Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave

12years_375It’s not so often that a major Hollywood movie gets made about a North Country man.

Solomon Northup was just that.  He spent part of his childhood on his dad’s farm in Minerva, in the Adirondacks.

He later owned his own farm in Washington County and helped build the Champlain canal that linked Lake Champlain with the Hudson River.

What made Northup famous, of course, was that he was a free black man who was kidnapped in the 1840s and transported into slavery for twelve long years.

“Twelve Years A Slave,” his account of that bitter sojourn, was one of the most important texts of the abolitionist movement, published just eight years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

The film version — not unlike “Roots” in 1977 — is nothing short of an essential account of the American experience.

When I say essential, I mean that every moral person who aims to take part in the civil life of our democracy should watch it.

The movie is, bluntly, a horror to endure.  I saw it last night in Plattsburgh, not far from the shore of Lake Champlain.  The film lays bare several essential truths about the original sin that has burdened our nation from the inception.

The Industry of Human Livestock

The first is the sheer genocidal brutality of American industrial slavery.

Germans are rightly burdened by their culpability in the Nazi atrocities of the 1940s.  In like fashion, we own the moral legacy of a complex economic system that brutalized people of color for nearly three centuries.

Solomon Northup being brutalized by slavers in 1841 in Washington DC.  (Image:  12 Year A Slave by Solmon Northup)

Solomon Northup being brutalized by slavers in 1841 in Washington DC. (Image: 12 Year A Slave by Solmon Northup)

By the time Solomon Northup was abducted, in the 1840s, the world was essentially modern place.

Slavery as an institution had been made a criminal enterprise in most of the civilized world for at least thirty years.

It was a felony act in Britain.  Even Mexico had banned the barbaric practice.

Yet the United States continued to keep humans as livestock not as part of a quaint, rural backward custom, but as part of a vast and recognizably modern economic enterprise that involved banks, trading laws, shipping companies, mills, and stock exchanges.

The practice enriched white America at the blood price of generations of of wrecked lives.

The Ugly Dream of Antebellum America

The second revelation of this film is that since the Civil War we have systematically concealed from ourselves the depths of horror that our nation embraced.

With rare exceptions, we have trivialized, romanticized or simply ignored this fundamental stain.

From films like “Birth of a Nation” in 1920 to the the enduring, teeth-grinding nightmare of “Gone With the Wind,” the slave experience has been made quaint and kitschy and harmless.birth of a nation

“Twelve Years A Slave” goes a long way toward remedying this self-deception.  We are forced to endure the spectacle of seeing a slave-pen operating in the shadow of America’s national capital.

We see families shattered, women raped, men treated like mules and dogs.  We see the appalling use of important institutions — Christian faith, the rule of law, social custom — that helped perpetuate these outrages generation after generation.

Yes, slavery is different

The final essential truth that “12 Years A Slave” drives home is that slavery is different.  It holds a unique and revolting place in our national experience.

It is not akin to the national debt, or welfare, or abortion.  It is not a metaphor for some other political concern.

And it doesn’t stand proxy for other forms of victimization or persecution or insult (real or imagined) that Americans — particularly white Americans — may feel.

Just as the Jewish community has insisted and even demanded that the Holocaust be held apart in the human experience, the same must be done for the black experience of slavery in our national history.

Anything else serves to dilute the meaning of the crime and the burden that it places on us as Americans ever after.

Every American, naturally, gets to decide what the legacy of slavery means. We will naturally differ on what burden our history places upon us.

We will disagree over how practices today — from deep systemic poverty in the inner cities to our system of mass incarceration to racial profiling carried out by police to efforts at voter suppression in black precincts – are or are not connected to this blood-stained legacy.

We will debate what responsibility we have, now that slavery is abolished and Jim Crow is dismantled, to restore black Americans to something resembling full opportunity at equal dignity.

But I would argue without reservation that one step we should all share before continuing that discussion is to see this film, to endure its painful truths.

Through the eyes of this one North Country man, Solomon Northup, we can experience a little more of the history we all bear, as we continue to wrangle over the future we hope to create.

30 Comments on “Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave”

  1. Will Doolittle says:

    When legal rights are restored, and the law stands against discrimination, what is left is what is in our hearts. That’s where the poison has to be dredged out, and it’s not so easy, as Richard Cohen of The Washington Post, like so many before him, has just shown.

  2. TomL says:

    It’s worth remembering that slavery was a big part of the history of New York State. At the start of the American Revolution, New York City was the city with the second largest slave population in the colonies (second after Charleston SC). About 25% of the population in ‘downstate’ New York was slave. Many slaves escaped and joined the British occupation in New York, and gained their freedom by leaving with the Loyalists (including a couple of George Washington’s slaves). Gradual manumission started in 1799, but some people were held as slaves until July 4 1827 – five decades after the start of the Revolution. Until 1841, you could bring your slaves into New York from elsewhere and legally keep them here in captivity up to nine months!
    Here is some info: http://www.slavenorth.com/newyork.htm

  3. The Original Larry says:

    Let’s remember that “Roots” is fiction, the book and movie both. It may be grounded in history but it is as much fiction as is “Gone With The Wind” or “Birth of a Nation.” We need to differentiate between history and someone’s fictionalized version of it.

  4. mervel says:

    It was a hard movie to watch. This was not fiction though. I think most of our fiction surrounding slavery is easier to swallow than the reality.

    To me the modern institution which reaches back to slavery is the mass incarceration of black men which feeds a system largely benefiting whites.

  5. John Warren says:

    Original Larry,

    Roots may be part fiction, but it’s not nearly the fiction that Gone With the Wind and Birth of A Nation are. Not even remotely close. They are so far apart as to suggest that someone who would put forward such nonsense knows very little about slavery.

    I know it’s fashionable for people to think they know everything (just ask a “journalist”, or the folks who comment on every single story they write). But you ought to at least consider the statements you make before making them, perhaps consult with the original texts, or what professional researchers have written about them. It’s clear you’ve done none of that.

    Those interested in learning about Northup’s story from the evidence compiled by actual historians, can check out these two pieces by David Fiske:

    http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/author/dfiske/

  6. newt says:

    It’s worth pointing out that Germany did not desist from the Holocaust voluntarily, but that the remnants of Jewish and other target groups were saved by the Allies (mostly by accident as they conquered occupied and German territory, it should be acknowledged).

    American slavery was at least domestically destroyed, however dubiously and fitfully, by the Civil War. New York State at least voluntarily abolished it. Vermont prohibited it in it’s original constitution.

    I am of the opinion, though I can find little to support it, that the principal reason that it was eventually abolished was not Northern abhorrence of slavery, but rather a chain of events based on the fear of white white working classes in the western states and territories of competition from slave labor, should slavery be allowed in these, and the consequent insistence from the Southern “Slaveaucracy” that the South’s further presence in the U.S. was intolerable.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but look forward to it. I agree with Brian’s wish that everyone should, but those who need to the most will not.

  7. Anita says:

    I have not seen this movie yet, and now I know that I must.

  8. The Original Larry says:

    I did consider my statement, more carefully than you did yours, John Warren, and I stand by it. Roots is fiction and plagiarized fiction at that. Haley admitted as much. The movie took the fiction to another level entirely. Haley’s novel should not be equated with “12 Years a Slave” which is, as far as I know, a memoir of the author’s own experience. Theatrical movies have no standing at all in terms of historical scholarship.

    It bothers me when people like John Warren attack my comments as “nonsense” and accuse me of not researching and not carefully considering what I write when it’s clear that he’s guilty of exactly that.

  9. Marlo Stanfield says:

    I read Northup’s memoir a couple weeks ago, wanted to read it before the movie came out. I’d highly recommend checking it out. I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t compare the two, but reading about the experience of slavery from someone who lived it is pretty powerful. It really conveys how utterly he was at the mercy of his masters, how they could beat or even kill him and he didn’t really have any recourse. Which must be one of the worst things about slavery psychologically, the complete lack of power over your own life — even a master who treats you well in a material sense might sell you to a bad one at any time, and any master can separate you from your family or end your life and you don’t have a say in any of it. His memoir really gets that across.

  10. verplanck says:

    Original Larry – The point you clearly missed is that “Birth of a Nation” sets up the KKK as a heroic force, and stereotypes blacks as ignorant and unsavory. Regardless of whether the stories built up around any of the examples are “fact” or “fiction”, Birth of a Nation is a piece of racist propaganda that in no way deserves being held next to “Roots”.

  11. The Original Larry says:

    The point everyone seems to have missed is my objection to linking “Roots” with “12 Years a Slave”. One is plagiarized fiction (according to the author) and the other is the author’s own story. As for “Birth of a Nation”, “Gone With The Wind” and “Roots, they are held next to each other only as theatrical works that don’t deserve to be regarded as history.

  12. Peter Slocum says:

    And…. back to Brian’s original point, this is an incredibly important movie, illuminating a central and terrible part of American history, and brilliantly done. The links to the North Country help to bring the story home, and show that no part of the country escaped the stain of slavery. It was part of our history –the founder of Plattsburgh owned slaves–but later dozens of North Country people defied the law to run an Underground Railroad and help escapees from slavery make new lives here or in Canada. The Essex County iron mines that Solomon Northup passed near on his Lake Champlain lumber rafting business armed the Union forces in the Civil War that ended slavery.

  13. John Warren says:

    Larry,

    All three are historical documents, they all have truths and they have fictions. I suspect you’ve never even seen Birth of Nation. You do not seem to understand how cultural artifacts like novels, film, theatre, music are in fact documents of their time. You seem to not grasp that cultural and intellectual histories change over time or that shifts in historiography occur. That’s OK, you are not a historian. You’re just a guy with a keyboard and an opinion.

    So just keep believing in yourself buddy! And let me know when your article proclaiming the end of theatrical works as history is published.

  14. The Original Larry says:

    Unreal! Are you so threatened by me that you have to lower yourself to snotty comments and idiotic suppositions? You have no idea what I am or what I have seen; to suppose that you do marks you for the self-important pedant that you are. I was merely pointing out the difference between historical fiction like “Roots” and Northup’s memoir, which seems to have outraged you, possibly because you don’t understand it. In any case, you need to get over yourself if you can and at least pretend to be civil in this discussion forum. Don’t try to turn everything I say into a crime against humanity; it makes you look silly.

  15. verplanck says:

    Larry – we got that. John Warren admitted as such in the first sentence of the first response to your post. We’re awaiting some sort of admission that “Birth of a Nation” is on a whole different level than Roots or Gone With the Wind. Let me re-phrase this as a different question: what movie is closer in spirit to Birth of a Nation? Triumph of the Will, or Roots?

  16. MissV says:

    Original Larry- I find it very telling that what you chose to comment on from this eloquent, accurate, and insightful review is a reference that Roots is fiction. It’s sort of akin to looking for the typos in a 100 page document….

  17. The Original Larry says:

    Right, and it was in his second sentence that he called my comments nonsense and questioned my knowledge. I’m sick of the personal attacks and childish attempts at ridicule from the amateur thought police. Do you want debate and an exchange of ideas or do you just want everyone marching in lock-step to your particular beat? Speaking of marching in lock-step, now you throw “Triumph of the Will” into the mix, where, as a documentary, it does not belong. Nice try at provocation, but it doesn’t change my original point: theatrical movies and fiction are not history.

  18. The Original Larry says:

    MissV, it’s a big typo! Roots is fiction and 12 Years a Slave is not. It ‘s an important distinction. Why devalue 12 Years a Slave by equating it to a novel?

  19. Walker says:

    Larry, there is much truth to be found in novels– even historic truth. And there is more than a little fiction to be found in most memoirs.

    Life (and Art) isn’t so cut and dry that you can say “memoir = truth, novel = falsehoods.”

  20. Will Doolittle says:

    Larry,
    Thank you for refusing to dive down the “Triumph of the Will” rabbit hole.

  21. The Original Larry says:

    The ideology police would have been on me in a second…

  22. John Warren says:

    Larry – do you honestly believe that I’m at all threatened by an anonymous internet commenter? That is some serious narcissism.

    I am tired of the anonymous and woefully uninformed pretending their opinions are invincible fact. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts and when you spew nonsense that makes it clear you have no idea what you’re talking about, you should expect to be called on your BS.

    You’ve made outrageous claims that show a complete ignorance of the issues at hand and are completely out of step with scholarship or even common sense.

    Being an anonymous internet commenter does not make you right, no matter how often you comment, or how indignant you get.

  23. The Original Larry says:

    I make one comment that echoes what Alex Haley said about his own work and for that I have to listen to insults, attacks on my knowledge and other assorted pseudo-intellectual BS from someone who can’t distinguish between fact and fiction? I think the real problem here is my refusal to toe the ideological line you have drawn. You don ‘t worry about niceties like accuracy or facts as long as ideological orthodoxy is adhered to. You can continue to learn your history from best sellers and TV movies, if you like.

  24. John Warren says:

    Larry,

    This is what you wrote: “Let’s remember that “Roots” is fiction, the book and movie both. It may be grounded in history but it is as much fiction as is “Gone With The Wind” or “Birth of a Nation.” We need to differentiate between history and someone’s fictionalized version of it.”

    You are claiming quite clearly two completely false things. One of which indicates a wholly racist attitude has influenced your fact-less analysis (which is why I even bothered to comment).

    1 – Roots is in no way as fictional as Birth Of An Nation. You have obviously not studied these two cultural artifacts if you believe that. It’s simply absurd. One common sense intellectual exercise should tell you that.

    If I believe people named Larry are intellectually inferior and make a film about people name Larry, do you think it might be a slightly less accurate portrayal of people named Larry than a film made by someone named Larry?

    You’re saying a racist 1920s film that celebrates the Klan is as accurate as a 1970s film that seeks a more accurate portrayal of slavery by an African-American. To make your claim you either have no common sense whatsoever, or you are an out and out racist. Either way, it needs to be called out for the ignorance it demonstrates.

    2 – You make the claim that fiction is not “historical”. I’m not sure how to even argue with this because it is so devoid of even the most basic understanding of history as to demonstrate that you have never even considered what historical methods are. Surely you’ve heard of Art History? That there is even such a discipline should be proof enough that you are wrong about this point.

    So, an anonymous internet commenter, makes outrageous, ignorant, and racist claims and then gets all indignant when they’re called to the carpet. No surprise there.

    But what is really absurd, is that you then have the gall to suggest that I am the one who gets my history from best sellers and TV.

    That’s rich, given that I spent the two days of this “discussion” at the state’s annual Researching New York history conference. I have graduate degree in history, including several years of post-graduate work, I edit the state’s history blog, I am currently a New York Public Library Research Fellow, and I have years of experience in research and teaching exactly the kind of media studies that we’re “discussing,” using exactly these films, which you claim to be an expert on.

    If you did one ounce of research on anything you say (like watching Birth of a Nation or Googling my name) you could have found that maybe you are trying to have a discussion with someone who has a little more experience with this subject.

    Instead, you’re just an anonymous troll, making claims about which you know almost nothing. Creating a fantasy world for yourself that says “I comment, therefore I am”.

    This time, anonymous Larry the expert on every story you’ve ever read, you don’t get away with it.

    Honestly, I know it’s funny that I’ve even bothered to respond to you. I mean, your anonymous comments wholly devoid of reality have not one ounce of impact at all in serious discussions of these kinds of issues. Even though you are anonymous, I pretty sure I’m reading your articles in the journals, or hearing your papers at the conferences.

    So, I’ll create my own fantasy world for a moment and consider this one little effort to reign in the idiocy that is anonymous internet commenters, not matter how absurdly futile. And I’m sure you’ll come back with some half-witted response about how I just think I’m smart, or you’ll try and shift the debate to what a terrible guy I am for giving you a hard time.

    So I’ll leave off with this, as I’m sure some adult must have told you at least once in your life – if you don’t know what you’re talking about – keep your mouth shut, listen, and learn.

    Consider taking that advice.

  25. oa says:

    Good comment, John Warren, with all that hifalutin degree and history talk stuff, but I agree with Larry on his main point: He is a victim. He is always a victim. And I totally stand by my anonymous comment, no matter how threatening it is.

  26. The Original Larry says:

    Wow, John, that’s very impressive, as are your academic qualifications and expertise, none of which, unfortunately, make you anything other than the soi-disant pedant I called you out as earlier in this exchange. You may disagree with my estimation of works of fiction but when you call me a racist you’ve crossed the line into self-imposed irrelevancy and made yourself the target of well-deserved ridicule. No serious academic would reach the conclusions you have with so little evidence. The real issue here is your unfounded perception of me as a racist and your utter lack of respect for anyone who disagrees with you or your approach to history. Thank god you are only a self-appointed arbiter of such things. I’ll leave judgement of who and what I am to people who actually know me. Anonymity on the internet, by the way, works both ways. It does give me license to comment as I wish, but it also protects people like you from the consequences of what would otherwise be libel.

  27. mervel says:

    The thing that hit me about the movie was the reality of the commerce of slavery, slavery works. Which is why 150 years after the civil war we have as many people or more in absolute numbers in bondage today world wide as we did then. So I guess I would modify my earlier comments about our prison system today being the closest institution reaching back to slavery, the slavery system today operating in the US is the closest institution harking back to the slavery system of the past.

    Every time a guy looks at porn on the internet he may be participating in slavery today.

    People are indeed kidnapped just as in the movie; and sold into slavery and they are right here in the US.

  28. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    A very important point, Mervel. Slavery did not end with Emancipation, just legalized and organized slavery based solely on race.

  29. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On the other hand, you just ruined on-line porn for me. And don’t think women don’t look at porn.

  30. Mervel says:

    Sorry for ruining for you Knuckle!

    I wonder if slavery like prostitution, drug addiction, murder etc, is simply part of the human condition? It has always existed in various forms in various societies for all of recorded history into today.

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