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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