends itself to filmic rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Har­riet Jacobs, while an aston­ish­ing and pow­er­ful account, is not ideal for cin­e­matic rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Con­ceal­ment is a fun­da­men­tal part of that nar­ra­tive; she lit­er­ally spent seven years hid­ing in the shed, unseen. You can’t film that time, and to ellipse it under­mines or mit­i­gates the fun­da­men­tal aspect of that expe­ri­ence: how long and tedious and unen­durable it was.

    In my opin­ion, the best pieces of his­tory on film are those that do exactly what you oppose: they find a way to speak to peo­ple who a) aren’t read­ing his­tory mono­graphs b) aren’t inclined to be preached to. So the par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive cho­sen does mat­ter. It has to have some appeal. How are you going to get peo­ple to want to see a film about slav­ery? Well this is one way.

    Sec­ond, I’m not sure why you’re say­ing that in this film “vivid sub­sti­tutes for accu­rate.” This, like Jacob’s account, is auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Is either “accu­rate”? They are both inter­pre­ta­tions of a sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stance. Does that mean that they are accu­rate? As you know, I don’t think accu­racy can ever be assured in his­tory, let alone in first-person nar­ra­tives. Instead we should ask if the inter­pre­ta­tion pre­sented is com­pelling and sup­ported by evidence.

    I think you’re mostly ask­ing why this nar­ra­tive, which matches the expe­ri­ence of so few, as opposed to any of a num­ber of other slave nar­ra­tives. The fact that it was less com­mon doesn’t make it less “accu­rate”; what it does is offer a novel way into the story you do want told about the nor­mal­iza­tion of slavery.

  • Your post reminds me of my reac­tion to a pas­sage on slav­ery from the (now-famous) Our Vir­ginia, where the text­book laments that “many” slaves lived under mis­er­able con­di­tions. The effect, of course, is to focus the reader’s atten­tion on the sub­jec­tive mate­r­ial com­fort of some entirely unspec­i­fied sub­set (3? 3 mil­lion?) rather than, I don’t know, the objec­tive awful­ness of being enslaved.

  • As usual, Mike, you give me a lot to think about. Yes, Northrup’s expe­ri­ence of being cap­tured and enslaved was atyp­i­cal. But the film is now just about slav­ery, it’s about race–about how a free man could be enslaved in the 19thc US sim­ply because he was black.

  • Yes but Rosie a free man couldn’t be enslaved just because he was black–it was ille­gal. It hap­pened, but it required kid­nap­ping and vio­lat­ing the law. Which again is part of what’s wrong with pick­ing that book to tell the story of slav­ery, which what the film sets out to do. The direc­tor said that all over the place–this film was not the story of Solomon Northrup, it was the story of slav­ery. But the story of slav­ery was a story of inher­i­ta­ble con­di­tion, and not the odd­ity of being born free and cap­tured. And plus it puts the prob­lem with being black on slav­ery, while of course the racism in the north was no less intense. So if you want to make a movie about race in ante­bel­lum Amer­ica, make is about, say, seg­re­ga­tion in Philadel­phia or denial of vot­ing rights or any num­ber of humil­i­a­tions the north vis­ited on free blacks. That would be much more trou­bling than the sen­sa­tional case of kid­nap­ping into slav­ery, which just tends to rein­force the sim­ple binary slav­ery bad/freedom good. Slav­ery was bad, but free­dom was not good in any sim­ple way for black Amer­i­cans. I mean, you still couldn’t vote, or go to col­lege, or etc etc. So the movie sub­sti­tutes (I sus­pect) lurid suf­fer­ing for intel­lec­tual work

  • Hi Mike,

    I assume you are being provoca­tive, as usual :). I strongly agree with Ali­son — you should see the film. It answers many of the objec­tions you have. If noth­ing else, Steve McQueen is a bet­ter visual artist than he is an expos­i­tor or his­to­rian. He is able to present a much more com­plex vision in film than is con­veyed in descrip­tions you’re referencing.

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