Written by a Black person, directed by a Black person and starring Black people, 12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday night. For one, unlike past Best Picture nominees about Black people (from The Help to Dream Girls) 12 Years is not incredibly dull. And besides the critical consensus behind the film, similar to other current nominees in the evening’s top category including The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, 12 Years explores the predatory side of American identity. However, McQueen’s film does so from the standpoint of an enslaved sheep, not from the perspective of the prowling wolves.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years was inspired by the true story of Solomon Northup, a 19th century freedman who was bamboozled into bondage. The film opens with Northup, then a middle class musician, leading a prosperous life with his wife and two children in 1840s Saratoga Springs, New York. Unable to resist a hefty payday for a performance in Washington, DC Northup traveled south with two White men who tricked, drugged and sold him into slavery. Yes, slavery and forced labor remain a deplorable practice all over the world. Still, I think Northup’s story struck a chord with the critics for another morally charged reason. Northup’s narrative of enslavement tells a tale of class exile.
We are still living through the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis. Now more than ever people who did everything right (went to college, worked hard, tried their best) are finding that low wage work, joblessness and the student loan debt crisis have robbed them of a middle-class luxuries. Seduced by a deal too good to be true, puffed up by a false sense of invincibility, the actual Northup got plucked from his middle class life — not another continent like Alex Haley’s Kunta Kinte — and thrust into bondage. Let me repeat that: Northup was abducted from his middle-class life! For the contemporary critical audience a key element of Northup’s story that made it more “real” than other depictions of American slavery was that Northup was in fact born a free American. Apparently a lot of writers and talk show hosts could identify with that.
During an interview with the 12 Years screenwriter John Ridley, Bill Maher said on his HBO show Real Time Alex Haley’s Roots was “really something” for the 1970s. But next to the McQueen film Roots seems “fake.” Of course I get that Northup’s autobiography is an actual account of slavery while Alex Haley’s Roots is a historical novel. (Not to mention it has been established in Federal Court that Haley plagiarized a lot of Roots too.) Still, despite all the non-reality that Roots reeks of, Maher’s comment annoyed the hell out of me. However flawed and ethically fraught Haley’s methods, he may have done more for promoting Black people’s collective self-esteem than any other American writer in the 20th century. Haley also of course co-authored The Autobiography of Malcolm X which I believe served as his practice run in American myth making leading up to Roots. One of the primary ways Malcolm reclaimed and reinvented himself was by changing his name. In the most famous scene of the 1977 miniseries, Kunta Kinte, returned to the plantation after a failed escape attempt, refuses to take the name “Toby” and gets bullwhipped for it, nearly to death. For Haley, at the heart of the African-American experience, the mortal struggle for the ownership of oneself raged. In 12 Years, the issue of identity and personhood is more complicated, but also less compelling.
In one of the film’s early scenes, before Northup is kidnapped, he’s out shopping with his wife and though he initially resisted, he buys his spouse an expensive handbag. In the meantime, another Black person enters the store, a slave, and though he attempts to make eye contact with his free counterparts, the wife is consumed with her purchase while Northup intimates and then ignores the stranger’s silent plea for help. This scene stuck with me because it scripts middle-class life, even for free Black people in the 19th century, as being bound to the ownership of stuff, and a petty status object at that, not the ownership of self. Also, the blinding self-interest and the willful ignorance Northup displayed here solidified him in my eyes as very unlike Haley’s fictional Kunta Kinte and more like another fictional antebellum character: Scarlett O’Hara.
In her New York Times review of 12 Years, Manohla Dargis said that McQueen’s film portrayed the lives of the Black bodies that populated the background and little else in the 1939 Best Picture winner Gone With the Wind. I agree with Dargis, but I also think that weirdly part of the reason 12 Years has a shot at the Oscar is that the McQueen film tells a story similar to Margaret Mitchell’s. 12 Years and Gone With the Wind are both about economic dispossession on American soil. The Civil War, for a time anyway, turned Scarlett into a class exile while a kidnapping made Northup one. And both characters show that when circumstances serve folks eviction notices, written in blood, from the life they feel they should have had to a hellish one no one in their right mind would desire, the results are far from pretty.
Yes, Scarlett kills, steals and cheats to ensure she will never be hungry again, but Solomon’s crimes, in part because he was not an evil Confederate, struck me as more cruel. When he tells the woman who has lost her children to stop crying, I wanted to slap him across the mouth. When the eternally tortured Patsy asks him to kill her and he refused more out of fear of the master than regard for her life, I wanted to put my hands around his neck and squeeze tightly. Early in his ordeal, crouched in darkness with two other slaves, Solomon declares his aim to do more than survive; he wants to live. Well, how Solomon managed to survive so he might begin life again after his twelve years in hell was by being self-interested and learning the fine art of passivity. Which makes him more like the contemporary average American living through the economic meltdown than Scarlett could ever be.