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.