Il faut avoir le courage de vouloir le mal et pour cela il faut commencer par rompre avec le comportement grossièrement humanitaire qui fait partie de l’héritage chrétien. (..) Nous sommes avec ceux qui tuent. André Breton
Bien avant qu’un intellectuel nazi ait annoncé ‘quand j’entends le mot culture je sors mon revolver’, les poètes avaient proclamé leur dégoût pour cette saleté de culture et politiquement invité Barbares, Scythes, Nègres, Indiens, ô vous tous, à la piétiner. Hannah Arendt (1949)
Après Auschwitz, nous pouvons affirmer, plus résolument que jamais auparavant, qu’une divinité toute-puissante ou bien ne serait pas toute bonne, ou bien resterait entièrement incompréhensible (dans son gouvernement du monde, qui seul nous permet de la saisir). Mais si Dieu, d’une certaine manière et à un certain degré, doit être intelligible (et nous sommes obligés de nous y tenir), alors il faut que sa bonté soit compatible avec l’existence du mal, et il n’en va de la sorte que s’il n’est pas tout-puissant. C’est alors seulement que nous pouvons maintenir qu’il est compréhensible et bon, malgré le mal qu’il y a dans le monde. Hans Jonas
Christs, Vierges, Pietàs, Crucifixions, enfers, paradis, offrandes, chutes, dons, échanges: la vision chrétienne du monde semble revenir en force. Où? Dans le domaine de l’art le plus contemporain. (…) L’homme y est réinterprété comme corps incarné, faible, en échec. Cette religion insiste sur l’ordinaire et l’accessible, elle est hantée par la dérision, la mort et le deuil. Après une modernité désincarnée proposant ses icônes majestueuses, on en revient à une image incarnée, une image d’après la chute. En profondeur, il se dit là un renversement des modèles de l’art lui-même: A Prométhée succède Sisyphe ou mieux le Christ souffrant, un homme sans modèle, sans lien, inscrit dans une condition humaine à laquelle il ne peut échapper. Yves Michaud (4e de couverture, L’art contemporain est-il chrétien, Catherine Grenier)
C’est comme une fête foraine, les jeux avec les pinces… Le monde est atroce, mais il y a bien pire : c’est Dieu. On ne peut pas comprendre Haïti. On ne peut même pas dire que Dieu est méchant, aucun méchant n’aurait fait cela. Christian Boltanski
Le grand ennemi de la vérité n’est très souvent pas le mensonge – délibéré, artificiel et malhonnête – mais le mythe – persistant, persuasif et irréaliste. John Kennedy
Cette Administration met en avant un faux choix entre les libertés que nous chérissons et la sécurité que nous procurons… Je vais donner à nos agences de renseignement et de sécurité les outils dont ils ont besoin pour surveiller et éliminer les terroristes sans nuire à notre Constitution et à notre liberté. Cela signifie l’arrêt des écoutes téléphoniques illégales de citoyens américains, l’arrêt des lettres de sécurité nationale pour espionner les citoyens américains qui ne sont pas soupçonnés d’un crime. L’arrêt de la surveillance des citoyens qui ne font rien de plus que protester contre une mauvaise guerre. L’arrêt de l’ignorance de la loi quand cela est incommode. Obama (août 2007)
Qu’est donc devenu cet artisan de paix récompensé par un prix Nobel, ce président favorable au désarmement nucléaire, cet homme qui s’était excusé aux yeux du monde des agissements honteux de ces Etats-Unis qui infligeaient des interrogatoires musclés à ces mêmes personnes qu’il n’hésite pas aujourd’hui à liquider ? Il ne s’agit pas de condamner les attaques de drones. Sur le principe, elles sont complètement justifiées. Il n’y a aucune pitié à avoir à l’égard de terroristes qui s’habillent en civils, se cachent parmi les civils et n’hésitent pas à entraîner la mort de civils. Non, le plus répugnant, c’est sans doute cette amnésie morale qui frappe tous ceux dont la délicate sensibilité était mise à mal par les méthodes de Bush et qui aujourd’hui se montrent des plus compréhensifs à l’égard de la campagne d’assassinats téléguidés d’Obama. Charles Krauthammer
Les drones américains ont liquidé plus de monde que le nombre total des détenus de Guantanamo. Pouvons nous être certains qu’il n’y avait parmi eux aucun cas d’erreurs sur la personne ou de morts innocentes ? Les prisonniers de Guantanamo avaient au moins une chance d’établir leur identité, d’être examinés par un Comité de surveillance et, dans la plupart des cas, d’être relâchés. Ceux qui restent à Guantanamo ont été contrôlés et, finalement, devront faire face à une forme quelconque de procédure judiciaire. Ceux qui ont été tués par des frappes de drones, quels qu’ils aient été, ont disparu. Un point c’est tout. Kurt Volker
L’abolition est due au grand réveil religieux: sous l’impulsion des pasteurs, des centaines de milliers d’Anglais signent des pétitions contre l’esclavage. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau (…) Le système esclavagiste était rentable et il aurait pu s’adapter à la nouvelle période. On a même calculé que la productivité d’un esclave pouvait être équivalente, voire supérieure, à celle d’un salarié. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau
La traite n’avait pas pour but d’exterminer un peuple. L’esclave était un bien qui avait une valeur marchande qu’on voulait faire travailler le plus possible. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau
« Cargaison » précieuse face au risque financier que prenait l’armateur, leurs conditions de détention s’améliorèrent au cours des siècles, leur taux de mortalité étant de 10 % à 20 %, avec des pics à 40 %. Pour les historiens, l’estimation la plus probable s’établit à 13 % sur les quatre siècles que dure la traite alors que la mortalité moyenne d’un équipage était tout juste inférieure. Wikipedia
On dispose de peu d’éléments sur le nombre de captifs décédés sur le sol africain. (…) Raymond L. Cohn, un professeur d’économie dont les recherches sont centrées sur l’histoire économique et les migrations internationales estime que 20 à 40 % des captifs mouraient au cours de leur transport à marche forcée vers la côte, et que 3 à 10 % disparaissaient en y attendant les navires négriers. On arrive à un total compris entre 23 et 50 %. (…) À la fin du XVIIIe siècle, en Guadeloupe, le taux de mortalité des esclaves oscillait entre 30 et 50 pour mille. En métropole, le taux de mortalité était compris entre 30 et 38 pour mille. (…) Pour les négriers nantais, la mortalité moyenne était de 17,8 %. Il ne s’agit que d’une moyenne. Certaines traversées pouvaient se faire sans aucun décès tandis que d’autres pouvaient enregistrer une mortalité de 80 % voire davantage. Wikipedia
Pour le XVIe siècle, le nombre des esclaves chrétiens razziés par les musulmans est supérieur à celui des Africains déportés aux Amériques. Il est vrai que la traite des Noirs ne prendra vraiment son essor qu’à la fin du XVIIe siècle, avec la révolution sucrière dans les Antilles. Mais, selon Davis, il y aurait eu environ un million de Blancs chrétiens réduits en esclavage par les barbaresques entre 1530 et 1780. Mais il ne faut pas se focaliser sur la question des chiffres, afin d’établir une sorte d’échelle de Richter des esclavages. Ce que le travail de Davis permet d’affirmer, c’est que cet esclavage des chrétiens entre le XVIe et le XVIIIe siècle renvoie à une réalité non négligeable. Rien de plus. S’il est resté pour une large part ignoré, c’est qu’il n’a pas laissé beaucoup de traces. Les esclaves blancs étaient en effet principalement, à 90%, des hommes, qui ne faisaient pas souche en terre d’Islam, à l’inverse des Africains aux Amériques. C’est aussi que le questionnement est souvent premier en histoire (on se pose des questions, puis l’on recherche les sources permettant éventuellement d’y répondre) et que cet esclavage n’a pas beaucoup intéressé les historiens. (…) Il est différent à plusieurs titres. Tout d’abord, cet esclavage ne répond pas à la même logique. Au départ, les barbaresques se livrent à des opérations de course et de piraterie sur les côtes de la Méditerranée, comme c’est l’usage chez certains peuples marins depuis la plus Haute Antiquité. On avait pris l’habitude depuis l’époque byzantine de rédiger des traités prévoyant l’échange réciproque d’esclaves. Puis, les chrétiens se mobilisant pour «racheter» leurs proches tombés en esclavage, l’affaire devint plus rentable pour les razzieurs. C’est paradoxalement cette perspective financière qui accentua les raids musulmans à partir du XVIe siècle. En devenant directement et assez facilement monnayables, les esclaves devinrent des proies plus séduisantes que les navires ou les cargaisons. Les barbaresques se mirent alors à multiplier leurs razzias sur les côtes de la Méditerranée, notamment en Italie du Sud. Dans le cas de la traite transatlantique, l’esclavage répondait à un autre but : fournir une main-d’oeuvre bon marché aux colonies. Les Noirs ne pouvaient être rachetés mais seulement – rarement – se racheter eux-mêmes. Ils firent souche en Amérique, ce qui ne fut jamais le cas des chrétiens. (…) On ne devrait pas en effet parler d’une «traite» des Blancs car les musulmans cherchaient de l’argent plus ou moins rapidement, ils ne se sont pas livrés à un trafic de main-d’oeuvre. Au bout de quelques années, les esclaves chrétiens étaient soit rachetés et ils rentraient chez eux, ou ils disparaissaient. Le taux de mortalité était assez fort. Autour de 15%, selon Davis. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau
A la différence de l’islam, le christianisme n’a pas entériné l’esclavage. Mais, comme il ne comportait aucune règle d’organisation sociale, il ne l’a pas non plus interdit. Pourtant, l’idée d’une égalité de tous les hommes en Dieu dont était porteur le christianisme a joué contre l’esclavage, qui disparaît de France avant l’an mil. Cependant, il ressurgit au XVIIe siècle aux Antilles françaises, bien que la législation royale y prescrive l’emploi d’une main-d’oeuvre libre venue de France. L’importation des premiers esclaves noirs, achetés à des Hollandais, se fait illégalement. (…) Le mouvement part d’Angleterre, le pays qui a déporté au XVIIIe siècle le plus de Noirs vers l’Amérique. La force du mouvement abolitionniste anglais repose principalement sur la prédication des pasteurs évangélistes. Il en résulte une interdiction de la traite par l’Angleterre (1806) et les autres puissances occidentales (France, 1817), puis une abolition de l’esclavage lui-même dans les colonies anglaises (1833) et françaises (1848). Décidée par l’Europe, la suppression de la traite atlantique est imposée par elle aux Etats pourvoyeurs d’esclaves de l’Afrique occidentale. (…) Cependant, rien de pareil n’a eu lieu dans le monde musulman. L’esclavage étant prévu par l’islam, il eût été impie de le remettre en cause. Aussi, l’autre grande forme de la traite vers l’Afrique du Nord et le Moyen-Orient continua de plus belle au XIXe siècle, qui correspondit à son apogée. Et, parallèlement, des Européens continuaient d’être razziés en Méditerranée et réduits en esclavage à Alger, Oran, Tunis ou Salé (Rabat). D’où l’expédition de 1830 à Alger. Finalement, ce fut la colonisation qui mit presque entièrement fin à la traite musulmane. Jean-Louis Harouel
How likely is it that the chief White House butler not only witnessed his mother raped and his father murdered by a plantation owner’s racist son but also had an intermittently estranged son of his own who became, first, one of the Fisk University student heroes of the Nashville lunch-counter sit-ins; second, one of the original Freedom Riders; third, so close an aide to King that he was in the Memphis motel room with Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson when King was assassinated; fourth, a beret-wearing Black Panther in Oakland; fifth, an unsuccessful candidate for Congress; sixth, a leader of the South Africa divestment movement; and, seventh, a successful candidate for Congress? Hendrik Hertzberg
The Butler is fiction, although its audience may assume otherwise. Those cagey words “inspired by a true story” can be deceptive. The script was triggered by Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article “A Butler Well Served by This Election.” Published after Obama’s landmark victory, and later spun into a book, it unearthed the story of former White House butler Eugene Allen, who served American presidents for 34 years. But screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s Game Change) has created a fictional butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), whose life mirrors the drama of the civil rights movement with cut-glass symmetry. Straining to serve an overcharged agenda, The Butler is a broadly entertaining, bluntly inspirational history lesson wrapped around a family saga that gives new resonance to the term “domestic drama.” Director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) is not known for subtlety, and this movie is no exception. But at the heart of its sprawling narrative, he has corralled some fine performances. Whitaker navigates gracefully between his public and private personae—White House butlers he says, have two faces: their own “and the ones we got to show the white man.” As Cecil stoically weathers the upheavals of history, and his splintered family, we can feel him being gradually crushed under the weight of his own quiet dignity, yet mustering shy increments of resistance over the decades. Between his role as a virtually mute servant/sage in the White House and a beleaguered patriarch trying to hold together his middle-class family, this a character with a lot on his plate. The story’s long march begins with Cecil’s boyhood on a cotton plantation in the South in 1926, where he sees his father shot dead in a field for looking the wrong way at a white man. Cecil is adopted by a thin-lipped matriarch who tells him, “I’m going to teach you how to be a house nigger.” Which sounds strange coming from the mouth of Vanessa Redgrave. The term “house nigger,” and the n-word in general, recurs again and again, shocking us each time, and never letting us forget that there’s no higher house than the White House. A model of shrewd obedience, Cecil learns to make the perfect martini, to be invisible in a room, and to overhear affairs of estate in stony silence—unless asked for his opinion, which he’ll pretend to offer with a wry, Delphic diplomacy that makes the questioner feel validated. The script goes out of its way to ennoble Cecil’s work, plucking a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. —”the black domestic defies racial stereotyping by being hardworking and trustworthy … though subservient, they are subversive without even knowing it.” The Uncle Tom issue is front and centre, especially in Cecil’s feud with his radicalized son Louis (David Oyelowo), who rejects his father as a race traitor. The conflict comes to a head amid a family debate about the merits of Sidney Poitier, a legendary actor brashly dismissed by Louis as “a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be.” The fondly nostalgic references to In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may fly over the heads of younger viewers. But it’s a lovely scene, mixing rancour and wit and a deft touch. Although this is a movie on a mission, it does have a sense of humour. When Cecil’s eldest son, shows up to dinner in his Black Panther beret and black leather, with a girlfriend sporting a vast Angela Davis Afro, it’s pure caricature as Daniels presents a whole other take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, played as both drama and farce. Brian D. Johnson
The best aspect about America is its egalitarianism. The country respects and rewards the talented and the sincere. And despite serious racial issues, we saw America electing a black President, creating history. And as Hollywood runs up to the Academy Awards on March 2, one of the questions is, will Steve McQueen be the first black director to win the Oscar. Interestingly, his 12 Years A Slave is all about the struggle of one black man to escape humiliating captivity he faces in the white man’s den. At the moment, McQueen – though with an emotionally engaging film behind him – is not the favourite to walk away with the best director statuette. But if he does, he would be the first black helmer to actually clinch this Oscar, although there have been two other black directors who were nominated in the past. One of them was John Singleton for the 1992 Boyz n the Hood, and the other was Lee Daniels in 2009 for Precious. McQueen’s win could be as historic as Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 triumph with The Hurt Locker. She was the first woman director to have won the best director Oscar. In a way, McQueen’s nomination comes in a year when black moviemakers have done exceedingly well. Fruitvale Station – about a real incident where a black teenager was killed by the police in Oakland — got the big prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And works like 42 (the black baseball player, Jackie Robinson biopic) and The Butler (probing the African American role in U.S. history) have been, along with 12 Years A Slave, lauded by critics. On top of this, Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been talking about lack of diversity in the race for the Oscars. The Hindustan Times
Cheryl Boone Isaacs … est la première Afro-américaine à prendre la direction de la prestigieuse Académie des Arts et des Sciences du Cinéma à Hollywood, et la troisième femme choisie pour le job. Cheryl Boone Isaacs vient d’être élue au poste suprême du comité des Oscars. Gala
12 Years a Slave a définitivement enterré Le Majordome L’une des surprises des Oscars 2014, c’est l’absence du Majordome qui n’a donc aucune nomination. Eliminé des Golden Globes, on pouvait encore imaginer que le film de Lee Daniels soit présent dans la course aux Oscars. Raté. Le Majordome est peut-être sorti trop tôt (en août aux USA) et surtout, il s’est fait enterrer par le drame de Steve McQueen. Sur un sujet proche (l’esclavage et le combat pour les droits civiques), la fresque de Lee Daniels semble bien sage face au déchaînement de violence, de conscience et de surcinéma du film de McQueen. Avec son sujet édifiant, ses performances intenses et sa mise en scène puissante, 12 Years a Slave a le profil type du « film à Oscars ». Mais on sait que certains votants risquent d’être rebutés par sa violence. Finalement, Lee Daniels aurait été un bon compromis avec ses prestations moins agressives et ses stars plus facilement oscarisables (Oprah Winfrey, ignoré pour son retour au ciné après Beloved et quinze ans d’absence, et surtout Forest Whitaker). Première
Avec ce grand spectacle typiquement hollywoodien (les oscars vont pleuvoir !), le cinéaste réussit l’osmose délicate entre le film commercial et le cinéma d’auteur. Depuis Hunger, par exemple, on sait qu’à l’instar de Theo Angelopoulos ou Andreï Tarkovski il adore les plans fixes démesurément étirés, mais calculés à la seconde près, qui créent une réalité parallèle, plus vraie que la vraie. On en a plusieurs ici, dont celui, totalement incongru dans un film américain, où le héros, lynché, est suspendu à une corde, ses pieds touchant le sol par intermittence. Il attend. Il entend des enfants jouer et rire au loin. La durée même de cette séquence magnifique fait naître la peur. On dirait un suspense à la Hitchcock… Question sadisme, Steve McQueen est un orfèvre : dans Hunger, on le sentait radieux de détailler, une à une, les plaies sur le corps meurtri de Michael Fassbender. Il ne semble pas mécontent, ici, de filmer un à un les coups de fouet reçus par la bien-aimée du frustré. Mais curieusement, ce pointillisme lui permet, à chaque film, de fuir le réalisme. Son art repose sur l’artifice. Sous sa caméra, le destin de Solomon Northup n’est plus un fait divers, mais une abstraction lyrique. Presque un opéra. Télérama
Je peux dire que j’aimé ce film. Bien sur il est très didactique et manichéen ( les gentils blancs du nord, le héros Brad Pitt quand même très gonflé de se donner le rôle du sauveur en tant que producteur du film!!!!) mais c est un film qui reste très fort , tres beau et plein d humanités , avec une belle réalisation , de bons acteurs, une lenteur assumée et salutaire . L intérêt de ce film pour moi est surtout que j y ai emmené ma fille de 14 ans et qu elle a beaucoup aimé. Ce genre de film est un bon rappel de ce dont est capable l humanité lorsqu il n y a pas d égalité entre les gens, lorsque les lois permettent à certains de se croire supérieur , nul est à l abris de devenir un bourreau lorsque l on le laisse faire !!! Cela paraît évident mais dans un contexte mondial de montée des intolérances , du racisme, dans un pays Côme la France où certains trouvent comique de comparer une ministre à une guenon , je pense malheureusement que ce film à encore un rôle à jouer!!! Un film scolaire disent certains, c est vrai! A faire voire au scolaire!! Oui Paulineeliane | 21/02/2014 à 11h51
Difficile de trouver plus contradictoire que Django Unchained de Quentin Tarantino et 12 Years A Slave de Steve McQueen : les deux films – dans lesquels figurent d’ailleurs Brad Pitt et Michael Fassbender – revisitent la même histoire sombre (l’esclavagisme) avec une approche si différente qu’ils se révèlent complémentaires. Autrement dit, ici, chez Steve McQueen, on n’est pas venu pour rire. Chose que l’on savait déjà pour avoir vu ses précédents films, Hunger et Shame qui avaient autant à voir avec des spectacles de Florence Foresti que Véronique Sanson avec un groupe de métal allemand. (…) Comme dans Hunger et Shame, qui parlaient d’oppression et de claustration – l’univers carcéral pour le premier, l’addition sexuelle pour le second -, la mise en scène de Steve McQueen se révèle aussi virtuose que discutable comme lors de ce plan-séquence qui semble durer une vie et qui nous rapproche de la mort. On y voit Solomon pendu à une corde, sur la pointe des pieds, pataugeant dans la boue pour éviter l’asphyxie. McQueen obtient sur la durée un vrai malaise. Tout circule, tout y est montré, dénoncé : le voyeurisme, la passivité, l’indifférence, l’exploitation, l’obscénité, la cruauté ordinaire etc. On est bien loin de la fresque académique, policée. Et, en même temps, il y a un tour de force ostentatoire, une volonté de s’afficher en grand cinéaste rétif aux normes et aux conventions, au-dessus de ce qu’il doit filmer. Steve McQueen avoue dans le dossier de presse : « Je ne voulais pas minimiser ce qui lui est arrivé. Il ne s’agit pas de choquer les gens – cela ne m’intéresse pas -, mais il s’agit de faire preuve de responsabilité face à cette histoire. » TF1
Fidèle à ses motifs favoris, le dolorisme et l’incarcération, physique ou mentale (l’agonie de l’activiste irlandais Bobby Sands dans Hunger, l’aliénation au sexe dans Shame), McQueen concentre son propos sur la réalité crue des sévices dont étaient quotidiennement victimes des millions d’individus. Passages à tabac, viols, tortures, assassinats ou travail forcé entraînant la mort, séparation des familles, humiliation permanente sans oublier le maintien systématique dans l’analphabétisme. Le cinéaste joue sur toute la gamme de la révulsion, alternant chocs brutaux (long plan séquence d’une flagellation) et insoutenable immobilisme (scène de pendaison où, tandis que l’homme agonise en se hissant sur les orteils, une normalité écœurante bourdonne autour de lui). Toutefois, McQueen a pris le parti de faire de cette addition d’horreurs l’exclusif argument de son réquisitoire. Cette virulence rageuse finit par occulter involontairement une dimension essentielle. L’ignominie de l’esclavage est tout entière contenue dans son caractère institutionnel, dans le fait qu’il répondait à des besoins économiques précis. Le droit des planteurs à disposer des individus à leur guise, pour se remplir les poches ou pour assouvir leurs pires pulsions, en est la conséquence. Or, représenter les esclavagistes comme des sadiques compulsifs (Michael Fassbender en roue libre) revient à faire le procès de l’anomalie, d’une folie sanguinaire dont cette institution a toléré l’existence. Comme si la dénonciation de la mécanique d’un système abominable ne suffisait pas, et que pour susciter l’émotion – une vertu américaine -, il fallait renoncer à pointer du doigt la source du mal pour n’en montrer que les effets pervers. Libération
12 Years a Slave uses sadistic art to patronize history Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history in 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the 1853 American slave narrative by Solomon Northup, who claims that in 1841, away from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he was kidnapped and taken South where he was sold into hellish servitude and dehumanizing cruelty. 12-years-a-slave-filmFor McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events. With Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen chronicles the conscious sufferance of unrelenting physical and psychological pain. A methodically measured narrative slowly advances through Northup’s years of captivity, showcasing various injustices that drive home the terrors Black Africans experienced in the U.S. during what’s been called “the peculiar institution.” Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend “a conversation about race.” (…) For commercial distributor Fox Searchlight, 12 Years a Slave appears at an opportune moment when film culture–five years into the Obama administration–indulges stories about Black victimization such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice. (What promoter Harvey Weinstein has called “The Obama Effect.”) This is not part of social or historical enlightenment–the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement. But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspects of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban “sexual addiction” in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity. (…) It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience. McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ cast of existential victims won’t do. Northup-renamed-Platt and especially the weeping mother Liza (Adepero Oduye) and multiply-abused Patsey (Lupita Nyong‘o), are human whipping posts–beaten, humiliated, raped for our delectation just like Hirst’s cut-up equine. (…) These tortures might satisfy the resentment some Black people feel about slave stories (“It makes me angry”), further aggravating their sense of helplessness, grievance–and martyrdom. It’s the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of The Help and The Butler. And the perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like 12 Years a Slave to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history. But, as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. The fact that McQueen’s harshness was trending among Festivalgoers (in Toronto, Telluride and New York) suggests that denial still obscures the history of slavery: Northup’s travail merely makes it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad (as wags complained about Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an “official” Holocaust movie–which very few people wanted to see twice). McQueen’s fraudulence further accustoms moviegoers to violence and brutality.The very artsiness of 12 Years a Slave is part of its offense. The clear, classical imagery embarrasses Quentin Tarantino’s attempt at visual poetry in Django Unchained yet this “clarity” (like Hans Zimmer’s effective percussion score) is ultimately depressing. McQueen uses that art staple “duration” to prolong North’s lynching on tiptoe and later, in endless, tearful anticipation; emphasis on a hot furnace and roiling waves adds nature’s discomfort; an ugly close-up of a cotton worm symbolizes drudgery; a slave chant (“Run, Nigger, Run,”) contrasts ineffectual Bible-reading; and a shot of North’s handwritten plea burns to embers. But good art doesn’t work this way. Art elates and edifies–one might even prefer Q.T.’s jokey ridiculousness in Django Unchained, a different kind of sadism. (…) Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it. Armand White
As is the case with “Django Unchained”, McQueen’s film is a vehicle for his preoccupations. With Tarantino, these primarily revolve around revenge, a theme common to so many of the Hong Kong gangster or samurai movies that he has absorbed. For McQueen, the chief interest is in depicting pain with some of the most dramatic scenes involving whippings and other forms of punishment. I was expecting the worst after seeing McQueen’s “Hunger”, a film about the Provo IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands that was more about bedsores and beatings than politics. Thankfully, the latest film is a lot more restrained than I had expected but still mostly focused on the physical torments of being a slave. I found myself wondering if the casting of Sarah Paulson as the sadistic wife of a sadistic plantation owner was deliberate since she is part of the company of actors featured on “American Horror Story”, the AMC cable TV show that pushes the envelope in terms of graphic scenes of torture, dismemberment, etc. This season Paulson is playing a witch, as part of a series on Black witches taking revenge on their white witch enemies who had tormented them during slavery. I half expected Paulson’s character to stick a pin in a Solomon Northup voodoo doll. While one cannot gainsay the importance of Solomon Northup’s memoir that was used by the abolitionist movement in the same way that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was, I have to wonder whether McQueen’s film was hampered by a story that was essentially one-dimensional. If you take the opportunity to read “12 Years a Slave” , you will be struck by the underdeveloped relationships between Northup and other characters. Both Parks and McQueen take liberties with the memoir to flesh out the film with such relationships but there is still something missing. In the memoir and in the films, there is never any sense of the emotional pain of being separated from your family—something that cuts far deeper than a whip. Louis Proyect
When the abolitionists invited an ex-slave to tell his story of experience in slavery to an antislavery convention, and when they subsequently sponsored the appearance of that story in print, they had certain clear expectations, well understood by themselves and well understood by the ex-slave, too. (…) We may think it pretty fine writing and awfully literary, but the fine writer is clearly David Wilson rather than Solomon Northup. (…) The dedication, like the pervasive style, calls into serious question the status of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ as autobiography and/or literature. James Olney
The prominent New York politician and abolitionist, Henry Northup, sensed an opportunity. Henry had helped Solomon escape from Louisiana, and as a descendant of the family that originally owned Solomon’s ancestors, perhaps felt personally responsible for him as well. But Henry was also a politician with an agenda. He wanted to promote the abolitionist cause and gain media attention for a lawsuit he hoped to file against Solomon’s kidnappers. Put simply, the book was written “with a purpose,” as the historian Ira Berlin puts it in his introduction to the new Penguin edition. (The media strategy worked, though only partially: The kidnappers were soon arrested but acquitted four years later after the media had moved on.) Perhaps more cynically, some people wanted to cash in on Northup’s story. Henry asked a lawyer and fledging poet, David Wilson, if he’d be willing to interview Solomon and turn his story into a book. Though a respected legal figure, the 32-year-old Wilson had little success as a writer and jumped at the chance. Thus, “12 Years a Slave” wasn’t even written by Solomon Northup but by a white amanuensis. Eric Herschthal
There were four million slaves in the U.S. in 1860 and several hundred thousand slave owners. It wasn’t just a homogeneous system. It had every kind of human variation you can imagine. There were black plantation owners in Louisiana, black slave owners. (…) Remember, this book is one of the most remarkable first-person accounts of slavery. But it’s also a piece of propaganda. It’s written to persuade people that slavery needs to be abolished. He doesn’t say anything about sexual relations he may have had as a slave. There’s no place for such a discussion because of the purpose of the book. (…) Harriet Jacobs was condemned by many people for revealing this, even antislavery people. (…) Obviously, it wasn’t a best seller. Maybe it will be now. But it’s widely known. It’s used all over the place in history courses. Along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, this is probably the most widely read of what we call the slave narratives. (…) The daddy, I suppose, of all this was “Glory,” which came out in the late ‘80s. “Roots,” of course, comes before that. All of them suffer from what I see as the problem of Hollywood history. Even in this movie, there’s a tendency toward: You’ve got to have one hero or one figure. That’s why historians tend to be a little skeptical about Hollywood history, because you lose the sense of group or mass. (…) I think this movie is much more real, to choose a word like that, than most of the history you see in the cinema. It gets you into the real world of slavery. That’s not easy to do. Also, there are little touches that are very revealing, like a flashback where a slave walks into a shop in Saratoga. Yes, absolutely, Southerners brought slaves into New York State. People went on vacation, and they brought a slave. Foner
La Seconde Guerre mondiale a duré cinq ans, mais il y a des centaines et des centaines de films sur cette guerre et sur l’Holocauste. L’esclavage a duré quatre siècles, mais moins de 20 films y sont consacrés. Steve McQueen
I am British. My parents are from Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother comes from. Stokely Carmichael is Trinidadian. We could go on and on. It’s about that diaspora. (…) I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now. (…) I think people are ready. With Trayvon Martin, voting rights, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a black president, I think there’s a sort of perfect storm of events. I think people actually want to reflect on that horrendous recent past in order to go forward. Steve McQueen
When I was in Savannah, Ga., they were telling me how they used to have special chains for the Igbos [a Nigerian ethnic group]. I told the man, “I’m Igbo.” Not having any sense of the internationalism of this event is a bad thing. I loved the fact that there were people from different places coming together to tell this story. Chiwetel Ejiofor
We’re talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy. What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work’s purposes. Isaac Butler
This is a minor point, but I felt the film possibly over-emphasised Solomon Northup’s social standing in New York state prior to his enslavement. In the film, Northup appears as a wealthy, successful individual, making a good living as a carpenter and musician. He wears smart clothes and appears to live in a tolerant, racially integrated community where skin colour does not matter. But in reality, Northern black people were everyday victims of white racism and discrimination, and in the free states of the North, black people were typically the ‘last hired and first fired’. Notably, in his autobiography Northup himself describes the everyday “obstacle of color” in his life prior to his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement. Nevertheless, I can understand why the filmmakers wanted to present a strong juxtaposition between Northup’s life as a free man in the North and the physical and mental trauma he endured while enslaved in the South. Emma McFarnon
At the beginning of 12 Years a Slave, the kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has a painful sexual encounter with an unnamed female slave in which she uses his hand to bring herself to orgasm before turning away in tears. The woman’s desperation, Solomon’s reserve, and the fierce sadness of both, is depicted with an unflinching still camera which documents a moment of human contact and bitter comfort in the face of slavery’s systematic dehumanization. (…) And yet, for all its verisimilitude, the encounter never happened. It appears nowhere in Northup’s autobiography, and it’s likely he would be horrified at the suggestion that he was anything less than absolutely faithful to his wife. Director Steve McQueen has said that he included the sexual encounter to show « a bit of tenderness … Then after she’s climaxes, she’s back … in hell. » The sequence is an effort to present nuance and psychological depth — to make the film’s depiction of slavery seem more real. But it creates that psychological truth by interpolating an incident that isn’t factually true. This embellishment is by no means an isolated case in the film. For instance, in the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face—slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing. Northup himself contracted the disease, permanently scarring his face. It seems likely, therefore, that in this instance the original text was abandoned so that Ejiofor’s beautiful, expressive, haunting features would not go through the entire movie covered with artificial Hollywood scar make-up. Instead of faithfulness to the text, the film chooses faithfulness to Ejiofor’s face, unaltered by trickery. Other changes seem less intentional. Perhaps the most striking scene in the film involves Patsey, a slave who is repeatedly raped by her master, Epps, and who as a consequence is jealously and obsessively brutalized by Mistress Epps. In the movie version, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) comes to Northup in the middle of the night and begs him, in vivid horrific detail, to drown her in the swamp and release her from her troubles. (…) in the book, it is Mistress Epps who wants to bribe Northup to drown Patsey. Patsey wants to escape, but not to drown herself. The film seems to have misread the line, attributing the mistress’s desires to Patsey. (…) In short, it seems quite likely that the single most powerful moment in the film was based on a misunderstood antecedent. (…) Often published by abolitionist presses or in explicit support of the abolitionist cause, slave narratives represented themselves as accurate, first-person accounts of life under slavery. Yet, as University of North Carolina professor William Andrews has discussed in To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, the representation of accuracy, and, for that matter, of first-person account, required a good deal of artifice. To single out just the most obvious point, Andrews notes that many slave narratives were told to editors, who wrote down the oral account and prepared them for publication. Andrews concludes that « It would be naïve to accord dictated oral narratives the same discursive status as autobiographies composed and written by the subjects of the stories themselves. » 12 Years a Slave is just such an oral account. Though Northup was literate, his autobiography was written by David Wilson, a white lawyer and state legislator from Glens Falls, New York. While the incidents in Northup’s life have been corroborated by legal documents and much research, Andrews points out that the impact of the autobiography—its sense of truth—is actually based in no small part on the fact that it is not told by Northup, but by Wilson, who had already written two books of local history. Because he was experienced, Andrews says, Wilson’s « fictionalizing … does not call attention to itself so much » as other slave narratives, which tend to be steeped in a sentimental tradition « that often discomfits and annoys 20th-century critics. » Northup’s autobiography feels less like fiction, in other words, because its writer is so experienced with fiction. Similarly, McQueen’s film feels true because it is so good at manipulating our sense of accuracy. The first sex scene, for example, speaks to our post-Freud, post-sexual-revolution belief that, isolated for 12 years far from home, Northup would be bound to have some sort of sexual encounters, even if (especially if?) he does not discuss them in his autobiography. The difference between book and movie, then, isn’t that one is true and the other false, but rather that the tropes and tactics they use to create a feeling of truth are different. The autobiography, for instance, actually includes many legal documents as appendices. It also features lengthy descriptions of the methods of cotton farming. No doubt this dispassionate, minute accounting of detail was meant to show Northup’s knowledge of the regions where he stayed, and so validate the truth of his account. To modern readers, though, the touristy attention to local customs can make Northup sound more like a traveling reporter than like a man who is himself in bondage. Some anthropological asides are even more jarring; in one case, Northup refers to a slave rebel named Lew Cheney as « a shrewd, cunning negro, more intelligent than the generality of his race. » That description would sound condescending and prejudiced if a white man wrote it. Which, of course, a white man named David Wilson did. A story about slavery, a real, horrible crime, inevitably involves an appeal to reality—the story has to seem accurate if it is to be accepted as true. But that seeming accuracy requires artifice and fiction—a cool distance in one case, an acknowledgement of sexuality in another. And then, even with the best will in the world, there are bound to be mistakes and discrepancies, as with Mistress Epps’s plea for murder transforming into Patsey’s wish for death. Given the difficulties and contradictions, one might conclude that it would be better to openly acknowledge fiction. From this perspective, Django Unchained, which deliberately treats slavery as genre, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which acknowledges the role of the present in shaping the past through a fantasy time-travel narrative, are, more true than 12 Years a Slave or Glory precisely because they do not make a claim to historical accuracy. But refusing to try to recapture the experience and instead deciding to, say, treat slavery as a genre Western, can be presumptuous in its own way as well. The writers of the original slave narratives knew that to end injustice, you must first acknowledge that injustice exists. Accurate stories about slavery—or, more precisely, stories that carried the conviction of accuracy, were vital to the abolitionist cause. And, for that matter, they’re still vital. Outright lies about slavery and its aftermath, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind, have defaced American cinema for a long time. To go forward more honestly, we need accounts of our past that, like the slave narratives themselves, use accuracy and art in the interest of being more true. That’s what McQueen, Ejiofor, and the rest of the cast and crew are trying to do in 12 Years a Slave. Pointing out the complexity of the task is not meant to belittle their attempt, but to honor it. Noah Berlatsky
Oncle Tom ou les infortunes de la vertu ?
Réalisateur plasticien d’avant garde britannique récemment venu au cinéma avec deux films célébrant le martyre des prisonniers de l’IRA en grève de la faim (« Hunger« ) et les joies tristes de l’addiction à la pornographie (« Shame« ), radicalité et sauvagerie digne des meilleures installations ou vidéos d’avant-garde (masturbation à deux, flagellations esquisement dolorisantes à la Mel Gibson, viol en plan jouissivement subjectif, pendaison lente à souhait), film tournant rapidement entre morceaux de bravoure et interminables plans séquences au concours de sévices, adaptation du même titre d’une célèbre histoire d’esclave en fuite (Douze ans d’esclavage, brûlot abolitionniste écrit en fait par un avocat blanc (un certain David Wilson) un an après et avec le même succès que La Case de l’Oncle Tom), infortuné héros passant d’une improbable bourgeoisie à un monde de dégénérés où l’on massacre au moindre caprice des hommes et des femmes qu’il avait alors coûté une petite fortune de faire venir d’Afrique, étiquette de rigueur « inspirée d’une histoire vraie », dérision systématique du christianisme sans lequel il n’y aurait pas eu d’abolition, omerta systématique des fournisseurs africains et arabes de la traite sans parler des razzias en Europe, réalisateur et acteurs d’origine africaine ou habitués des films d’horreur ou de perversion, brève et ultime caution de l’acteur-producteur Brad Pitt en sauveur venu de nulle part, nouvelle présidente noire des oscars …
Alors qu’avec la pluie de récompenses qui, à une semaine d’oscars pour la première fois dirigés par une personne de couleur, continue à pleuvoir sur le chef d’oeuvre absolu sur l’esclavage que nous ont annoncé les critiques, la pression monte sur Hollywood pour consacrer le premier réalisateur noir de l’histoire …
Et qu’un an après après les deux oscars du western spaghetti de l’esclavage de Tarantino (et deux des mêmes acteurs: Pitt et Fassbender), le pauvre « Majordome » n’a toujours pas récolté la moindre nomination …
L’ultime effet de la présidence d’un homme qui, dès avant même sa prise de fonction, avait non seulement déjà donné au monde le prix Nobel de la paix le plus rapide de l’histoire …
McQueen résume l’esclavage américain à un concours de sévices.
21 janvier 2014
En un peu plus d’un an, le cinéma américain aura donc produit trois films de grande envergure consacrés à ce pan d’histoire toujours incandescent qu’est la monstruosité de l’esclavage : Django Unchained de Quentin Tarantino, Lincoln de Steven Spielberg et, enfin, 12 Years a Slave de Steve McQueen. Un curieux triptyque, hétérogène et discordant, mais dont la proximité tient davantage du symptôme que de la coïncidence, comme pour souligner que la question est loin d’être réglée dans le pays dont Barack Obama est le président depuis cinq ans.
Cible. Cette lacune mémorielle relève, du moins dans la représentation populaire qui en a été faite, de l’évidence. Depuis près d’un siècle, en gros depuis le révisionniste Naissance d’une nation de David Wark Griffith, et même en comptant le très aimable Autant en emporte le vent et l’Esclave libre de Raoul Walsh, le cinéma s’obstine à regarder ailleurs, vouant à l’oubli, voire au déni, cette honte nationale, contrairement au génocide indien, l’autre péché originel de l’Amérique.
La liste est longue des événements et des personnalités dont l’industrie s’est toujours pudiquement détournée, depuis les grandes révoltes d’esclaves en Virginie ou en Louisiane (Nat Turner, Charles Deslondes, Denmark Vesey…) jusqu’aux pionniers de l’abolitionnisme dont Frederick Douglass, premier homme politique noir américain. Steve McQueen a d’ailleurs parfaitement résumé le contexte dans une interview au Guardian : «Hollywood a fait plus de films sur les esclaves romains que sur les esclaves américains.»
C’est donc probablement avec le désir de pulvériser un des derniers tabous du cinéma que le réalisateur britannique s’est lancé dans le projet, mettant tant de force dans ses coups qu’il a pris le risque de manquer sa cible. Il a adapté le livre de Solomon Northup, charpentier et musicien noir de l’Etat de New York, kidnappé et vendu en 1841 par deux escrocs. Miraculeusement sauvé en 1853, l’homme a passé le reste de son existence à raconter le calvaire de ces douze années de captivité dans des plantations de Louisiane où il fut la victime et le témoin de l’atroce condition des esclaves.
Fidèle à ses motifs favoris, le dolorisme et l’incarcération, physique ou mentale (l’agonie de l’activiste irlandais Bobby Sands dans Hunger, l’aliénation au sexe dans Shame), McQueen concentre son propos sur la réalité crue des sévices dont étaient quotidiennement victimes des millions d’individus. Passages à tabac, viols, tortures, assassinats ou travail forcé entraînant la mort, séparation des familles, humiliation permanente sans oublier le maintien systématique dans l’analphabétisme. Le cinéaste joue sur toute la gamme de la révulsion, alternant chocs brutaux (long plan séquence d’une flagellation) et insoutenable immobilisme (scène de pendaison où, tandis que l’homme agonise en se hissant sur les orteils, une normalité écœurante bourdonne autour de lui).
Toutefois, McQueen a pris le parti de faire de cette addition d’horreurs l’exclusif argument de son réquisitoire. Cette virulence rageuse finit par occulter involontairement une dimension essentielle. L’ignominie de l’esclavage est tout entière contenue dans son caractère institutionnel, dans le fait qu’il répondait à des besoins économiques précis. Le droit des planteurs à disposer des individus à leur guise, pour se remplir les poches ou pour assouvir leurs pires pulsions, en est la conséquence.
Or, représenter les esclavagistes comme des sadiques compulsifs (Michael Fassbender en roue libre) revient à faire le procès de l’anomalie, d’une folie sanguinaire dont cette institution a toléré l’existence. Comme si la dénonciation de la mécanique d’un système abominable ne suffisait pas, et que pour susciter l’émotion – une vertu américaine -, il fallait renoncer à pointer du doigt la source du mal pour n’en montrer que les effets pervers.
05 décembre 2013
Les États-Unis, quelques années avant la guerre de Sécession. Solomon Northup, jeune homme noir originaire de l’État de New York, est enlevé et vendu comme esclave. Face à la cruauté d’un propriétaire de plantation de coton, Solomon se bat pour rester en vie et garder sa dignité. Douze ans plus tard, il va croiser un abolitionniste canadien et cette rencontre va changer sa vie…
La critique : Puissant mais forcément douteux.
Difficile de trouver plus contradictoire que Django Unchained de Quentin Tarantino et 12 Years A Slave de Steve McQueen : les deux films – dans lesquels figurent d’ailleurs Brad Pitt et Michael Fassbender – revisitent la même histoire sombre (l’esclavagisme) avec une approche si différente qu’ils se révèlent complémentaires. Autrement dit, ici, chez Steve McQueen, on n’est pas venu pour rire. Chose que l’on savait déjà pour avoir vu ses précédents films, Hunger et Shame qui avaient autant à voir avec des spectacles de Florence Foresti que Véronique Sanson avec un groupe de métal allemand.
En effet, le parcours de Solomon Northup, soutenu par l’interprétation émotionnelle de Chiwetel Ejiofor, mari et père de famille riche, vivant dans un état de New York, drogué, kidnappé puis réduit à travailler comme esclave dans des champs de coton en Louisiane, met sens dessus dessous. Comme dans Hunger et Shame, qui parlaient d’oppression et de claustration – l’univers carcéral pour le premier, l’addition sexuelle pour le second -, la mise en scène de Steve McQueen se révèle aussi virtuose que discutable comme lors de ce plan-séquence qui semble durer une vie et qui nous rapproche de la mort. On y voit Solomon pendu à une corde, sur la pointe des pieds, pataugeant dans la boue pour éviter l’asphyxie. McQueen obtient sur la durée un vrai malaise. Tout circule, tout y est montré, dénoncé : le voyeurisme, la passivité, l’indifférence, l’exploitation, l’obscénité, la cruauté ordinaire etc. On est bien loin de la fresque académique, policée. Et, en même temps, il y a un tour de force ostentatoire, une volonté de s’afficher en grand cinéaste rétif aux normes et aux conventions, au-dessus de ce qu’il doit filmer. Steve McQueen avoue dans le dossier de presse : « Je ne voulais pas minimiser ce qui lui est arrivé. Il ne s’agit pas de choquer les gens – cela ne m’intéresse pas -, mais il s’agit de faire preuve de responsabilité face à cette histoire. »
McQueen ne cherche pas l’apitoiement, le pleurnichage. Il préfère intimider. C’est exactement ce que Abdellatif Kechiche recherchait avec Vénus Noire, le film qu’il avait réalisé avant La vie d’Adèle et qui, moins linéaire, plus complexe, affichait une radicalité et une sauvagerie encore plus inouïes. Kechiche proposait une expérience infiniment plus forte, plus métaphysique, que celle, plus physique, de McQueen. Comme la Vénus Hottentote de Kechiche, Solomon plante ses yeux dans les nôtres. Le passé regarde le présent, en lambeaux.
Romain LE VERN
12 Years a Slave
Bien des livres et des films, depuis longtemps, ont raconté l’esclavage en Amérique. On sait moins, cependant, ou pas assez, qu’avant même la guerre de Sécession, à la frontière invisible entre Etats abolitionnistes et esclavagistes (fifty-fifty, semble-t-il), des hommes de main, sortes de marchands de sommeil de l’époque, kidnappaient des Blacks, libres citoyens américains, et les vendaient à des propriétaires terriens sans scrupule. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a réellement existé (1) . Son sort est d’autant plus tragique qu’il se croit, non sans inconscience, à l’abri de l’horreur. Il vit dans l’Etat de New York, s’habille comme les bourgeois blancs qu’il fréquente et savoure, avec femme et enfants, sa renommée naissante de musicien. D’où sa stupéfaction de se retrouver, soudain, victime d’un piège ourdi en Louisiane par deux tristes sires et plongé dans un cauchemar qu’il pensait réservé aux autres. Un corps, il n’est plus que ce corps anonyme sans la moindre parcelle d’âme, balancé d’une plantation l’autre, selon les revers de fortune de ses divers propriétaires. Son calvaire va durer douze ans, de 1841 à 1853…
C’est ce temps immobile que filme le cinéaste, cette lente chute du héros à travers plusieurs cercles de l’enfer. Il observe, surtout, les ravages du mal sur des esprits dits civilisés. L’inconscience des bourreaux le trouble et leurs failles le fascinent. Le film faiblit, d’ailleurs, lorsqu’il s’attarde sur des silhouettes à la psychologie simplette : saint Brad Pitt, archange miraculeux qui libère le héros, ou Paul Dano, jeune démon sans nuances, qui l’enfonce. C’est à son comédien favori, Michael Fassbender, que le cinéaste réserve le rôle le plus soigné, le plus ambigu, le plus maléfique. Après en avoir fait un nouveau Messie (dans Hunger) et un pharisien moderne ( dans Shame), il le métamorphose en nid à complexes, en paratonnerre de frustrations : un patient du Dr Freud avant la lettre. Un être apeuré de ne pas se montrer à la hauteur d’une classe sociale qu’il méprise. Et totalement dominé par des pulsions sexuelles qui le poussent à se punir en châtiant l’objet de ses désirs — une jeune esclave noire qu’il adore et détruit. Il est clair, pour Steve McQueen, que c’est la frustration qui engendre le mal : l’aveuglement sur soi et la haine de l’autre sont indissolublement liés, comme le couteau et la plaie.
Avec ce grand spectacle typiquement hollywoodien (les oscars vont pleuvoir !), le cinéaste réussit l’osmose délicate entre le film commercial et le cinéma d’auteur. Depuis Hunger, par exemple, on sait qu’à l’instar de Theo Angelopoulos ou Andreï Tarkovski il adore les plans fixes démesurément étirés, mais calculés à la seconde près, qui créent une réalité parallèle, plus vraie que la vraie. On en a plusieurs ici, dont celui, totalement incongru dans un film américain, où le héros, lynché, est suspendu à une corde, ses pieds touchant le sol par intermittence. Il attend. Il entend des enfants jouer et rire au loin. La durée même de cette séquence magnifique fait naître la peur. On dirait un suspense à la Hitchcock…
Question sadisme, Steve McQueen est un orfèvre : dans Hunger, on le sentait radieux de détailler, une à une, les plaies sur le corps meurtri de Michael Fassbender. Il ne semble pas mécontent, ici, de filmer un à un les coups de fouet reçus par la bien-aimée du frustré. Mais curieusement, ce pointillisme lui permet, à chaque film, de fuir le réalisme. Son art repose sur l’artifice. Sous sa caméra, le destin de Solomon Northup n’est plus un fait divers, mais une abstraction lyrique. Presque un opéra. — Pierre Murat
(1) Solomon Northup a relaté son aventure dans un livre, Twelve Years a slave.
Entretien | Il enflamme Hollywood en réveillant la violence d’histoires vraies enfouies dans les mémoires. Rencontre avec Steve McQueen, réalisateur de “12 Years a slave”.
Propos recueillis par Frédéric Strauss – Télérama n° 3341
Son homonymie avec un acteur célèbre aurait pu lui sembler malencontreuse, ou simplement peu pratique. Mais Steve McQueen ignore superbement la star qui l’a précédé. « Question suivante », répond-il quand on l’invite à nous parler de son patronyme. Et quand on s’enquiert de sa famille, originaire de la Grenade : « Question suivante. » On ose demander ce que faisaient ses parents : « Ils travaillaient ! »
Massif, ce cinéaste britannique de 44 ans impressionne aussi par un tempérament étonnamment irascible. L’atmosphère est tendue ; la rencontre, dans un hôtel parisien, un mauvais moment à passer… Mais, au fond, qu’importe, puisque la parole malgré tout se livre, aussi réfléchie, généreuse et profonde qu’elle se plaît à être cassante et lapidaire.
L’intransigeance de ce Steve McQueen pas du tout séducteur exprime aussi une attitude envers le cinéma. Il n’y est venu qu’en 2008, alors qu’il était depuis plusieurs années un créateur reconnu dans le domaine des installations vidéo, un artiste d’envergure célébré par le prix Turner en 1999. C’est avec cette autorité qu’il a abordé la réalisation. Montrant d’emblée une maîtrise impressionnante. Et s’attaquant à des sujets ambitieux, chargés de vérité, de souffrance : dans Hunger, la grève de la faim de l’Irlandais Bobby Sands, membre de l’IRA ; dans Shame, l’addiction maladive à la pornographie.
Et aujourd’hui, l’esclavage dans 12 Years a slave, adaptation d’un récit publié aux Etats-Unis en 1853 (et désormais disponible sous le titre Douze Ans d’esclavage, aux éditions Entremonde). Avec ce nouveau film, qui a touché aux Etats-Unis un large public, Steve McQueen laisse sa grande rigueur formelle évoluer vers une forme de cinéma plus classique. Mais il ne relâche en rien la tension de son regard, qui continue à nous faire voir la réalité en face. Avec une dureté salutaire, naturelle chez lui.
Il semble que vous ayez gardé un souvenir assez dur de votre scolarité à Londres : est-ce parce que vous avez été victime d’attitudes racistes ?
Pas d’attaques personnelles, non. Mais les élèves étaient encore prisonniers de leur classe sociale. Quand je suis retourné dans mon lycée, pour une remise de prix, il y a onze ans, le directeur a fait un discours disant que, dans les années 80, à l’époque où j’y étais, ce lycée était institutionnellement raciste, car les seuls élèves dont on se préoccupait vraiment étaient ceux qui, venant de milieux favorisés, avaient des chances d’aller à Cambridge. Les élèves noirs ou de milieux défavorisés ne comptaient pas. C’était quelque chose que je savais, mais de l’entendre dit à voix haute et très officiellement, c’était à la fois étrange et très intéressant.
Quand avez-vous compris que vous pourriez trouver votre voie dans l’expression visuelle ?
Depuis le tout premier jour ! J’ai toujours dessiné, c’était dans mes gènes. Il n’y a pas eu de révélation me faisant soudain comprendre que j’étais un artiste. J’ai simplement fait ce que j’aimais, toujours. Après le lycée, je suis entré dans une école d’art, j’ai passé une année pendant laquelle tout le monde était libre d’imaginer devenir photographe, graphiste, peintre… J’ai choisi les beaux-arts. Je voulais peindre. Mais du jour où j’ai mis la main sur une caméra, tout a changé. Je n’ai plus pensé qu’à faire des films, faire de l’art avec le langage du cinéma.
“Le cinéma, c’est le pouvoir du récit, comme le roman.”
Vous avez tourné trois films de cinéma après avoir réalisé, quinze années durant, des films d’art et des installations vidéo. Votre regard change-t-il d’une discipline à l’autre ?
Non, je suis un artiste, c’est tout. La différence, c’est que l’art est abstrait, comme la poésie, qui se sert du langage d’une manière fragmentée. Le cinéma, c’est le pouvoir du récit, comme le roman. On utilise donc les mêmes mots, qu’on fasse des films d’art ou des films commerciaux, mais on utilise ces mots différemment. Les écrivains qui sont aussi des poètes ont la même expérience que moi.
Dans une de vos créations les plus connues, Charlotte (2004), vous filmez en gros plan l’œil de Charlotte Rampling et votre doigt qui le touche. Est-ce une volonté de déranger, justement, le regard ?
Mon envie n’était pas de déranger. Je n’avais jamais rencontré Charlotte Rampling. Je l’avais bien sûr vue au cinéma et dans les magazines, mais toujours dans des images. Ce qui m’intéressait, c’était d’accéder à son visage directement, comme si je retraversais à l’envers toutes les images d’elle, pour arriver à sa présence réelle. Quand j’ai touché son œil, j’ai eu une décharge électrique, et Charlotte aussi. C’était très étrange. La peau autour de l’œil de Charlotte était lourde. C’était comme un bijou dont la beauté se cachait sous un voile.
Tous vos films de cinéma racontent des expériences humaines extrêmes. Il y a quand même là une envie de défi ?
Oui et non. Pour que je tourne un film de cinéma, et que j’accepte donc tous les sacrifices que ça représente, il me faut une raison très forte. Par exemple, l’histoire de Bobby Sands et des grévistes de la faim, que je racontais dans Hunger. Une histoire forte parce qu’elle n’avait jamais été racontée. Dix hommes étaient morts dans une prison britannique après avoir cessé de s’alimenter en signe de protestation, et tout le monde faisait comme si ça n’avait jamais existé. Voilà pourquoi il fallait faire ce film. Ça a peut-être quelque chose d’un défi, mais il s’agit d’abord pour moi d’exprimer ce qui fait surgir des émotions violentes.
Vos films donnent le sentiment que vous montrez des choses jusque-là invisibles…
Effectivement. Quand Hunger est sorti, les Anglais ont reconnu pour la première fois les atrocités commises dans la prison de Maze, en Irlande du Nord. Le film a permis de libérer une parole, des gens ont admis ce qu’ils avaient toujours refusé de reconnaître. La même chose se produit avec 12 Years a slave, qui ouvre une discussion sur l’esclavage qui n’avait jamais eu lieu. C’est comme une pierre qu’on jette à la surface d’un lac et qui déclenche un effet de vague.
“Je veux raconter les histoires qu’on cache sous le tapis.”
Le pouvoir du cinéma est de nous obliger à voir ?
Le pouvoir du cinéma est énorme. Mais je ne suis pas engagé dans une croisade. Je suis un cinéaste, un conteur d’histoires. Je participe à l’industrie du divertissement. Avec la volonté de raconter les histoires qu’on cache sous le tapis.
Montrer l’esclavage, c’est faire apparaître ce qui était caché ?
Je n’avais vu aucun film montrant vraiment la réalité de l’esclavage, qui a pourtant duré quatre cents ans. La Seconde Guerre mondiale n’a duré que cinq ans, et les films sur cette guerre et sur l’Holocauste sont devenus un genre à part entière, et des classiques du cinéma. Mais des films sur l’esclavage, il y en a eu si peu, à peine une vingtaine. Les gens ont toujours eu peur de cette période de l’Histoire, et c’est compréhensible car c’était horrible, violent, infâme. Ça ne peut qu’embarrasser tout le monde, mais il faut pourtant regarder les choses en face, montrer ce passé pour comprendre notre présent et comprendre aussi, possiblement, notre avenir.
Michael Fassbender et Chiwetel Ejiofor, dans le dernier film
Michael Fassbender et Chiwetel Ejiofor, dans le dernier film du Britannique, 12 Years a slave. © DR
Comment en êtes-vous venu à raconter l’histoire vraie que retrace 12 Years a slave ?
Je voulais parler d’un Noir américain qui vivait libre dans le Nord des Etats-Unis et était arraché à la vie normale qu’il menait pour être réduit à l’état d’esclave, dans le Sud. Un homme auquel tout le monde pouvait s’identifier. Mon idée n’était pas de raconter le destin d’un Noir venu d’Afrique, car cela avait été fait dans la série télé Racines, en 1977. Le scénario n’était pas facile à développer.
Ma femme, Bianca Stigter, qui est historienne, a commencé des recherches et a découvert ce livre, 12 Years a slave, de Solomon Northup. Elle me l’a apporté en me disant :« Je crois que j’ai trouvé ce que tu veux. » C’était vraiment un euphémisme, car chaque page de ce livre racontait exactement ce que j’avais voulu faire sans y parvenir. Les détails donnés, le sentiment d’un récit lyrique, tout était à couper le souffle. Quand j’ai terminé cette lecture, je m’en suis voulu de n’avoir pas eu connaissance de l’existence d’un tel livre. Et puis j’ai réalisé que personne, autour de moi, ne le connaissait.
Un téléfilm adapté du même livre avait été diffusé en 1984 par la télé américaine, mais il a été oublié, aussi…
Sans même s’arrêter à ce téléfilm de Gordon Parks, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, on doit souligner que le livre a été publié il y a cent soixante ans. Et pendant tout ce temps, il est resté dans l’ombre. Pourquoi est-ce que je connais Anne Frank et pas Solomon Northup ? Pour moi, ce livre était l’équivalent, dans l’histoire de l’Amérique, du Journal d’Anne Frank.
“L’esclavage était une industrie mondiale qui dépassait largement les Etats-Unis.”
Il fallait donc un cinéaste extérieur aux Etats-Unis pour dire toute l’importance de ce livre ?
Je ne me considère pas comme quelqu’un d’extérieur aux Etats-Unis. Mes parents sont venus des Antilles, et je fais partie de cette diaspora. La seule différence entre moi et des Noirs américains, c’est que leurs ancêtres ont pris le chemin qui partait à droite et les miens, celui qui partait à gauche. La mère de Malcom X venait de la Grenade, où mes parents sont nés. Colin Powell, Sidney Poitier, Marcus Garvey, Harry Belafonte, tous ces gens-là sont issus de familles des Antilles. L’esclavage était une industrie mondiale qui dépassait largement les Etats-Unis.
Votre film montre un monde où les sentiments n’ont plus leur place : tout est haine ou indifférence, endurcissement…
Non, il y a des sentiments très profonds dans ce film ! Bien sûr, pour survivre, Solomon doit mettre ses sentiments de côté. Mais il ne peut pas devenir aussi inhumain que le monde où il se retrouve. S’endurcir totalement lui est impossible. Il reste un être humain. Les forces de l’esprit lui permettent de tenir. C’était, de toute façon, le seul choix qui restait aux esclaves, mes ancêtres : décider de ne pas mourir. Subir des situations inhumaines, endurer la souffrance, mais vivre. Tenir bon, pour l’amour de leurs enfants.
Une scène très impressionnante montre Solomon pendu, ses pieds touchant à peine le sol, et les autres esclaves obligés de l’ignorer…
S’ils décident de l’aider, ils seront pendus à côté de lui. Avec cette scène, je voulais montrer l’esclavage comme une torture physique et mentale. Je me souviens d’avoir tourné un film dans une mine en Afrique du Sud et ressenti ce climat de terreur : les gens faisaient comme s’ils ne nous voyaient pas, ils avaient été habitués à obéir à une loi. C’est quelque chose qui a existé dans tous les pays où la terreur a régné, dans les régimes fascistes, dans la France occupée. Et ça existe encore.
Vous semblez avoir voulu éviter le sentimentalisme d’un certain cinéma américain…
Oui, ce qui m’intéresse, c’est la réalité, montrer ce qu’elle était et ne pas utiliser cette reconstitution à une autre fin. Soit on fait vraiment un film sur l’esclavage, soit on ne fait rien. Je ne voulais pas d’une vision édulcorée. Pourtant, l’histoire semble un conte. Un conte très sombre qu’auraient pu écrire les frères Grimm. Solomon est jeté dans un monde tellement terrible que ça ne semble pas réel. Quand j’ai lu le livre, je me disais : est-ce de la science-fiction ? Cela a-t-il bel et bien eu lieu ?
Votre film arrive après Le Majordome et d’autres films signés par des cinéastes noirs abordant la question des discriminations raciales. Le signe d’un vrai changement ?
Absolument, quelque chose s’est produit. Je ne sais pas combien de temps cela durera. On ne peut mésestimer, dans ce phénomène, le rôle du président Obama. Avec ce président noir, une autre perspective est apparue, le droit à une expression nouvelle a été donné. Ceux qui ne voulaient pas soutenir ce genre de projets le font. Et peut-être même que certains se disent que ces histoires ont aujourd’hui des atouts commerciaux. Il y a encore beaucoup de films à faire sur l’esclavage. Non pas que ce soit une obligation morale. Mais il s’agit d’histoires très prenantes, très fortes, voilà pourquoi il faut les raconter. Parce que les gens voudront aller au cinéma pour voir quelque chose de jamais vu.
Le retentissement de 12 Years a slave aux Etats-Unis vous ouvre les portes de Hollywood : êtes-vous intéressé par cette opportunité ?
Les gens pensent qu’il n’y a que cette voie, Hollywood. C’est une illusion. Ma motivation n’est pas là. Je veux seulement faire les meilleurs films possibles. A Hollywood ou ailleurs. De toute façon, je ne sais pas ce que c’est, Hollywood. J’y suis peu allé. J’y ai rencontré des gens très bien, curieusement. Mais ça reste loin de moi, car je n’ai jamais mêlé l’art au monde des affaires. Sinon, je porterais des chemises à rayures avec des bretelles, je travaillerais à Wall Street ou à la City de Londres. Mais l’argent est la dernière chose à laquelle je pense. Le fait que 12 Years a slave soit devenu un tel succès est une surprise. Je comprends que ça intéresse beaucoup de gens, qui me voient comme un cinéaste capable de faire un succès au box-office. Mais je veux faire des films, pas de l’argent.
Steve McQueen en quelques dates
1969 Naissance à Londres
1993 Bear, premier film d’art qui le fait connaître.
2003 Exposition au musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris.
2008 Hunger, premier film de cinéma, Caméra d’or au festival de Cannes.
2013 Grande rétrospective de ses créations d’art contemporain au Schaulager de Bâle.
2014 12 Years a slave dans la course aux oscars.
22 nov. 2013
Un blanc au cou tanné par le soleil explique à une douzaine d’esclaves comment récolter la canne à sucre. Un homme ingère mécaniquement un repas frugal, avant de tenter une expérience calligraphique à l’aide de jus de mûres. Dans l’obscurité du cabanon où lui et ses semblables s’entassent pour dormir, une compagne d’infortune essaie de lui soutirer une affection tarie depuis longtemps. Les images s’entrechoquent, s’affrontent et s’annulent, difficile d’en retirer un sens, une temporalité, leur unité se dérobe à nos yeux. En quelques plans et moins de cinq minutes, Steve McQueen se casse volontairement les dents sur un impossible défi : retranscrire la réalité de l’esclavage. Puisque nous ne pouvons appréhender les tenants et aboutissants de cette condition, le réalisateur effectue un retour en arrière pour faire sien le dispositif du texte autobiographique dont s’inspire 12 Years a slave, soit l’histoire d’un homme libre, parfaitement étranger au concept de servitude, transformé du jour au lendemain en simple objet amputé de sa moindre parcelle d’humanité.
Ce principe, très loin de n’être qu’un simple dispositif articulant le récit, s’avère le moteur essentiel de son sens. Car le caractère et la personnalité de Solomon Northup permettent au spectateur de s’identifier tout à fait à cet individu libre, heureux, qui a tout fait pour préserver son quotidien des turpitudes de l’époque. Il y est parvenu et autorise le public, quelque soit ses connaissances du sujet abordé, son rapport à l’histoire ou à son propre passé d’embarquer à ses côtés. Steve McQueen et son œuvre se situent ainsi aux antipodes d’un Majordome désireux de flatter le public, de lui infliger une caresse de cathéchèse qui n’a d’universelle que le nom.
Le film n’en deviendra que plus terrible et impitoyable. Nous ne sommes pas ici face à un simple drame historique, ni même à une tragédie brillamment construite et exécutée. Ce qui se joue sous nos yeux est la déconstruction systématique du rêve américain. Ce rêve que Solomon vit sans en être tout à fait conscient, dont toutes les figures se retrouveront brisées à ses pieds. D’abord convaincu que le piège dans lequel il est tombé ne se refermera pas tout à fait sur lui, il se persuadera ensuite que son instruction pourra le prémunir des pires traitements, il lui faudra enfin accepter que son courage, son humanité comme sa persévérance ne pourront rien contre ceux qui le possèdent désormais. Cet itinéraire d’une noirceur absolue, le métrage le balise de séquences simultanément splendides et implacables, à l’image de cet homme tout juste lynché puis pendu, dont les orteils s’étirent pour lui offrir un sursis de vie, alors qu’autour de lui celle de la plantation se déroule imperturbable. On pense bien évidemment au Strange Fruit de Billie Holliday, tétanisé par une horreur cristalline, dont l’acuité pure nous saisit à la gorge.
Mais McQueen, non content de parsemer son film de nombreux morceaux de bravoure et autres plans séquences, n’oublie jamais qu’il traite de personnages avant de manier concepts et figures mythologiques. À la manière de Hunger ou Shame, ce sont l’enfermement et les rapports de domination qui innervent le scénario, les relations éminemment perverses de déprédation qui motivent cette étude d’une période aussi ténébreuse que mal connue. Servi par des acteurs magnétiques, baignés dans la lumière crue et irréelle de Louisiane, le récit explore pour mieux les révéler les tréfonds d’un mal sans fin, dont on ne se relève pas. Car, et c’est là le plus terrible message délivré par 12 Years a slave, on ne sort pas de l’esclavage. Si Solomon sera ultimement sauvé des griffes de l’ogre Epps (impérial Fassbender), il ne retrouvera jamais sa fierté d’homme ou sa dignité de citoyen. En témoigne la dernière réplique du personnage, réduit à s’excuser d’être une victime intégrale. La phagotrophie de l’homme par l’homme est une plaie qui ne se referme pas, une indignité qui ne connaît pas l’oubli. Point de commémoration ou de réconciliation chez McQueen, mais le dévoilement impudique d’une cicatrice véritable.
Oct 16, 2013
12 Years a Slave uses sadistic art to patronize history
Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history in 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the 1853 American slave narrative by Solomon Northup, who claims that in 1841, away from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he was kidnapped and taken South where he was sold into hellish servitude and dehumanizing cruelty.
12-years-a-slave-filmFor McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events. With Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen chronicles the conscious sufferance of unrelenting physical and psychological pain. A methodically measured narrative slowly advances through Northup’s years of captivity, showcasing various injustices that drive home the terrors Black Africans experienced in the U.S. during what’s been called “the peculiar institution.”
Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend “a conversation about race.” The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.
For commercial distributor Fox Searchlight, 12 Years a Slave appears at an opportune moment when film culture–five years into the Obama administration–indulges stories about Black victimization such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice. (What promoter Harvey Weinstein has called “The Obama Effect.”) This is not part of social or historical enlightenment–the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement.
But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspects of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban “sexual addiction” in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity. This is less a drama than an inhumane analysis–like the cross-sectional cut-up of a horse in Damien Hirst’s infamous 1996 museum installation “Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.”
hirst some comfort gained
Because 12 Years of Slave is such a repugnant experience, a sensible viewer might be reasonably suspicious about many of the atrocities shown–or at least scoff at the one-sided masochism: Northup talks about survival but he has no spiritual resource or political drive–the means typically revealed when slave narratives are usually recounted. From Mandingo and Roots to Sankofa, Amistad, Nightjohn and Beloved, the capacity for spiritual sustenance, inherited from the legacy of slavery and survival, was essential (as with Baby Sugg’s sermon-in-the-woods in Beloved and John Quincy Adams and Cinque’s reference to ancestors in Amistad) in order to verify and make bearable the otherwise dehumanizing tales.
It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience. McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ cast of existential victims won’t do. Northup-renamed-Platt and especially the weeping mother Liza (Adepero Oduye) and multiply-abused Patsey (Lupita Nyong‘o), are human whipping posts–beaten, humiliated, raped for our delectation just like Hirst’s cut-up equine. Hirst knew his culture: Some will no doubt take comfort from McQueen’s inherently warped, dishonest, insensitive fiction.
These tortures might satisfy the resentment some Black people feel about slave stories (“It makes me angry”), further aggravating their sense of helplessness, grievance–and martyrdom. It’s the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of The Help and The Butler. And the perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like 12 Years a Slave to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history. But, as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. The fact that McQueen’s harshness was trending among Festivalgoers (in Toronto, Telluride and New York) suggests that denial still obscures the history of slavery: Northup’s travail merely makes it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad (as wags complained about Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an “official” Holocaust movie–which very few people wanted to see twice). McQueen’s fraudulence further accustoms moviegoers to violence and brutality.
The very artsiness of 12 Years a Slave is part of its offense. The clear, classical imagery embarrasses Quentin Tarantino’s attempt at visual poetry in Django Unchained yet this “clarity” (like Hans Zimmer’s effective percussion score) is ultimately depressing. McQueen uses that art staple “duration” to prolong North’s lynching on tiptoe and later, in endless, tearful anticipation; emphasis on a hot furnace and roiling waves adds nature’s discomfort; an ugly close-up of a cotton worm symbolizes drudgery; a slave chant (“Run, Nigger, Run,”) contrasts ineffectual Bible-reading; and a shot of North’s handwritten plea burns to embers. But good art doesn’t work this way. Art elates and edifies–one might even prefer Q.T.’s jokey ridiculousness in Django Unchained, a different kind of sadism.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in AmistadMcQueen’s art-world background recalls Peter Greenaway’s high-mindedness; he’s incapable of Q.T.’s stupid showmanship. (He may simply be blind to American ambivalence about the slave era and might do better focusing on the crimes of British imperialism.) Instead, every character here drags us into assorted sick melancholies–as Northup/Platt, Ejiofor’s sensitive manner makes a lousy protagonist; the benevolent intelligence that worked so well for him as the translator in Amistad is too passive here; he succumbs to fate, anguish and torment according to McQueen’s pre-ordained pessimism. Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, a twisted slaveholder (“a nigger-breaker”) isn’t a sexy selfish lover as Lee Daniels flirtatiously showed in The Butler; Epps perverts love in his nasty miscegenation with Patsey (whose name should be Pathos).
And Alfre Woodard as a self-aware Black plantation mistress rapidly sinks into unrescuable psychosis. Ironically, Woodard’s performance is weird comic relief–a neurotic tribute to Butterfly McQueen’s frivolous Hollywood inanity but from a no-fun perspective. By denying Woodard a second appearance, director McQueen proves his insensitivity. He avoids any hopefulness, preferring to emphasize scenes devoted to annihilating Nyong’o’s body and soul. Patsey’s completely unfathomable longing for death is just art-world cynicism. McQueen’s “sympathy” lacks appropriate disgust and outrage but basks in repulsion and pity–including close-up wounds and oblivion. Patsey’s pathetic corner-of-the-screen farewell faint is a nihilistic trope. Nothing in The Exorcist was more flagrantly sadistic.
Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie. They may have forgotten Roots, never seen Sankofa or Nightjohn, disliked Amistad, dismissed Beloved and even decried the violence in The Passion of the Christ, yet 12 Years a Slave lets them congratulate themselves for “being aghast at slavery.” This film has become a new, easy reproof to Holocaust deniers. But remember how in Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It,” pop culture’s most magnificent account of the Middle Passage, Chuck D warned against the appropriation of historical catastrophe for self-aggrandizement: “The Holocaust /I’m talkin’ ‘bout the one still goin’ on!”
The egregious inhumanity of 12 Years a Slave (featuring the most mawkish and meaningless fade-out in recent Hollywood history) only serves to perpetuate Hollywood’s disenfranchisement of Black people’s humanity. Brad Pitt, one of the film’s producers, appears in a small role as a helpful pacifist—as if to save face with his real-life multicultural adopted family. But Pitt’s good intentions (his character promises “There will be a reckoning”) contradict McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ self-serving motives. The finite numeral in the title of 12 Years a Slave compliments the fallacy that we look back from a post-racial age, that all is in ascent. But 12 Years a Slave is ultimate proof that Hollywood’s respect for Black humanity is in absurd, patronizing, Oscar-winning decline.
Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.
December 20-22, 2013
In a podcast discussion between veteran film critic Armond White and two younger film journalists focused on their differences over “12 Years a Slave” (White, an African-American with a contrarian bent hated it), White argued in favor of benchmarks. How could the two other discussants rave about Steve McQueen’s film without knowing what preceded it? That was all the motivation I needed to see the two films White deemed superior to McQueen’s—“Beloved” and “Amistad”—as well as other films about slavery that I had not seen before, or in the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Queimada” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” films I had not seen in many years. This survey is not meant as a definitive guide to all films about the “peculiar institution” but only ones that are most familiar. Even if I characterize a film as poorly made, I still recommend a look at all of them since as a body of work they shed light on the complex interaction of art and politics, a topic presumably of some interest to CounterPunch readers.
Since I walked out of Tarantino’s film after twenty minutes at a press screening last year, I only decided to watch it in its entirety to complete this survey. As is the case with “12 Years a Slave”, which was voted best film of 2013 by my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online, Tarantino’s film was considered a Major Statement about slavery a year earlier.
As I sat through the first twenty minutes last year, I found myself growing increasingly uneasy with the frequency of the word “nigger”. Yes, I understood that the Old South was full of racists but I could not help but feel that it was just Tarantino up to his old tricks of using the word in a kind of “bad boy” gesture to ramp up his mostly young, white, and male audience especially when the word was used by white characters, including ones played by Tarantino himself. This year I could not help but be reminded of Miami Dolphins Richie Incognito’s bullying messages to teammate Jonathan Martin.
I say this as someone who has enjoyed Tarantino’s past work, with their trademark mash-up of pop culture and ultra-violence. This time around the jokes seemed stale and the violence gratuitous. For example, there’s a scene in which a posse of racists led by plantation owner Don Johnson advance on Django and his fellow bounty-hunter played by Christoph Waltz. The posse is wearing KKK-type hoods for reasons not exactly clear to me. Why would there be a need in a Slavocracy to conceal your identity when lynchings took place in broad daylight, often administered by the cops? Apparently the hoods were a comic prop for Jonah Hill, who in a cameo role complained about not being able to see properly through the eyeholes. This Mel Brooks type shtick went on for what seemed an eternity. If I had been one of Tarantino’s trusted advisers, I would have told him that it was bad enough to use such a lame joke and even worse to keep it going so long. But when you have generated millions of dollars for Harvey Weinstein, nobody is in such a position. What Tarantino wants, Tarantino gets.
Having sat through the entire film this go-round, I could devote thousands of words to what was wrong but will just offer just one brief observation. Samuel Jackson played a “house Negro”, who as Malcolm X used to put it “loved the master more than they loved themselves.” What Tarantino has done is transform this into “hating Black people more than he hates himself”. As Stephen, Leonard DiCaprio’s servant, Jackson demonstrates a sadistic pleasure in seeing “niggers” beaten and killed. Is there any evidence from the history of slave society that any Black servant ever descended into such a degraded and psychopathic state? Tarantino’s excuse, of course, is that he is not making history—only a movie. I could buy this if the movie was wittier and more quickly paced. At 165 minutes, it is sixty minutes too long. But as a Major Statement on slavery, it is not.
“12 Years a Slave”
Despite the perception that Steve McQueen was the first to make a film based on his “discovery” of a neglected memoir by the main character, there was an earlier version made by Gordon Parks for PBS American Playhouse in 1985 titled “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” that can be seen on Amazon.com. Parks took greater liberties with Solomon Northup’s memoir than McQueen but essentially they tell the same story.
Parks is best known for “Shaft”, the 1971 “blaxploitation” classic. His version of Solomon Northup is somewhat evocative of the genre since his hero is heavily muscled and equal to any man, Black or white, in a fist fight. Adding his own concerns to the memoir, Parks depicts Northup as the object of resentment from other slaves for his literacy, vocabulary, and generally sounding like a white man. They want to drag him down to their level, something he resists.
McQueen takes similar liberties, transforming Harriet Shaw, the Black wife of a cruel plantation owner, into someone with snarling contempt for her own people in the absence of any such evidence in Northup’s memoir.
As is the case with “Django Unchained”, McQueen’s film is a vehicle for his preoccupations. With Tarantino, these primarily revolve around revenge, a theme common to so many of the Hong Kong gangster or samurai movies that he has absorbed. For McQueen, the chief interest is in depicting pain with some of the most dramatic scenes involving whippings and other forms of punishment.
I was expecting the worst after seeing McQueen’s “Hunger”, a film about the Provo IRA hunger strike led by Bobby Sands that was more about bedsores and beatings than politics. Thankfully, the latest film is a lot more restrained than I had expected but still mostly focused on the physical torments of being a slave. I found myself wondering if the casting of Sarah Paulson as the sadistic wife of a sadistic plantation owner was deliberate since she is part of the company of actors featured on “American Horror Story”, the AMC cable TV show that pushes the envelope in terms of graphic scenes of torture, dismemberment, etc. This season Paulson is playing a witch, as part of a series on Black witches taking revenge on their white witch enemies who had tormented them during slavery. I half expected Paulson’s character to stick a pin in a Solomon Northup voodoo doll.
While one cannot gainsay the importance of Solomon Northup’s memoir that was used by the abolitionist movement in the same way that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was, I have to wonder whether McQueen’s film was hampered by a story that was essentially one-dimensional. If you take the opportunity to read “12 Years a Slave” , you will be struck by the underdeveloped relationships between Northup and other characters. Both Parks and McQueen take liberties with the memoir to flesh out the film with such relationships but there is still something missing. In the memoir and in the films, there is never any sense of the emotional pain of being separated from your family—something that cuts far deeper than a whip. Northup comes across as someone completely outraged by the injustice of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and little else. Who can blame him? But much more is needed to create the kind of drama found in “Sansho the Bailiff” that is discussed later.
Just 8 minutes short of three hours, this Jonathan Demme film based on a Toni Morrison novel is as overextended and self-indulgent as “Django Unchained” but much worse. It was produced by Oprah Winfrey and features her in the role of Sethe, a former slave living in the outskirts of Cincinnati. In the opening scene, household utensils are hurled about by poltergeists in a manner now familiar from films like…like “Poltergeist” actually.
Not long afterwards Paul D. (Danny Glover) shows up to save the day. As a former slave from the same plantation as Sethe, he is looking for work and to rekindle a relationship with her. It helps that he is able to quell the poltergeists, the answer to a haunted woman’s dreams.
But that’s not the end of Sethe’s woes. About an hour into the film, Sethe and Paul D. return home to discover a young woman has materialized on their front lawn out of nowhere. Essentially she takes over from the poltergeists creating a strange bond with Sethe based on a kind of craving for attention so extreme that Sethe’s teenaged daughter Denver is tempted to run away, just as her two younger brothers did after the poltergeist intervention of the opening scene.
Eventually we discover that Beloved, the name of the mysterious young woman, is a supernatural presence spawned by a tragic event that took place on the plantation Sethe fled. Although the screenwriter and the director did not intend it as such, I found Beloved so weird that it was hard for me to get deeper into the troubled relationship between Sethe and her new quasi-adopted daughter.
Perhaps that’s a function of a misbegotten adaptation of Morrison’s novel but just as likely it is my reaction to a heavy dose of magical realism that suffuses the novel and the film. As anybody who has read my critique of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” understands, magical realism makes me break out in hives even when it is the work of Nobelists like Toni Morrison or Gabriel García Márquez.
The overripe aesthetics, however, cannot compensate for what is essentially the same fare as “12 Years a Slave”, namely a horror show about beatings, degradation, and racism. Unlike “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave”, “Beloved” was not hailed as a great film when it came out. Some critics viewed it as a sign of Jonathan Demme’s decline; others saw it as the result of Oprah Winfrey’s vanity. With such an enormous emotional and financial commitment to the film, Winfrey underwent a major bout of depression when it bombed at the box office and in the press. People like Jeff St. Clair, whose film savvy I hold in high regard, are fans of “Beloved”. That’s reason enough to give it a shot on Amazon.com. I can’t imagine myself watching it again, however.
If you are looking for evidence that Stephen Spielberg is one of the few genuine auteurs on the scene today (a term coined by François Truffaut to describe how certain directors shape their films according to a unique creative vision), there’s no better place to look than this 1997 film based on an historical event, the slave revolt of 1839 that led to a historic trial with a happy ending.
The slaves function pretty much as ET did, strange creatures only wishing to go home while John Quincy Adams, the ex-president who argued their case before the Supreme Court, is a kind of prequel to Abraham Lincoln—an enlightened white politician who frees the slaves. What’s missing, however, is the viewpoint of the slaves. Unlike ET, they are capable of seeing the world just like us. But David Franzoni’s script treats them as exotic objects, all the more unknowable through their use of a native language that frequently goes un-subtitled. This is all the more egregious in the opening scene of the film when they commandeer the ship, murdering the entire crew except for the captain and his mate who are ordered to sail them back to Africa. In this scene, not a single word comes out of the slaves’ mouths except at the maximum volume and accompanied by grimacing of the sort seen on the faces of arch-villains in the silent movies of the 1920s. One imagines Spielberg directing his Black actors, “Louder…and arch your eyebrows higher”. I suspect that Paul Greenglass, the director of “Captain Phillips”, must have studied the film carefully in order to develop an approach to his Somali pirate characters.
“Amistad” is basically courtroom drama with Matthew McConaughey as the defense attorney (upon appeal, John Quincy Adams played by Anthony Hopkins takes over.) He argues on strictly legalistic grounds that the slaves were taken from Sierra Leone, a colony of Great Britain that had declared slavery illegal. It has all the dramatic intensity of the debate in the House of Representatives that occupied the final hour of “Lincoln”. If that is your cup of tea, the film is worth watching.
“Sansho the Bailiff”
Despite the fact that this film took place under feudalism, the major characters were slaves rather than peasants paying tribute of the sort dramatized in “The Seven Samurai” and other classics. Furthermore, even if they were Japanese, they had much in common with Solomon Northup insofar as they were free people kidnapped and sold into slavery.
The film was made by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1954 and is regarded as one of the greatest ever made in Japan. I would include it in my list of the ten greatest ever made.
After a feudal governor is banished to a far-off province because of his too generous treatment of the serfs, his wife Tamaki, his young son Zushio, and Zushio’s younger sister Anju proceed on foot to the distant home of a family relative. On their way, they are delivered by a supposedly well-meaning older woman into the arms of slavers who sell the two children to Sansho the Bailiff and the mother to a remote brothel on an island. They were victims just as was Solomon Northup who went to Washington, DC to play his fiddle for good wages at a circus but ended up on the auction block.
Unlike “12 Years a Slave”, the relationships between brother and sister are extremely well-developed. That, of course, is the license afforded by fiction. You are not bounded by the need to be accurate. Imagination rules. There’s a scene that mirrors the one in McQueen’s film in which Northup is forced to whip Patsey for a trivial offense. In “Sansho the Bailiff”, Zushio is ordered to brand the forehead of a seventy-year old slave who tried to run away. Unlike Northup, he has become so hardened by the punishment meted out to him by Sansho’s thugs that he follows this order unflinchingly. Afterwards Anju cries out to him that he has forsaken the values that their father taught them: “Without mercy, man is not a human being.”
Throughout their ordeal, brother and sister never forget their mother. They (and we) pine for their reunion. Eventually Zushio escapes Sansho’s compound, and makes his way to a feudal lord who felt remorse over his father’s treatment, so much so that he promotes him governor over Sansho as repentance. Zushio’s first act is to free all the slaves, even if this means violating feudal laws and resigning from his post.
Apart from the human drama, Mizoguchi was a great visual poet who made the Japanese countryside his greatest protagonist alongside the enslaved children and their long-lost mother. Although I am not that impressed with Anthony Lane’s film reviews in the New Yorker magazine, I am happy to repeat his words about “Sansho the Bailiff” as reported in Wikipedia: “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”
That’s the title of the 1969 Italian film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, best known for “Battle of Algiers”, that can now be seen for free on Youtube. The English version is titled “Burn!” and though unfortunately missing about 20 minutes from the uncut version still fairly serviceable.
There is probably no other film that conveys the complexity of the colonial revolution than “Queimada”, which means burned in Italian. This is the name of a fictional Caribbean island that bears a striking resemblance to Cuba and Haiti even if it is ruled by Portuguese rather than the Spanish or French. It got its name from the peasant revolts that frequently led to sugar crops being burned.
Sir William Walker, played by Marlin Brando as if he was reprising his Fletcher Christian role, is a functionary of a British sugar company sent to Queimada to manipulate the slaves into overthrowing their masters. Unlike his American Filibuster namesake who went to Nicaragua to reinstate slavery, the British mercenary saw the benefits of abolishing slavery just as Great Britain did long before Lincoln. In a meeting with Portuguese plantation owners, Walker makes the case for free labor in distinctly non-abolitionist terms:
Gentlemen, let me ask you a question. Now, my metaphor may seem a trifle impertinent, but I think it’s very much to the point. Which do you prefer – or should I say, which do you find more convenient – a wife, or one of these mulatto girls? No, no, please don’t misunderstand: I am talking strictly in terms of economics. What is the cost of the product? What is the product yield? The product, in this case, being love – uh, purely physical love, since sentiments obviously play no part in economics.
Quite. Now, a wife must be provided with a home, with food, with dresses, with medical attention, etc, etc. You’re obliged to keep her a whole lifetime even when she’s grown old and perhaps a trifle unproductive. And then, of course, if you have the bad luck to survive her, you have to pay for the funeral!
It’s true, isn’t it? Gentlemen, I know it’s amusing, but those are the facts, aren’t they? Now with a prostitute, on the other hand, it’s quite a different matter, isn’t it? You see, there’s no need to lodge her or feed her, certainly no need to dress her or to bury her, thank God. She’s yours only when you need her, you pay her only for that service, and you pay her by the hour! Which, gentlemen, is more important – and more convenient: a slave or a paid worker?
This is mostly a film about the villainous but charismatic Sir William Walker but there is also a lot more of the viewpoint and agency of the slaves than in “Amistad”. That is to be expected when the screenwriter is somebody like Franco Solinas, who was a partisan during WWII and a long-time member of the CP. But one certainly would have not suspected that Solinas also wrote Spaghetti Westerns of the sort that inspired “Django Unchained”. In an eye-opening profile of “un-American Westerns” by J. Hoberman in the New York Review of Books, we learn that these were Spaghetti Westerns with a difference:
Déclassé, outlandish, and brutal, The Big Gundown has the standard Spaghetti Western virtues; its originality lay in making its true protagonist the fugitive. The irrepressible Cuchillo (played by Tomas Milian) turns out to be a disillusioned supporter of Benito Juarez with a class analysis (he is in fact an innocent witness to the crime). Van Cleef’s character realizes that he is the tool of ruthless plutocrats and capitalist running dogs. Thus, Solinas would use the Western as an arena in which to play out the struggle dramatized in The Battle of Algiers. “Political films are useful on the one hand if they contain a correct analysis of reality and on the other if they are made in such a way to have that analysis reach the largest possible audience,” he told an interviewer in 1967.
Too bad this angle was missing in “Django Unchained”. It would have made for a better film as well as better politically.
This amounts to saving the best for last. Like “Burn!”, this subtitled 1984 Brazilian film can be watched for free on Youtube. Quilombo is the word for escaped slave settlement. After seeing this joyous celebration of African freedom, I feel like presenting a petition to the Hollywood studios that they make movies about slave revolts or liberation struggles next year rather than another Major Statement about how terrible slavery was.
Based on historical events, the escape of slaves to the mountains of Palmares in 17th century Brazil, the film is a celebration of Afro-Brazilian culture with children using the capoeira against their would-be Portuguese captors. This high-kicking form of martial arts was disguised as a dance in order to prevent its practitioners being punished for developing combat skills.
The escaped slaves reconstitute themselves as African communities in the highlands and freely choose kings to lead them in struggle against a much better armed foe. The finale of the film depicts a battle in the Palmares that is as exciting as anything I have seen in a Japanese or American costume drama like “Braveheart” or “Seven Samurai”.
And throughout, there is the film score by Gilberto Gil that contains some of the greatest music he ever composed, including the song “Quilombo.”
Your first reaction to “Quilombo” is to question whether such a scenario could apply to the United States since we never saw a Palmares, or did we? While the immediate post-Civil War period under Reconstruction was not an attempt to recreate African life in the wilderness, the net effect was even more emancipating—to use the right word.
Hollywood has never made a single film about Black Power in the Deep South until 1873 when the Democrats and Republicans cut a deal to put the racists back into power in Dixie. Well, I take that back. There were a couple, now that I remember, one called “Gone with the Wind” and the other “Birth of a Nation”. Isn’t it about time that we had a movie with sympathetic major characters that are Black legislators in Mississippi or Alabama to atone for the racist crap of the past? Someone get Oprah Winfrey on the phone and line up a couple of million dollars or so. That’s all we need to make a great movie, since the reality it is based on is so inspiring.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.
Mad about movies
Wince-inducing statement film
The much-heralded “12 Years a Slave” takes the most brutal and dehumanizing acts of the antebellum American South and displays them in an unrelenting fashion, making it both an incredibly uncomfortable and unforgettable movie.
But the question remains: To what end are these events depicted?
Devoid of any meaningful psychological analysis of either the slave owners who perpetuated unspeakable atrocities or of the slaves who were their victims, “12 Years a Slave” serves primarily as a graphic, suffocating sad collection of horrendous images that pummels the audience for over two hours.
For that you can bet there will be many industry accolades–the film is already the frontrunner to take home the best picture Oscar at next month’s Academy Awards. Hollywood, after all, loves to recognize those films it deems IMPORTANT.
For its shock value and the subject material involved, “12 Years” is groundbreaking and worthy of discussion. But shouldn’t there be more to the “hard truth” than simply being hard to watch?
Director Spike Jonze is known for his art-house films that often portray the myriad indignities a human body can suffer, and it appears he’s culled from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir all the lynchings, beatings, rapings, and other abominations and made a well-crafted, superbly-acted horror show.
Northrup is portrayed nobly and sensitively by terrific British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, (Outstanding in “Dirty Pretty Things”) and the screenplay written by John Ridley describes how the New York-born “free negro” was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery to work on the plantations of Louisiana. Forced to take another name and not reveal his true identity or details about his wife and family, Northrup works for several plantation owners, including a malevolent sadist (Michael Fassbender) and another who is less cruel (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northrup decides to (mostly) cooperate, incredulously witnessing that this is by no means a guarantee of mercy.
No doubt “12 Years a Slave” will provoke comparison to films like “Schindler’s List” that have attempted to make a visceral statement about evil men perpetrating vile acts against other men. But while Spielberg weaved a complex story with layered emotional complexity around his occasionally graphic imagery, Jonze’s film appears obsessed with the gruesomeness of the act itself. Many scenes go on so long that the initial shock wears off and the viewer’s attention is distracted from the grotesque nature of the scene itself to the unbridled determination of the filmmakers to make a statement.
Indeed, “12 Years a Slave” is an unsettling film to watch. Sometimes challenging, even shocking material can have profound merit in the realm of artistic endeavor. Examining an important topic like slavery, an adaptation of Northrup’s memoir could have had remarkable educational, even inspirational value.
But “12 Years a Slave” is generally more concerned with making its audience wince than with forging an indelible imprint on the soul.
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and sexuality.
Bruce Bennett has been the primary contributor to Mad About Movies since it began in 2003. He is an award winning film and theater critic who, since 2000, has been writing a weekly column in The Spectrum daily newspaper in southern Utah as well as serving as a contributing editor of “The Independent,” a monthly entertainment magazine. He is also the co-host of “Film Fanatics” a movie review show which earned a Telly in 2009. Bruce is also a featured contributor at: RottenTomatoes.com
His motto: « I see bad movies so you don’t have to. »
February 08, 2014
The best aspect about America is its egalitarianism. The country respects and rewards the talented and the sincere. And despite serious racial issues, we saw America electing a black President, creating history.
And as Hollywood runs up to the Academy Awards on March 2, one of the questions is, will Steve McQueen be the first black director to win the Oscar. Interestingly, his 12 Years A Slave is all about the struggle of one black man to escape humiliating captivity he faces in the white man’s den.
At the moment, McQueen – though with an emotionally engaging film behind him – is not the favourite to walk away with the best director statuette. But if he does, he would be the first black helmer to actually clinch this Oscar, although there have been two other black directors who were nominated in the past. One of them was John Singleton for the 1992 Boyz n the Hood, and the other was Lee Daniels in 2009 for Precious.
McQueen’s win could be as historic as Kathryn Bigelow’s 2009 triumph with The Hurt Locker. She was the first woman director to have won the best director Oscar.
In a way, McQueen’s nomination comes in a year when black moviemakers have done exceedingly well. Fruitvale Station – about a real incident where a black teenager was killed by the police in Oakland — got the big prize at the Sundance Film Festival. And works like 42 (the black baseball player, Jackie Robinson biopic) and The Butler (probing the African American role in U.S. history) have been, along with 12 Years A Slave, lauded by critics.
On top of this, Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been talking about lack of diversity in the race for the Oscars.
Curiously, while black American helmers have done poorly, black actors have fared very well.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the protagonist Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave.
Solomon Northup (played by Ejiofor) was a free man who was abducted and sold into slavery.
Benedict Cumberbatch will also be seen in this film portraying the role of the benevolent slave master William Ford.
A shocking still with Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o.
Lupita Nyong’o has been appreciated for her stellar performance in the film.
Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor to win an Oscar in a supporting role way back in 1939 for Gone with the Wind – that brilliant movie on the American Civil War adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s only novel.
During the 1960s, Sidney Poitier took the best actor Oscar for Lilies of the Field. He was remarkable as a handyman helping some nuns to raise a chapel in a desert. Black actors, however, had to wait 40 long years before the Oscar went to Denzel Washington – Training Day in 2001. That year came as double whammy for black artists. Halle Berry became the first black to win the best actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball.
More recently, the likes of Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker and Viola Davis have been nominated for Academy Awards, and have won in some cases.
But no Oscar has ever rolled on to a black producer’s lap. Ditto, a black director. Will McQueen change this by beating his rivals?
September 22, 2013
LOS ANGELES — In the age of “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” questions about the accuracy of nonfiction films have become routine. With “12 Years a Slave,” based on a memoir published 160 years ago, the answers are anything but routine.
Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave,” a leading contender for honors during the coming movie awards season, tells a story that was summarized in the 33-word title of its underlying material.
Published by Derby & Miller in 1853, the book was called: “Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana.”
The real Solomon Northup — and years of scholarly research attest to his reality — fought an unsuccessful legal battle against his abductors. But he enjoyed a lasting triumph that began with the sale of some 30,000 copies of his book when it first appeared, and continued with its republication in 1968 by the historians Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon.
Speaking on Friday, Mr. Ridley said he decided simply to “stick with the facts” in adapting Northup’s book for the film, which is set for release on Oct. 18 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Mr. Ridley said he was helped by voluminous footnotes and documentation that were included with Ms. Eakin’s and Mr. Logsdon’s edition of the book.
For decades, however, scholars have been trying to untangle the literal truth of Mr. Northup’s account from the conventions of the antislavery literary genre.
The difficulties are detailed in “The Slave’s Narrative,” a compilation of essays that was published by the Oxford University Press in 1985, and edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Mr. Gates is now credited as a consultant to the film, and he edited a recent edition of “Twelve Years a Slave.”)
“When the abolitionists invited an ex-slave to tell his story of experience in slavery to an antislavery convention, and when they subsequently sponsored the appearance of that story in print, they had certain clear expectations, well understood by themselves and well understood by the ex-slave, too,” wrote one scholar, James Olney.
Mr. Olney was explaining pressures that created a certain uniformity of content in the popular slave narratives, with recurring themes that involved insistence on sometimes questioned personal identity, harrowing descriptions of oppression, and open advocacy for the abolitionist cause.
In his essay, called “I Was Born: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” Mr. Olney contended that Solomon Northup’s real voice was usurped by David Wilson, the white “amanuensis” to whom he dictated his tale, and who gave the book a preface in the same florid style that informs the memoir.
“We may think it pretty fine writing and awfully literary, but the fine writer is clearly David Wilson rather than Solomon Northup,” Mr. Olney wrote.
In another essay from the 1985 collection, titled “I Rose and Found My Voice: Narration, Authentication, and Authorial Control in Four Slave Narratives,” Robert Burns Stepto, a professor at Yale, detected textual evidence — assurances, disclaimers and such — that Solomon Northup expected some to doubt his story.
“Clearly, Northup felt that the authenticity of his tale would not be taken for granted, and that, on a certain peculiar but familiar level enforced by rituals along the color line, his narrative would be viewed as a fiction competing with other fictions,” wrote Mr. Stepto.
Mr. Stepto did not question Mr. Northup’s veracity; but he spotted one prominent example of a story point that conformed neatly to expectations. Mr. Northup’s account of being saved with the help of a Canadian named Samuel Bass (played in the film by Brad Pitt), wrote Mr. Stepto, “represents a variation on the archetype of deliverance in Canada.”
In an interview by phone on Friday, David A. Fiske — who recently joined Clifford W. Brown Jr. and Rachel Seligman in writing “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave” — said he believed he had now identified an Ontario-born man as the actual Samuel Bass to whom Northup referred.
Mr. Fiske, who did some paid research for the film, said that overall he had high confidence in the accuracy of Northup’s account. “He had a literalist approach to recording events,” he said.
Both Mr. Olney and Mr. Stepto had a further reservation, however. Each noted that a dedication page added to “Twelve Years a Slave” — which devoted the book to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and called it “another key” to her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — helped blur the line between literal and literary truth.
“The dedication, like the pervasive style, calls into serious question the status of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ as autobiography and/or literature,” Mr. Olney wrote.
Still, Mr. Ridley said the heavily documented story, with its many twists and turns, had an unpredictability that is a hallmark of the real.
“Life happens, it’s a lot stranger than the false beats that occur when people try to jam a narrative” into an expected framework, he said.
Steve McQueen’s film fudges several details of Solomon Northup’s autobiography—both intentionally and not—to more completely portray the horrors of slavery.
Oct 28 2013
At the beginning of 12 Years a Slave, the kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has a painful sexual encounter with an unnamed female slave in which she uses his hand to bring herself to orgasm before turning away in tears. The woman’s desperation, Solomon’s reserve, and the fierce sadness of both, is depicted with an unflinching still camera which documents a moment of human contact and bitter comfort in the face of slavery’s systematic dehumanization. It’s scenes like these in the film, surely, that lead critic Susan Wloszczyna to state that watching 12 Years a Slave makes you feel you have « actually witnessed American slavery in all its appalling horror for the first time. »
And yet, for all its verisimilitude, the encounter never happened. It appears nowhere in Northup’s autobiography, and it’s likely he would be horrified at the suggestion that he was anything less than absolutely faithful to his wife. Director Steve McQueen has said that he included the sexual encounter to show « a bit of tenderness … Then after she’s climaxes, she’s back … in hell. » The sequence is an effort to present nuance and psychological depth — to make the film’s depiction of slavery seem more real. But it creates that psychological truth by interpolating an incident that isn’t factually true.
This embellishment is by no means an isolated case in the film. For instance, in the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face—slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing. Northup himself contracted the disease, permanently scarring his face. It seems likely, therefore, that in this instance the original text was abandoned so that Ejiofor’s beautiful, expressive, haunting features would not go through the entire movie covered with artificial Hollywood scar make-up. Instead of faithfulness to the text, the film chooses faithfulness to Ejiofor’s face, unaltered by trickery.
It seems quite likely that the single most powerful moment in the film was based on a misunderstood antecedent.
Other changes seem less intentional. Perhaps the most striking scene in the film involves Patsey, a slave who is repeatedly raped by her master, Epps, and who as a consequence is jealously and obsessively brutalized by Mistress Epps. In the movie version, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) comes to Northup in the middle of the night and begs him, in vivid horrific detail, to drown her in the swamp and release her from her troubles. This scene derives from the following passage at the end of Chapter 13 of the autobiography:
Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp. Gladly would Patsey have appeased this unforgiving spirit, if it had been in her power, but not like Joseph, dared she escape from Master Epps, leaving her garment in his hand.
As you can see, in the book, it is Mistress Epps who wants to bribe Northup to drown Patsey. Patsey wants to escape, but not to drown herself. The film seems to have misread the line, attributing the mistress’s desires to Patsey. Slate, following the lead of scholar David Fiske (see both the article and the correction) does the same. In short, it seems quite likely that the single most powerful moment in the film was based on a misunderstood antecedent.
Critic Isaac Butler recently wrote a post attacking what he calls the « realism canard »—the practice of judging fiction by how well it conforms to reality. « We’re talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy, » Butler argues, and adds, « What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work’s purposes. » (Emphasis is Butler’s.)
His point is well-taken. But it’s worth adding that whether something « feels true » is often closely related to whether the work manages to create an illusion not just of truth, but also of accuracy. Whether it’s period detail in a costume romance or the brutal cruelty of the drug trade in Breaking Bad, fiction makes insistent claims not just to general overarching truth, but to specific, accurate detail. The critics Butler discusses may sometimes reduce the first to the second, but they do so in part because works of fiction themselves often rely on a claim to accuracy in order to make themselves appear true.
This is nowhere more the case than in slave narratives themselves. Often published by abolitionist presses or in explicit support of the abolitionist cause, slave narratives represented themselves as accurate, first-person accounts of life under slavery. Yet, as University of North Carolina professor William Andrews has discussed in To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, the representation of accuracy, and, for that matter, of first-person account, required a good deal of artifice. To single out just the most obvious point, Andrews notes that many slave narratives were told to editors, who wrote down the oral account and prepared them for publication. Andrews concludes that « It would be naïve to accord dictated oral narratives the same discursive status as autobiographies composed and written by the subjects of the stories themselves. »
12 Years a Slave is just such an oral account. Though Northup was literate, his autobiography was written by David Wilson, a white lawyer and state legislator from Glens Falls, New York. While the incidents in Northup’s life have been corroborated by legal documents and much research, Andrews points out that the impact of the autobiography—its sense of truth—is actually based in no small part on the fact that it is not told by Northup, but by Wilson, who had already written two books of local history. Because he was experienced, Andrews says, Wilson’s « fictionalizing … does not call attention to itself so much » as other slave narratives, which tend to be steeped in a sentimental tradition « that often discomfits and annoys 20th-century critics. » Northup’s autobiography feels less like fiction, in other words, because its writer is so experienced with fiction. Similarly, McQueen’s film feels true because it is so good at manipulating our sense of accuracy. The first sex scene, for example, speaks to our post-Freud, post-sexual-revolution belief that, isolated for 12 years far from home, Northup would be bound to have some sort of sexual encounters, even if (especially if?) he does not discuss them in his autobiography.
We can’t « actually witness … American slavery » on film or in a book. You can only experience it by experiencing it. Pretending otherwise is presumptuous.
The difference between book and movie, then, isn’t that one is true and the other false, but rather that the tropes and tactics they use to create a feeling of truth are different. The autobiography, for instance, actually includes many legal documents as appendices. It also features lengthy descriptions of the methods of cotton farming. No doubt this dispassionate, minute accounting of detail was meant to show Northup’s knowledge of the regions where he stayed, and so validate the truth of his account. To modern readers, though, the touristy attention to local customs can make Northup sound more like a traveling reporter than like a man who is himself in bondage. Some anthropological asides are even more jarring; in one case, Northup refers to a slave rebel named Lew Cheney as « a shrewd, cunning negro, more intelligent than the generality of his race. » That description would sound condescending and prejudiced if a white man wrote it. Which, of course, a white man named David Wilson did.
A story about slavery, a real, horrible crime, inevitably involves an appeal to reality—the story has to seem accurate if it is to be accepted as true. But that seeming accuracy requires artifice and fiction—a cool distance in one case, an acknowledgement of sexuality in another. And then, even with the best will in the world, there are bound to be mistakes and discrepancies, as with Mistress Epps’s plea for murder transforming into Patsey’s wish for death. Given the difficulties and contradictions, one might conclude that it would be better to openly acknowledge fiction. From this perspective, Django Unchained, which deliberately treats slavery as genre, or Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which acknowledges the role of the present in shaping the past through a fantasy time-travel narrative, are, more true than 12 Years a Slave or Glory precisely because they do not make a claim to historical accuracy. We can’t « actually witness … American slavery » on film or in a book. You can only experience it by experiencing it. Pretending otherwise is presumptuous.
But refusing to try to recapture the experience and instead deciding to, say, treat slavery as a genre Western, can be presumptuous in its own way as well. The writers of the original slave narratives knew that to end injustice, you must first acknowledge that injustice exists. Accurate stories about slavery—or, more precisely, stories that carried the conviction of accuracy, were vital to the abolitionist cause.
And, for that matter, they’re still vital. Outright lies about slavery and its aftermath, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind, have defaced American cinema for a long time. To go forward more honestly, we need accounts of our past that, like the slave narratives themselves, use accuracy and art in the interest of being more true. That’s what McQueen, Ejiofor, and the rest of the cast and crew are trying to do in 12 Years a Slave. Pointing out the complexity of the task is not meant to belittle their attempt, but to honor it.
12 Years a Slave We’ve sorted out what’s fact and what’s fiction in the new Steve McQueen movie.
Steve McQueen’s devastating new movie, 12 Years a Slave, begins with the words “based on a true story” and ends with a description of what happened to Solomon Northup and his assailants after he was restored to freedom. What happens in between, as Northup is kidnapped into 12 years of slavery in the South, frequently beggars the imagination. Should you believe even the most incredible details of its story?
With a few rare exceptions, yes. 12 Years a Slave is based on the book of the same name, which was written by Northup with the help of his “amanuensis” and ghostwriter, David Wilson. Aspects of the story’s telling have been questioned by some historians for matching the conventions of the slave narrative genre a little too neatly, but its salient facts were authenticated by the historian Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon for their landmark 1968 edition of the book. (They were also reported at the time of the book’s release—in the New York Times and elsewhere.)
As adapted by screenwriter John Ridley from Northup’s book and Eakin and Logsdon’s footnotes, the film adaptation hews very closely to Northup’s telling. While much of the story is condensed, and a few small scenes are invented, nearly all of the most unbelievable details come straight from the book, and many lines are taken verbatim. As Frederick Douglass wrote of the book upon its release in 1853, “Its truth is stranger than fiction.”
Solomon Northup was the son of Mintus Northup, who was a slave in Rhode Island and New York until his master freed him in his will. Solomon was born a free man and received an unusually good education for a black man of his time, eventually coming to work as a violinist and a carpenter. As in the movie, he was married to Anne Hampton, who was of mixed race, and they had three children—Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. His wife and children were away when he was offered an unusually profitable gig from his eventual kidnappers, who called themselves Hamilton and Brown.
The movie prefaces its scenes of Northup in New York with a flash-forward that is McQueen and Ridley’s invention: Solomon, while enslaved, turns to find an unidentified woman in bed with him. She grabs his hand and uses it to bring herself to orgasm. McQueen has said of the scene: “I just wanted a bit of tenderness—the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.
In his book, Northup refused to say whether Hamilton and Brown were guilty of his kidnapping. He notes that he got extraordinary headaches after having a drink with them one night, and became sick and delirious soon afterward, but cannot conclude with assurety that he was poisoned. “Though suspicions of Brown and Hamilton were not unfrequent,” he writes, “I could not reconcile myself to the idea that they were instrumental to my imprisonment.”
Northup came around to accepting their role in his kidnapping and unlawful sale—an unusual occurrence, but not unique to Northup—soon after the book was published. “Hamilton” and “Brown” weren’t even their real names. A judge, Thaddeus St. John of New York, read the book soon after its release, and realized that he himself had run into the two kidnappers when they were with Northup. Their real names were Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, but they asked that St. John, who knew them, not use their real names around Northup. The next time St. John saw them, they had come into some newfound wealth: They carried ivory canes and sported gold watches. Northup and St. John eventually met up, recognized each other immediately, and brought their case against Merrill and Russell. (A note about the case appeared in the New York Times.) Merrill and Russell apparently got off unpunished, after their case was dropped on technicalities.
The Journey Into Slavery
The movie’s telling of Northup’s journey into slavery in Louisiana matches Northup’s account almost exactly. Northup says he was beaten with a paddle until the paddle broke, only to be whipped after that, all just for asserting his true identity. We see this in the movie. But an attempted mutiny by Northup and others ends much differently in the film than it does in his own account.
Northup did hatch an elaborate plan to take over a ship with a freeman named Arthur and a slave named Robert (played in the movie by Michael K. Williams). But that plan did not end with Robert coming to the defense of Eliza (Adepero Oduye) against an apparent rape attempt by a sailor, and then being stabbed by that sailor. What foiled their plans was simpler: Robert got smallpox and died.
Northup gives a more charitable account of his onetime master, William Ford, than the movie does. “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford,” Northup writes, adding that Ford’s circumstances “blinded [Ford] to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.” The movie, on the other hand, frequently undermines Ford, highlighting his hypocrisy by, for example, overlaying his sermons with the mournful screams of his slave Eliza.
Northup actually had two violent encounters with Tibeats. The first scuffle, over a set of nails, is shown in the movie: According to Northup, Tibeats tried to whip him, Northup resisted, and eventually Northup grabbed Tibeats’ whip and beat his aggressor. Afterward, Northup was left bound and on the point of hanging for several hours, before Ford rescued him.
In the book, there is a second brawl over another of Tibeats’ unreasonable demands. According to Northup, he again prevailed, but was afraid of the repercussions, and so this time attempted to run away. Unable to survive on his own in the surrounding swamps, he eventually returned in tatters to Ford, who had mercy on him.
Judging from Northup’s book, Epps was even more villainous and repulsive than the movie suggests. In addition to his cruel “dancing moods”—during which he would force the exhausted slaves to dance, screaming “Dance, niggers, dance,” and whipping them if they tried to rest—Epps also had his “whipping moods.” When he would come home drunk and overcome with one of these moods, he would drive the slaves around the yard, whipping them for fun.
There’s another small change. The scene that introduces Epps—his reading of Luke 12:47 as a warning to slaves—is actually borrowed from another of the book’s characters: Ford’s brother-in-law, Peter Tanner. In the movie, Northup’s time with Tanner—with whom he lived after his first fight with Tibeats—is omitted.
Northup does not portray the relationship between Epps and Patsey as explicitly as the movie does, but he does refer to Epps’ “lewd intentions” toward her. As we see in the film, Mistress Epps encourages Master Epps to whip her, out of her own jealousy. This culminates in the horrible whipping shown in the movie, which Northup describes as “the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness,” saying she was “literally flayed.” Her request afterward that Northup kill her, to put her out of her misery, is the movie’s own invention, but it’s a logical one: Patsey is described as falling into a deep depression and, it’s implied, dreaming of the relief death would offer her.*
As in the book, Mistress Shaw is the black wife of a plantation owner. However, Patsey’s conversation with Shaw is invented. McQueen and Ridley said they wanted to give Woodard’s character a voice.
As unlikely as his character is—an abolitionist in Louisiana, and a contrarian who everyone likes—Bass is drawn straight from the book’s account. His argument with Epps (“but begging the law’s pardon, it lies,” “There will be a reckoning yet”) is reproduced almost verbatim.
The real Bass, in fact, did more for Northup, sending multiple letters on his behalf, meeting with him in the middle of the night to hear his story, and—when they initially got no response from their letters—vowing to travel up to New York himself, to secure Northup’s freedom. The process took months, and Northup’s freedom eventually came from Bass’s first letter after all, so the movie understandably chooses to elide all this.
The Return Home
Northup’s return home is much as it is in the book, including Solomon’s learning that his daughter Margaret (who was 7 years old when he last saw her) now had a child of her own, named Solomon Northup. One devastating detail is left out: After 12 years apart, Margaret did not recognize her father.
*Correction, Nov. 4, 2013: This post was corrected to suggest a scene from the movie 12 Years a Slave was drawn from the book. The original article was accurate: Patsey’s plea for Northup to kill her was an invention of the movie. The original language has been restored.
13th January 2014
As part of our new series, Dr Emily West, an associate professor of history at the University of Reading, reviews 12 Years a Slave – a true story about a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery
Q: Did you enjoy the film?
A: The subject matter made 12 Years a Slave a very uncomfortable film to watch, although some of the actors gave astonishing performances.
I thought Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Solomon Northup) acted with incredible intensity, as did Michael Fassbender, who played Northup’s violent and sadistic master, Edwin Epps.
Steve McQueen’s unique direction used lingering close ups and poignant imagery of rural Louisiana in the days of slavery, which only added to the great tragedy of Northup’s harrowing story.
Enslaved people commonly described having ‘trees of scars’ on their backs – the result of brutal whippings they received from their masters or other people, and this film shockingly displayed the regularity of such treatment.
Moreover, we also witnessed, in truly horrific fashion, the myriad of circumstances under which enslaved men and women’s ‘trees of scars’ came into being. In one incident, Edwin Epps forces Solomon Northup at gunpoint to whip another slave, Patsey, until she collapses from pain. Yet Patsey’s only ‘crime’ was to leave her plantation in search of a bar of soap to clean herself.
Overall, I was pleased to see the highly realistic depictions of enslaved women’s lives in this film, especially the often-brutal sexual assaults they endured at the hands of white men. For example, Edwin Epps rapes Patsey and takes a sadistic pleasure in seeing her whipped. Mrs Epps, the plantation mistress, reacts in a typically jealous fashion by ‘blaming the victim’, and lashing out violently against Patsey.
White women rarely sought to help their enslaved women enduring sexual abuse.
Q: Was the film historically accurate?
A: I have never seen a film represent slavery so accurately. The film starkly and powerfully unveiled the sights and sounds of enslavement – from slaves picking cotton as they sang in the fields, to the crack of the lash down people’s backs.
I found the scene in the New Orleans slave market especially moving because of the juxtaposition between the refined, mid-19th-century house, from which a trader sold enslaved people, and the raw nakedness and commodification of the black bodies within it.
The trader made men and women strip naked for potential purchasers who looked inside slaves’ mouths to check the quality of their teeth. Buyers also ran their hands down slaves’ backs and arms to check for physical strength and agility, and no doubt they also viewed the naked enslaved women in terms of their sexual attractiveness and childbearing ability.
It was heartbreaking to see Solomon Northup’s friend, Eliza, so cruelly separated from her two children, Emily and Randall, as they were all sold to different owners.
We also heard a lot about the ideology behind enslavement. Masters such as William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps, although very different characters, both used an interpretation of Christianity to justify their ownership of slaves. They believed the Bible sanctioned slavery, and that it was their ‘Christian duty’ to preach the scriptures to their slaves.
Q: What did the film get right?
A: The film depicted the overall slave regime and all its horrors extremely well, but it also added depth and nuance to our understanding of slavery’s complexities. Masters such as Edwin Epps commonly hired out their slaves in times of economic need, and in the film we see Solomon Northup and other enslaved men being hired to a man to chop sugar cane – a crop grown primarily in Louisiana in the United States.
I was also impressed by the film’s awareness of social class: Solomon Northup comes into contact with various white men of lower social standing, some of whom are paid by Epps to labour alongside slaves. Indeed, it is one of these men, known only as ‘Bass’ (played by Brad Pitt), who helps Northup escape his ordeal. Bass brings an acquaintance of Solomon Northup to the plantation to confirm his free status, after which Northup returns to his family.
The film also got the smaller details right. For example, all enslaved people leaving their plantations had to have a written pass, in case they came across white patrollers (people employed to track down runaway slaves). When Solomon Northup leaves his plantation on an errand for Mrs Epps, he wore such a pass around his neck.
The film also succeeded in highlighting the stark visual contrast between the opulence of plantations mansions and the dingy, cramped, over-crowded quarters of the enslaved.
Q: What did it miss?
A: This is a minor point, but I felt the film possibly over-emphasised Solomon Northup’s social standing in New York state prior to his enslavement. In the film, Northup appears as a wealthy, successful individual, making a good living as a carpenter and musician. He wears smart clothes and appears to live in a tolerant, racially integrated community where skin colour does not matter.
But in reality, Northern black people were everyday victims of white racism and discrimination, and in the free states of the North, black people were typically the ‘last hired and first fired’. Notably, in his autobiography Northup himself describes the everyday “obstacle of color” in his life prior to his kidnapping and subsequent enslavement.
Nevertheless, I can understand why the filmmakers wanted to present a strong juxtaposition between Northup’s life as a free man in the North and the physical and mental trauma he endured while enslaved in the South.
A Discussion of Steve McQueen’s Film ‘12 Years a Slave’
Interviews by NELSON GEORGE
October 11, 2013
Amid comic book epics, bromantic comedies and sequels of sequels, films about America’s tortured racial history have recently emerged as a surprisingly lucrative Hollywood staple. In the last two years, “The Help,” “Lincoln, » »Django Unchained, » »42” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” have performed well at the box office, gathering awards in some cases and drawing varying degrees of critical acclaim.
The latest entry in this unlikely genre is “12 Years a Slave,” the director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. A free black man living in Saratoga, N.Y., Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into brutal servitude in the Deep South. During his ordeal, he labors at different plantations, including the one owned by the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has a tortured sexual relationship with the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
Following a buzzed-about preview screening at the Telluride Film Festival and the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, “12 Years a Slave” arrives in theaters Friday amid much online chatter that it may be headed for Oscar nominations. But Mr. Ejiofor, who portrays Northup, and Mr. McQueen, known for the bracingly austere “Hunger” and “Shame,” both say that getting audiences to see an uncompromisingly violent and quietly meditative film about America’s “peculiar institution” is still a challenge even with the presence of a producer, Brad Pitt, in a small role.
While the material was developed by Americans (including the screenwriter John Ridley) the director and most of the major cast members are British, a topic of concern among some early black commentators.
On a sweltering afternoon in SoHo last month, the author and filmmaker Nelson George led a round-table discussion at the Crosby Street Hotel with Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen. Joining them to provide a wider historical and artistic context were the Columbia University professor Eric Foner, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” among other books; and the artist Kara Walker, whose room-size tableaus of the Old South employing silhouettes have redefined how history and slavery are depicted in contemporary art and influenced many, including the “12 Years a Slave” production team. Current civil rights issues including the New York police practice of stop and frisk, recently declared unconstitutional; sexuality and slavery; Hollywood’s version of American history; and the themes of Obama-era cinema were among the topics of the sharp but polite dialogue. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Mr. Ejiofor, center, in the film “12 Years a Slave.”
Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Mr. Ejiofor, center, in the film “12 Years a Slave.”
Q. I wanted to start with contemporary analogues. One thing that came to mind was stop and frisk, a way the New York City police could stop a black or Latino male. I thought of Solomon as a character who, for a lot of contemporary audiences, would be that young black person. [To Mr. McQueen and Mr. Ejiofor] When you were seeking a way into the slave story, was what happens now part of that?
Steve McQueen Absolutely. History has a funny thing of repeating itself. Also, it’s the whole idea of once you’ve left the cinema, the story continues. Over a century and a half to the present day. I mean, you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street.
What do you mean?
McQueen The prison population, mental illness, poverty, education. We could go on forever.
Chiwetel, how did you balance what’s going on in the world with [Northup’s] reality?
Chiwetel Ejiofor That wasn’t the approach for me. I was trying to tell the story of Solomon Northup as he experienced his life. He didn’t know where all this was going. My journey started finishing a film in Nigeria. The last day, I went to the slave museum in Calabar, which was four or five rooms and some books, some interesting drawings of what they thought happened to people when the boats took them over. I left the following day and came to Louisiana. In my own way, I traveled that route.
Professor, your reaction to the film, its place in the contemporary discussion about slavery.
Eric Foner I believe this is a piece of history that everybody — black, white, Asian, everybody — has to know. You cannot understand the United States without knowing about the history of slavery. Having said that, I don’t think we should go too far in drawing parallels to the present. Slavery was a horrific institution, and it is not the same thing as stop and frisk. In a way, putting it back to slavery takes the burden off the present. The guys who are acting in ways that lead to inequality today are not like the plantation owner. They’re guys in three-piece suits. They’re bankers who are pushing African-Americans into subprime mortgages.
Kara, what are your thoughts on this?
Kara Walker There’s a uniquely American exuberance for violence or an exuberance for getting ahead in the world and making a name for themselves. I’m talking about the sort of plantation class that fought for the entrenchment of the slave system. That’s not something that can be overlooked when you think about the mythology of what it means to be an American, that one can become a self-made man if one is white and male and able.
Foner One of the things I liked about the movie and the way it portrayed violence, it’s pretty hard to take sometimes. But what it really highlights is the capriciousness of it. The owners, at one moment they’re trying to be pleasant, and the next moment they’re whipping you. You’re always kind of on this edge of not knowing. In fact slavery is like that at large. You don’t know when you’re going to be sold away from your family. People like to have some kind of stability in their life, but you can’t as a slave.
Servitude and Sexuality
There’s a lot of things to say about sex in the film, but one of the things that is going to leap out is Alfre Woodard’s character [Mistress Shaw, described in the book as the black wife of a white plantation owner].
McQueen In the book, she doesn’t say anything. I had a conversation with John Ridley, and I said: “Look, we need a scene with this woman. I want her to have tea.” It was very simple. Give her a voice.
Walker It’s not that it was that uncommon. That planter would be sort of the crazy one, the eccentric one, and she’s getting by.
Ejiofor It was against the law to marry, but it did happen.
Foner There were four million slaves in the U.S. in 1860 and several hundred thousand slave owners. It wasn’t just a homogeneous system. It had every kind of human variation you can imagine. There were black plantation owners in Louisiana, black slave owners.
Walker I was going to ask a question about a black woman who appears, a mysterious woman Solomon has sex with. She has sex with him, rather. I thought she was going to be a character in the film, and then she wasn’t.
McQueen Slaves are working all day. Their lives are owned, but those moments, they have to themselves. I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.
Solomon has a wife beforehand. In the film it seems as if he lived with Eliza [a fellow slave]. Then obviously [he has] some kind of relationship with Patsey, a friendship. But I wondered about Solomon’s own sexual expression.
Ejiofor His sexuality felt slightly more of a tangent. I think the real story is where sex is in terms of power.
Foner Remember, this book is one of the most remarkable first-person accounts of slavery. But it’s also a piece of propaganda. It’s written to persuade people that slavery needs to be abolished. He doesn’t say anything about sexual relations he may have had as a slave. There’s no place for such a discussion because of the purpose of the book.
Walker But in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” [by Harriet Ann Jacobs] and other slave narratives written by women, that’s always kind of the subtext, because there are children that are produced, relationships that are formed or allegiances that are formed with white men in order to have freedom.
Foner Harriet Jacobs was condemned by many people for revealing this, even antislavery people.
Walker Yes, but it’s always the subtext. Even “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It’s like, there’s little mulatto children, and that’s the evidence.
Unlike most American directors, you’re not cutting all over the place. You put the camera there, and you let us experience the moment that is part of the lore of America, the slave master raping the black female slave [Patsey].
McQueen I didn’t want people to get out of it. Within that you see his actual love for her in a way. Obviously, the love isn’t given back to him, and it’s a horrendous rape.
Walker Staying on that scene and coming back to Patsey over and over, she is abused and deteriorating and wanting to die. We don’t need to see that scene over and over again.
McQueen I have huge sympathy for Epps, though. He’s in love with this woman and he doesn’t understand it. Why is he in love with this slave? He goes about trying to destroy his love for her by destroying her. The madness starts.
A View From Abroad
One of the things that has come up in early response to the film is a question from some black folks in America about the perspective, the fact that you are both foreigners, as it were.
Walker It will never be right for the black folks in America, I’m sorry. You can say it’s a historical document ——
McQueen Can I jump in there, please? I am British. My parents are from Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother comes from. Stokely Carmichael is Trinidadian. We could go on and on. It’s about that diaspora.
Ejiofor When I was in Savannah, Ga., they were telling me how they used to have special chains for the Igbos [a Nigerian ethnic group]. I told the man, “I’m Igbo.” Not having any sense of the internationalism of this event is a bad thing. I loved the fact that there were people from different places coming together to tell this story.
McQueen The only thing you can say about it is: Why was this book lost in America?
Foner Obviously, it wasn’t a best seller. Maybe it will be now. But it’s widely known. It’s used all over the place in history courses. Along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, this is probably the most widely read of what we call the slave narratives.
The Past in Hollywood’s Lens
Foner [To McQueen] I think it’s good that you are not a Hollywood director. Most Hollywood history is self-important in a way that this movie is not.
Walker The audience is intelligent. They could actually stand in Solomon’s shoes and go through the adventure together instead of the kind of voice-over Hollywood black Americana thing. That’s what I’m talking about with ownership. Over the years, you have this kind of heavy-handed style of narration. Cicely Tyson comes out with the makeup on and tells her story in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”
Can I bring up those heavy-handed Hollywood movies, since we’re on that topic? “Lincoln” as well as, obviously, “Django.” It seems like in the last few years, there have been black historical dramas that have been made out of Hollywood. We can throw in “The Help,” “The Butler.” There’s one theory that this is all a reaction to Obama’s presidency.
Ejiofor There’s probably not one cause. I’d say that’s true for a couple of those movies. Obama gets elected. People think we haven’t done the Jackie Robinson story yet. And some of these stories are great stories. The received idea has been it doesn’t sell well. But you have a couple of movies do incredibly good business.
Walker But Obama also wrote his autobiography. I think that might be a part of it, not just that there’s a person in power, but that he’s a best-selling author, getting large portions of America — black, white and other — to become a part of his story.
Foner The daddy, I suppose, of all this was “Glory,” which came out in the late ‘80s. “Roots,” of course, comes before that. All of them suffer from what I see as the problem of Hollywood history. Even in this movie, there’s a tendency toward: You’ve got to have one hero or one figure. That’s why historians tend to be a little skeptical about Hollywood history, because you lose the sense of group or mass.
Ejiofor But that’s movies as well.
Walker I was going to disagree a little bit. I didn’t find him particularly heroic, in that Frederick Douglass sense. He’s a little bit more compromised by more than just slavery. There’s this past, what he does or doesn’t do for Patsey. All of that makes him a much more complicated figure in a way.
McQueen I don’t think we should underplay Obama’s presidency and the effect of these films coming to fruition. The problem is: When he’s not the president anymore, will these films still exist?
The Historical Moment
[To the filmmakers] There’s a lot of talk about awards for the film. Is that relevant to you?
Ejiofor I’m always nervous when people start talking about hype and heat. It’s a story about a man who went through something remarkable. I feel like that still deserves its own reflection.
McQueen I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.
[To Walker and Foner] What are your feelings about the impact it will have on people?
Walker I’m a sponge for historical images of black people and black history on film. It doesn’t happen often enough, and it doesn’t happen artfully enough most of the time when it does happen. I came away with this really kind of awful sense that I didn’t want to leave. The texture of the film made me want to stay in this space that would not be hospitable to me. Thinking also about who would see the film, I think about my parents, in Georgia. I think about the theater where they will see the film. People will go to the mall to see one of those Tyler Perry films and action films. Would this film make it there, and if it did, would it translate? My hope was that this film would reach that audience down there and have that sort of complicated space open up for them that wasn’t just an easy laugh or an easy cry.
Foner I think this movie is much more real, to choose a word like that, than most of the history you see in the cinema. It gets you into the real world of slavery. That’s not easy to do. Also, there are little touches that are very revealing, like a flashback where a slave walks into a shop in Saratoga. Yes, absolutely, Southerners brought slaves into New York State. People went on vacation, and they brought a slave.
McQueen I think people are ready. With Trayvon Martin, voting rights, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a black president, I think there’s a sort of perfect storm of events. I think people actually want to reflect on that horrendous recent past in order to go forward.
THR’s awards analyst breaks down how this year’s top contenders are being targeted for accuracy — and how they’re fighting back.
How do you know it’s awards season in Hollywood? When people start trash-talking good movies! As this year’s race to the Dolby gets underway, here are five examples of how contenders are being targeted — and defended.
FILM: 12 Years a Slave
CRITICISM: The best picture frontrunner is always targeted, and this one is no exception. No one disputes its central facts — in mid-19th century America, a free black man from the north named Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south — which were recounted in Northup’s autobiography and substantiated by historians. But an article in The New York Times on Sept. 22 dredged up and highlighted a 1985 essay by another scholar, James Olney, that questioned the « literal truth » of specific incidents in Northup’s account and suggested that David Wilson, the white « amanuensis » to whom Northup had dictated his story, had taken the liberty of sprucing it up to make it even more effective at rallying public opinion against slavery.
BACKLASH: Henry Louis Gates, one of America’s most well-known and respected scholars of black history and a co-editor of the 1985 compilation of essays in which Olney’s piece was included, served as a paid consultant on the film and spoke out in its defense after the Times article. « I know Northup’s narrative like the back of my hand and [the filmmakers] followed the text with great fidelity, » he told Mother Jones. « There’s no question about the historical accuracy. They did a wonderful job. »
FILM: Captain Phillips
CRITICISM: The New York Post ran a story on Oct. 13 with the headline « Crew Members: ‘Captain Phillips’ Is One Big Lie, » wherein it quoted several people who served under Richard Phillips on the cargo ship that he was captaining when it was hijacked — who were not named — ridiculing the film’s heroic portrayal of him. According to them, Phillips had a reputation for recklessness, disregarded warnings about piracy that could have prevented the incident and has since reframed the facts to make himself appear more heroic. The Post reported that crewmembers who cooperated with the film « were paid as little as $5,000 for their life rights by Sony and made to sign nondisclosure agreements — meaning they can never speak publicly about what really happened on that ship. »
BACKLASH: Many dismissed the Post story because it didn’t identify the crewmembers, who might be among the nine currently suing the cargo company for not better protecting them. Additionally, director Paul Greengrass wrote during a Reddit « Ask Me Anything » session that he and former 60 Minutes producer Michael Bronner, a colleague, « researched the background of the Maersk Alabama hijacking in exhausting detail over many months » and are « 100 percent satisfied that the picture we present of these events in the film … is authentic. I stand by the picture I give in the film, absolutely. » Phillips’ chief mate Shane Murphy also told a reporter emphatically, « The movie is accurate. »
CRITICISM: Critics have cheered the drama for portraying space so convincingly, but some scientists have received it less kindly. On Oct. 6, noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson fact-checked it on Twitter in a series of 20 late-night tweets, pointing out, among other things, that satellites orbit Earth west to east so it’s strange that their debris orbited east to west; that the Hubble, the International Space Station and a Chinese Space Station are actually too far apart to be within sightlines of one another; and that, in zero-gravity conditions, a person would not drift away just because a tether is disconnected.
BACKLASH: On Oct. 10, Tyson posted a long note to Facebook remarking that he was « stunned » by the amount of media attention that his tweets received and stating, for the record, that he actually enjoyed the film. « For a film « to ‘earn’ the right to be criticized on a scientific level is a high compliment indeed, » he insisted, and he said that he regretted « not first tweeting the hundred things the movie got right. » Additionally, astronaut Buzz Aldrin wrote a guest column in the Oct. 11 issue of THR in which he asserted, « I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. Going through the space station was done just the way that I’ve seen people do it in reality. » He acknowledged that the film was not devoid of scientific errors, but wrote that he was overall « very, very impressed » with it.
FILM: Lee Daniels’ The Butler
CRITICISM: The film revolves around one Cecil Gaines, a black man who worked in the White House under each president from Eisenhower to Reagan. The character is based on Eugene Allen, a black man who worked in the White House under each president from Truman through Reagan. In addition to that minor discrepancy, critics have highlighted the fact that the real man had one son, not two; that the son he had was neither killed in Vietnam, as one fictional son is, nor a radical member of the Black Panther party who later ran for elected office, as the other is; that he did not leave his job out of displeasure with Reagan’s Apartheid policy, but was actually particularly fond of the Reagans and just retired; and that there is no record of him ever meeting President Obama, although he did attend Obama’s first inauguration.
BACKLASH: The film advertises itself as being « inspired by true events, » not faithfully re-creating them, so those associated with it suggest that these creative liberties should be non-issues. To this end, the WGA has officially classified Danny Strong’s script as an original screenplay, not one adapted from Wil Haygood’s 2008 Washington Post article that it acknowledges in its credits, and The Weinstein Co. is pushing it for a best original screenplay Oscar nomination.
FILM: Saving Mr. Banks
CRITICISM: Critics of the drama about the making of Mary Poppins say that it presents a sanitized, whitewashed version of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks), noting that Disney’s movie studio, which financed and is distributing the film, would never associate itself with anything else. Disney was, in fact, not just a happy-go-lucky dreamer, but also a somewhat controversial figure: a hardcore right-winger who clashed bitterly with labor unions and whose views toward racial and religious minorities were not always admirable — facts that are, of course, not touched upon in Banks. According to Hanks, Disney wouldn’t even allow the filmmakers to show three-packs-a-day smoker Disney with a cigarette in his hands.
BACKLASH: The film has been wholeheartedly endorsed by composer Richard Sherman, who was one of only two songwriters ever under contract to Disney — the other was his late brother and collaborator Robert, with whom he co-wrote the score for Mary Poppins — and who knew Walt better than just about anyone who is alive today. It’s hard to imagine that he would so closely align himself with a film that misrepresented Disney’s essence.
Valerie Elverton Dixon
Religion ought to connect us.
The root of the word is ligare. It is the same root as the word ligature, the stuff that holds the skeleton together. At its best, religion helps us to see the spiritual ligature that connects us, and shows us that the notion that we are individual particles floating separate and apart in a beam of sunlight is a deception. We are tied together by the breath of life.
When religion rips, tears, breaks, fractures, it leaves our fragile humanity broken, dazed, confused, and dangerous. From this brokenness true horrors are born. One such abomination was the slave system in the United States depicted in the recently-released movie “12 Years a Slave.” This movie, based on a true story, follows Solomon Northup from his comfortable life as a free African American musician living with this wife and two children in New York state to a life in slavery after he is kidnapped in Washington, D.C. It is a powerful film that tells a powerful story that many people in the United Sates do not want to remember.
The movie shows us a fractured Christianity. People take their Bible in pieces. A slave owner uses a tiny fragment of Scripture to justify torture. An African American woman who has found favor with her master, who lives well with servants serving her, finds solace in the story of the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. She believes that God in God’s own time will deliver an epic punishment for the sin of slavery. Another fragment. Then there is the white itinerant worker who tells the slave owner that there is no justice in slavery, that there are laws that apply to all human beings equally.
Did the slave system break religion or did a broken religion allow the slave system?
In the movie we see how the songs of faith —Roll Jordan Roll— gave enslaved people the strength to endure the degradations of slavery. And those indignities were numerous: children sold away from parents causing ceaseless lamentation, the humiliation of losing sovereignty over one’s own body. Someone else can use your body for work, sex, revenge, physical and psychological torture, and the satisfaction of their own insane will-to-power.
We see the sad fact that oppression oppresses everyone—slave master, mistress, all classes and all races. Everyone is afraid.
Thomas Jefferson knew this to be true about slavery. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he describes African Americans through the lens of white supremacy. His prediction on the possibility of the races ever living together in harmony in the United States is thoroughly pessimistic. However he is clear-eyed when he sees the harm slavery does to both master and slave. He writes: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” (Query XVIII) He writes further: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
The fear of such retribution has kept white supremacy in place all these years. The fear that if oppressed people ever get power that they will perpetrate the same oppression as was perpetrated against them forces people to continue living inside delusions of race, class, sex, sexual orientation. And we too often use religion as a justification for this fear.
I say: 12 Years a Slave is a difficult movie to watch, but an important movie to see. It is important to see so that we may knit together the various strands of our religious faith and let it bind us back to true human unity, back to our own humanity, back to justice and even to love.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is the founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.
What could any of us do, but pray for mercy?
Kenneth R. Morefield
October 18, 2013
I’d be skeptical of any review of 12 Years a Slave (which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend and releases to theaters next month) that does not begin and end with « Lord, have mercy on us. » For all its technical merits, the film stands or falls as a moral argument: « Slavery is an evil that should befall no one, » says Bass, played by the film’s producer – Brad Pitt – in a small but crucial role.
12 Years a Slave makes plenty of assertions. Some are subtle; most are painfully simple. But all of them come in an immersive experience that operates from the inside out, that moves the viewer by engaging the whole person – body, mind, and soul.
The story is based on the narrative of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black citizen from New York who is kidnapped while on a trip to Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery. We’re meant to assume that he is drugged by his white performing partners.
When he awakes in a basement cell, the camera pans slowly upward to the Washington skyline, juxtaposing icons of freedom and democracy with the painful image of imprisonment and oppression. It is a forceful shot, perhaps the most on-the-nose of the film, and I wouldn’t be surprised if less sympathetic reviewers accuse McQueen of being too heavy handed.
Except how can one be too heavy handed about slavery? Isn’t part of our irritation because we want, need, and have come to expect our individual and corporate failures to be forgiven as soon as they are acknowledged and glossed over in safe abstractions and historical generalizations?
In many ways, Northrup, an educated free man, is the ideal avatar for the modern audience. He, like us, does not come to slavery naturally or easily. Also like us, he tries and fails to understand slavery, master its internal logic, and use his intelligence to do the right things in order to survive. Solomon frequently replies with some form of « just as instructed » when confronted by power, as though perfectly following instructions gives some modicum of protection in a world where nobody forces the rich and powerful to be fair and reasonable.
But what if there is no rhyme or reason, no logic, no right move to be played? How can someone find protection in being a perfect slave, when slavery itself is a series of irreconcilable orders and impossible commands? We all like to believe that we could transcend these circumstances, that the values and beliefs instilled in us could equip us to make the right decisions. But what about when one must always do more with less – with, for instance, a quota system that calls for whipping a man at the end of each day if he picks less than average? When the demands of a mistress and those of a master are in conflict, how can one please them both? What about when the choice is between picking up a lash or consigning others to the noose?
It’s also convenient to think that we would be like Bass, aware of the evils of slavery and willing to risk our own safety to confront it. But Bass acts out of a sense of duty, not personal goodness. In a scene that may resonate the most with modern audiences, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives in to evil against his own inclination for the most prosaic of reasons – debt – and the film shines here, and throughout, when it illustrates and explores different kinds of bondage without undercutting the place of total enslavement in the hierarchy of evils.
Of course, we would all rather be in debt than enslaved. But perhaps by seeing how going against conscience chips away at our humanity (rather than simply blasting it to smithereens), we begin to understand how some of the conflicts faced by the characters are primal and eternal, not just political or of the moment. Because 12 Years a Slave frames its moral conundrums in these terms, it feels the most contemporarily relevant of all the depictions of slavery we see at the movies.
It seems important here to understand how the film depicts religion and, specifically, Christianity. McQueen often lets the sound or dialogue from one scene continue after the visuals have transferred to the next, and this device is used pointedly when the words of sermons given by Master Ford are superimposed onto the reality of the lives his slaves live. And Master Epps’s (Fassbinder) theology is openly repugnant to modern sensibilities—he uses the language of the Bible (« that’s scripture ») to insist that God has appointed the order of slave and master. After one brutal act of torture, he proclaims that « there is no sin, » since a man may do as he pleases with his property.
Yet the film is not simply and only anti-Christian. Certainly, Pitt’s character speaks and acts in moral terms. But more than that, 12 Years doesn’t shy away from showing the inexpressibly complicated relationship the slaves have with the God of their oppressors. Embittered by the hypocrisy and sanctimony of the slave-owners and angry at God’s seeming abandonment of him and his fellow slaves, Solomon often rages silently, as all his doubts and anger must be repressed.
Others are able to find solace in furtive expression of faith. One prays, « God love him; God bless him; God keep him » over a buried comrade. Even that moment comes with some bitterly cynical overtones: God keep him better than he kept him in this life.
Yet the film’s emotional zenith comes in a cathartic moment when Solomon participates in a spiritual. Ejiofor is able to convey so much in his vocal inflections: anger, despair, renewal, and, finally hope. Hope for what? Earlier he has said, « I don’t want to survive; I want to live. » The spiritual, I would argue, indicates that he can hope to survive until one day he will live again.
The other masterful scene in the film is Solomon’s farewell to Patsy, a fellow slave whom the film painfully but rightly never mentions again. The resolution to Solomon’s story is laced with pain, not triumph, as he comes to realize that with new life comes survivor’s guilt—and grief for all those still waiting to live again.
God have mercy on us all until they do.
12 Years a Slave is rated R, as it should be. It contains multiple usages of painful language, depictions of lynching, murder, and torture. There is nudity and depictions of human sexuality. A major theme of the film is the dehumanizing effects of slavery. In presenting such a theme, it is often painful to watch, as it should be.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.
October 09, 2013
(UPDATE: Hello Dish readers and others who have been sent here from various corners of the internet. Welcome! This is Parabasis, a blog about culture and politics. I’m Isaac Butler, an erstwhile theater director and writer. I write most (but not all) of this site. You all might be particularly interested in The Fandom Issue, a special week-long series we did devoted to issues of fandom in popular culture.)
Every work of fictional narrative art takes place within its own world. That world may resemble our world. But it is never our world. It is always the world summoned into being in the gap between its creators and its audience.
Yet at the same time, the art we experience shapes our view of the world. As Oscar Wilde puts it in the Decay of Lying:
Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy. It is a theory that has never been put forward before, but it is extremely fruitful, and throws an entirely new light upon the history of Art.
Wilde discusses this in terms of appreciating sunsets through the lens of Turner; perhaps our modern day equivalent is juries being incapable of understanding that real world evidence gathering isn’t like CSI.
This odd tension– that narrative art creates its own world yet helps shape our view of ours– has given birth to (or at least popularity to) a new brand of criticism that measures a story against real life to point out all the ways that it is lacking. You’ve seen it before, right? « Five Things Parks & Rec gets right about small town budgeting bylaws. » Now with Gravity busting box office records, we’re getting astronauts and scientists telling us that there are many points where the film departs from real life. Entire critical careers are now founded on churning out « What X Gets Right/Wrong About Y » blog posts, posts that often completely ignore issues of aesthetics, construction, theme or effect to simply focus on whether in « real life » a given circumstance of a story would be possible.
In real life, people don’t talk the way they do in movies or television or (especially) books. Real locations aren’t styled, lit, or shot the way they are on screen. The basic conceits of point of view in literature actually make no sense and are in no way « realistic. » Realism isn’t verisimilitude. It’s a set of stylistic conventions that evolve over time, are socially agreed upon, and are hotly contested. The presence of these conventions is not a sign of quality. Departure from them is not a sign of quality’s absence.
The Realism Canard is the most depressing trend in criticism I have ever encountered. I would rather read thousands of posts of dismissive snark about my favorite books than read one more blog post about something that happened in a work of fiction wasn’t realistic or factually accurate to our world as we know it. Dismissive snark, after all, just reflects badly on whomever wrote it (at best) and (at worst) cheapens the work it is written about. The Realism Canard gradually cheapens art itself over time. It’s worse that the reduction of art to plot, or to « content. » Those can still form the basis of interesting conversations. Instead, we’re talking here not only about the complete misreading of what something is (fiction vs. nonfiction), but the holding of something to a standard it isn’t trying to attain and often isn’t interested in (absolute verisimilitude). We’re talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy. We’re talking about reducing the entire project of fiction so that we can, as Grover Norquist said of the Federal Government, get it to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub.
And I suspect on some level this is part of the point of the The Realism Canard. That art in its size and complexity is too much to handle sometimes, and too troubling. That even though we say fiction’s job is to take us out of ourselves, we don’t really want to be pushed. So we must take it down a peg, to a point where it is beneath us and thus can be put in its place. And the easiest way to do this is to cross check it against « real life » and find it lacking.
Take this piece about Breaking Bad in The New Inquiry. It has some interesting points to make about the show’s racial politics, but before it can get there it, it must shrink the show to manageable size by trying to come up with ways that its depiction of the drug trade isn’t « realistic, » landing on the show’s overemphasis on the purity of Walter’s meth. Set aside that the author’s critique of the show’s purity emphasis on realism grounds is wrong (purity matters because Walt is a wholesaler and the purer his product is the more that it can be stepped on by the people he sells it to), and set aside that the purity matters for character reasons (no one has ever been able to do what Walt figures out). The accuracy question with regard to Breaking Bad is a complete sideshow. Breaking Bad is not a work of realism. Its aesthetic and language is highly stylized, and its plotting is all clockwork determinism, as anyone who has watched the second season can attest. It’s not trying to exist in our world. It’s trying to exist in its world. You might as well criticize it for having a sky that’s yellower than ours.
I don’t mean to pick on that TNI piece, it just happened to be the latest one I’d read. At least it has something beyond factchecky questions to ask. Once you get through that bit, it’s well written and eye opening to some racial dynamics I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t fully considered. But still. The Realism Canard is a problem, and it’s everywhere (here’s another one from Neil deGrasse Tyson about Gravity) and I feel it spreading more than ever over the internet’s criticosphere.
Are there exceptions to this? Obviously. There are works where the idea that what you are watching is a fictional representation of things fairly close to our own world is part of the works’ value, whether it be « based on a true story » films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Fifth Estate or social issue (and agit prop) works like Won’t Back Down. And there are ways of discussing the differences between art and life that illuminate rather than reduce. That ask the question « what does it mean that they changed this thing about our world? » rather than assuming some kind of cheating or bad faith. Or ways that treat these differences not as a form of criticism, but rather a form of interesting trivia. Or, in the case of Mythbusters, edutainment.
There is also the issue of representational politics, particularly in light of what we know of narrative’s deep intertwining with the processes of stereotype formation in the brain. But I do not think it’s inconsistent to argue for diverse representations of the underrepresented– and more characters that are fully rounded– and the imaginative power of art.
What matters ultimately in a work of narrative is if the world and characters created feels true and complete enough for the work’s purposes. It does not matter, for example, that the social and economic structure of The Hunger Games makes absolutely no sense. What matters is whether or not the world works towards the purposes of the novel rather than undermining them. People praise August Wilson’s portrayal of poor and working class African American life in Pittsburgh, but many of his plays feature an off stage character who is over three hundred years old and has magic powers. One of them ends with a cat coming back from the dead.
The Wire’s « realism » and « accuracy » are both shouted from the rooftops, but, for all of its deeply known and felt and researched world-building, it abandons both when it needs to. There is no way that Hamsterdam would exist in present day Baltimore. It’s a thought experiment, an attempt to game out what drug legalization might be like. No one really cares, because it works within the confines of the show. Season 5’s fake serial killer plotline is not actually any more preposterous than Hamsterdam. But it doesn’t work largely because the shortened episode order left Simon et al without enough time to adequately set it up and the tonal shift in Season 5 to a more satirical, broadly-painted mode feels abrupt and off-putting. The problem, in other words, has nothing to do with whether it would really happen, or how journalism or policing really work. It’s about the world the show has created and its integrity.
Voir de même:
As Steve McQueen’s Oscar favourite 12 Years a Slave opens at cinemas, Sarah Churchwell returns to the 1853 memoir that inspired it – one of many narratives that exposed the brutal truth about slavery, too long ignored or sentimentalised by Hollywood
10 January 2014
In 1825 a fugitive slave named William Grimes wrote an autobiography in order to earn $500 to purchase freedom from his erstwhile master, who had discovered his whereabouts in Connecticut and was trying to remand Grimes back into slavery. At the end of his story the fugitive makes a memorable offer: « If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America. » Few literary images have more vividly evoked the hypocrisy of a nation that exalted freedom while legitimising slavery.
12 Years a Slave: A True Story of Betrayal, Kidnap and Slavery (Hesperus Classics)
by Solomon Northup
The Life of William Grimes was the first book-length autobiography by a fugitive American slave, in effect launching a new literary genre, the slave narrative. (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789, is widely regarded as the first ever, but Equiano published his book in Britain.) Scholars have identified about 100 American slave narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with many more following after the end of the civil war. The most famous are those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, but the release of a new film has stirred interest in the account of a man named Solomon Northup. His book, Twelve Years a Slave, one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1853. Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, the film version, which opens in the UK today, has already been hailed as an Oscars front-runner.
This is something of an accomplishment for the first major Hollywood film to be inspired by a slave’s account of his own suffering. America’s vexed relationship with its legacy of slavery has always been reflected in its cinema; landmark films such as the virulently racist Birth of a Nation (1915), the first film ever screened at the White House, and the blockbuster apologia for slavery that was Gone With the Wind (1939), whitewashed in every sense popular images of institutionalised slavery. Slave narratives are the most powerful corrective we have to such distortions and evasions, firsthand accounts from some of the people who suffered the atrocities of slavery.
Gone with the Wind Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature
Unlike most authors of slave narratives, Northup was not a fugitive when he co-authored his book with a white man named David Wilson: he was a free man who had been kidnapped as an adult and sold into slavery. In 1841 the 33-year-old son of a former slave was living in upstate New York with his wife and children. He could read and write, was a skilled violinist, had done some farming and was working as a carpenter. One day he was approached by two white men who made him a generous financial offer to join a travelling music show. Without telling his wife or friends (thinking, he wrote, that he would be back before he was missed), Northup travelled to Washington DC with them, where he was drugged, had his free papers stolen, and awoke in chains on the floor of the notorious Williams Slave Pen (ironically now the site of the Air and Space Museum). Protesting that he was a free man, Northup was beaten nearly to death and warned that he would be killed if he ever spoke up again. He was a slave now, and had no rights. Describing his march through the nation’s capital in chains, Northup delivers an embittered denunciation in the same spirit as that of William Grimes: « So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed! »
Taken to New Orleans, Northup was sold at auction, and sent to the plantations of Louisiana bayou country. For the next 12 years, along with several hundred other local slaves, Northup was beaten, whipped, starved, and forced to work six days a week (with three days off at Christmas, « the carnival season with the children of bondage »), for a series of increasingly venal masters. Only on Sundays were slaves permitted to work for themselves, earning a few pennies to purchase such necessities as eating utensils. (Good Christian slave-owners would whip a slave and pour salt into the wounds, but wouldn’t dream of breaking the sabbath.)
At first, Northup found himself in the comparatively benign hands of William Ford, a minister who never questioned the slave system he had inherited, but never abused his slaves either. But soon Ford was in financial difficulties, and sold Northup to the vicious John Tibeats, an irrational, violent man who nearly killed Northup more than once. After attempting to run away, and being passed to another merciless owner, Northup was sold to Edwin Epps, a drunken, sadistic bully, who ran the plantation where Northup would work until he was finally rescued.
Along the way Northup chronicles in some detail life on a plantation, cataloguing everything from the method for cultivating cotton and sugar cane to the proper handles for various axes. And he explains the penal system of torture and threat that all slaves endured. The barbarity of slave life was not limited to the large structural injustice of bondage: it also licensed masters to behave as unreasonably as they pleased. The daily unfairnesses that resulted were, in Northup’s telling, often the most intolerable aspect of slavery. Once Tibeats flew at Northup with an axe, threatening to cut off his head for using the wrong nails, although the nails had been given to Northup by the overseer. He tells of a young slave doing a task as instructed, then sent on another task, only to be whipped for not finishing the first, despite having been ordered to interrupt it. « Maddened at such injustice, » the young slave seized an axe and « literally chopped the overseer in pieces »; he continued to justify his action even as the rope was put around his neck.
12 YEARS A SLAVE Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar
For female slaves, bondage often included another agony: rape. Rape is a theme in most slave narratives; the 1857 autobiography of William Anderson (comprehensively subtitled Twenty-four Years a Slave; Sold Eight Times! In Jail Sixty Times!! Whipped Three Hundred Times!!! or The Dark Deeds of American Slavery Revealed) goes further, addressing the incest that often ensued: the slave south, he writes, « is undoubtedly the worst place of incest and bigamy in the world ». Northup does not mention the endemic incest of slavery, but he does dwell on the torment of a fellow slave named Patsey, who was repeatedly raped by Epps. The narrative euphemises Epps’s assaults with conventionally acceptable phrases such as « lewd intentions ». But the implications are clear: « If she uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection. » Meanwhile Patsey was constantly attacked by her mistress, for « seducing » her husband. Northup tried to reason with Mrs Epps: « She being a slave, and subject entirely to her master’s will, he alone was answerable. » But Mrs Epps continued to persecute Patsey, resorting to such petty tyrannies as denying her soap. When Patsey ran to a neighbouring plantation to borrow some, Epps accused her of meeting a lover. He had her stripped naked, turned face down, tied hand and foot to four stakes, and whipped until she was flayed, at which point brine was poured upon her back. Patsey survived, but Northup writes that the ordeal broke her.
Eventually a Canadian named Bass came to Epps’s plantation and was heard voicing abolitionist sentiments, a dangerous heresy in the slaveholding south. Northup’s narrative stages a debate between Bass and Epps: Epps offers the standard justification for slavery, that black people were naturally bestial and ignorant, and thus deserved subjugation. Bass counters with the circular nature of this argument: « You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book, » Bass points out. « They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? … If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it … Talk about black skin, and black blood; why, how many slaves are there on this bayou as white as either of us? And what difference is there in the colour of the soul? Pshaw! The whole system is as absurd as it is cruel. »
This is one of the most surprising aspects of Northup’s narrative: its clarity about the workings of the « peculiar institution » as a system. Chattel slavery, Northup writes, « brutalised » master and slave alike; this is why slave-owners behaved so monstrously, even against their best financial interests (a dead slave, after all, was lost money). Surrounded by appalling human suffering on a daily basis, slave-owners became inured and desensitised to it, « brutified and reckless of human life ». Northup goes further, declaring: « It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. » In the same spirit, he repeatedly insists that not all slave-owners were depraved, defending William Ford and others he encountered. These people were not inherently evil; rather, « the influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit ». Equally modern is the book’s cogency about the madness of a race-based slavery in which so-called « black » slaves could in fact be lighter skinned than their owners. Northup pointedly describes one slave, who was « far whiter than her owner, or any of his offspring. It required a close inspection to distinguish in her features the slightest trace of African blood. »
It was Bass who came to Northup’s aid, risking his own life to get a letter to Northup’s family and friends in New York. They took the letter to a white man named Henry Northup, a relative of the man who had owned and freed Solomon’s father. Henry Northup travelled to Louisiana in early 1853, where he was assisted by the local authorities, who offered their support on the basis that the whole slave system depended on the « good faith » of distinguishing between free men and slaves. This is one way of putting it, although there was not much good faith evident in chattel slavery. A far more likely explanation relates back to the fact that many slaves had white skin: it was in the best interests of any free person in a slave country to protect the rights of other free people. Solomon Northup was liberated, and the two Northup men (sharing a name only by virtue of the system they were engaged in fighting), travelled together to Washington DC, where they tracked down the men who had sold Solomon into slavery and brought them to trial.
The defence offered by the slave-traders comes as a shock to the reader: they argued that Solomon Northup had voluntarily sold himself into slavery. As defences go, this may not sound convincing, but the argument was actually that Northup had agreed to engage in a scam with his « kidnappers »: they would sell Northup into slavery, secure his release with his free papers, and then divide the proceeds. The case was never argued in the nation’s capital, however: Northup was unable to testify in court because he was black.
The trial made it into the newspapers, fanning the flames of a heated national debate about the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Designed to mediate between the demands of slaveholders and the rights recognised by free states in the struggle over the status of runaway slaves, the law criminalised helping runaways and declared that if a person were accused of being a fugitive slave, an affidavit by the claimant was sufficient to establish title. Those identified as fugitive slaves had no right to a jury trial and could not testify on their own behalf, which unsurprisingly led to a great surge in the number of free black people who were conscripted into slavery. Like Solomon Northup, they could not testify in their own defence.
Beloved Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton in Beloved.
The blatant injustice of the new law, and the widespread feeling that slave states’ rights had trumped those of free states, led to a great outcry. For the next decade, the papers were filled with stories such as that of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who in 1856 murdered her baby rather than see it forced into slavery (the true story that inspired Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved). When Garner was brought to trial, abolitionists used the case to argue that the Fugitive Slave Law was not only unconstitutional; it was so twisted that it had driven a mother to murder her own child in order to save it from « the seething hell of American slavery ». But the law was clear: Garner and her family were returned to slavery. The presiding commissioner ruled that « it was not a question of feeling to be decided by the chance current of his sympathies; the law of Kentucky and of the United States made it a question of property ».
Reading countless such stories in the newspapers, an abolitionist teacher named Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing a novel, which she based in part on an 1849 slave narrative called The Life of Josiah Henson. In June 1851 the first instalment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in the Nationalist Era, an abolitionist magazine. Readers were gripped, and when the book was published in 1852 its sales were spectacular: 20,000 copies were sold in the first three weeks, 75,000 in the first three months; 305,000 in the first year. By 1857 Uncle Tom’s Cabin was still selling 1,000 copies a week, and during the civil war the (probably apocryphal) story circulated that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe he greeted her by saying, « So this is the little lady who started this great war. »
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was calculated to appeal to the conflicted emotions of 19th-century Americans, making them feel the suffering and injustice of slavery, rather than offering philosophical or legal arguments against it. Stowe uses the techniques of sentimental fiction to show the devastating effects of slavery on family life, charging that it is the Christian duty of every good woman in the nation to fight against it. In one key chapter, a senator’s wife, « a timid, blushing little woman », challenges her husband explicitly on the Fugitive Slave Law, informing him that it’s « downright cruel and unchristian » and chastising him for his support of it: « You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance … I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow. » It was a brilliantly effective strategy, cutting across the divided heart of antebellum America and persuading white Christians across the country to join the abolitionist cause.
Unsurprisingly, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was excoriated in the south as malicious propaganda; slavery advocates argued that theirs was a benign, paternalistic system. No one had ever heard of such viciousness as that shown, for example, by Stowe’s villain, the cruel Simon Legree, who owns a cotton plantation in the Red River region of Louisiana. Determined to vindicate her depiction of American slavery, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, in which she listed a number of documentary sources that corroborated her account. One slave she contacted was the runaway Harriet Jacobs, who had been giving abolitionist speeches in the north-east; instead of letting Stowe tell her story, Jacobs decided to write her own, which was published in 1861 as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. An account that Stowe did use in her Key was the story of Northup, which she had read about in the New York Times, and whose experience on a plantation near the Red River closely resembled her portrait of life on Legree’s fictional plantation.
That same year, Northup and David Wilson, a white lawyer and aspiring author, published Twelve Years a Slave, which was dedicated to Stowe and marketed as « another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin ». It was a huge success, selling 30,000 copies in its first two years, three times as many as had The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass when it appeared in 1845. Several more editions followed, and the press continued to cover the story of Northup’s ultimately fruitless efforts to prosecute the men who had kidnapped him. Meanwhile, he may have been working with the Underground Railroad to help fugitive slaves escape to Canada, and began travelling around the north-east making speeches in support of abolition. He was also involved in several theatre productions based on his book, but none were successful.
Over the years, Northup’s book fell into obscurity; when slave narratives began to enter the American curriculum in the 1980s, they were generally represented by those of Douglass and Jacobs, which are both self-authored and stylistically superior to Northup’s ghost-written account. There is some irony to this latter point, as both Jacobs and Douglass were initially accused of being incapable of writing such fine books, an assumption that owed something to racism but more to the denial of literacy to American slaves. As Henry Louis Gates Jr, an expert on slave narratives and consultant on the film 12 Years a Slave, has noted, literacy « was the very commodity that separated animal from human being, slave from citizen ». Douglass writes in My Bondage of the moment when, having learned to read, he realised that his illiteracy was itself « the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation ». With literacy Douglass « now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man … From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. »
Slave-owners understood this, too, and responded savagely to any slave’s attempts to learn to read or write; a common punishment was amputation. As a result, literacy among slaves was very low and most fugitive slaves relied on white « amanuenses » to record their stories for them. Even the few who could write were still edited or endorsed by white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison or Lydia Maria Child, a patronage system that offered insufficient challenge to the pro-slavery argument that slaves were incapable of learning. When slave narratives were rediscovered in the 20th century, the fact that most had been ghosted or edited by white people once again raised the question of their authenticity: many historians repeated the century-old charge that the narratives were exaggerated or fabricated by abolitionists. Unfortunately, much of the US coverage of McQueen’s film has rehearsed these invidious questions, but the underlying truths of the atrocities of slavery are beyond dispute, and not altered by the fact that any narrative is, by definition, constructed.
In the case of Northup, his account was verified by the historian who recovered his story, a woman named Sue Eakin. Twelve years old when she discovered a copy of Northup’s narrative in a local plantation in 1930, Eakin was intrigued to find it described the area in which she lived. Six years later, as a student at Louisiana State University, she found a copy of the book in a local bookstore. The owner sold it to her for 25 cents, telling her it was worthless: « There ain’t nothing to that old book. Pure fiction. » Eakin would devote her life, she later said, to proving him wrong.
Eakin set about discovering everything she could about Northup’s life, tracking down its details, using the legal and financial records of the men who owned him to corroborate his account of his enslavement. (Northup himself quotes more than once from such records: « The deed of myself from Freeman to Ford, as I ascertained from the public records in New-Orleans on my return, was dated June 23d 1841. »)
Unlike many slave narratives, Northup’s named names: the people who mistreated him were still alive, and their own records substantiate the facts of his story. Eakin died in 2009; three years later amateur historian David Fiske published Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery. Between them, Eakin and Fiske established that Northup played a significant role in his book’s composition, working closely with Wilson over the three months they wrote it. Fiske even found reports of corroboration made by Edwin Epps himself, from union soldiers who met him in Louisiana during the civil war: « Old Mr Epps yet lives, and told us that a greater part of the book was truth, » they reported in 1866.
In her extensive notes to Twelve Years a Slave, Eakin adds some fascinating details to Northup’s story. He alludes early in his narrative to habits of « shiftlessness and extravagance » into which he had fallen before his capture; Eakin remarks that such habits might help explain the court records showing he was convicted of three incidences of assault, as well as arrests for public drunkenness. His capricious decision to accompany his kidnappers to Washington also seems characteristic, and Eakin even hints that the conspiracy theory of Northup’s abduction may not have been entirely implausible. She was unable to ascertain what happened to Northup after 1863; there were rumours that he was kidnapped again, or murdered, but Fiske found evidence that Northup was in Vermont in the 1860s, and reports that his lectures may have become viewed as a local nuisance. Northup may have « given up, resorted to drink, and sunk below the surface ». Or perhaps he lit out like Huck Finn for the territory of the west.
These less than hagiographic details have not made their way into McQueen’s film, and given that it was produced as a corrective to a century of Hollywood sentimentalising and glorifying slavery, this is neither surprising nor objectionable. It seems McQueen also underplayed Northup’s insistence that not all his owners were cruel – again this is understandable, especially given that Northup’s protestations may have been designed to placate white readers. But slaves don’t have to be saints or their masters monsters in order for slavery to be an atrocity: our stories will remain trapped in simplistic pieties until we can admit that a man could be a rogue and still have been martyred by a barbaric system in a land that has yet to accept the terms of William Grimes’s offer, and admit how bound its constitution is by the flayed skin of its victims.
• Steve McQueen’s film is on general release.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch
based on the 1853 autobiography ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by Solomon Northup
This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture. I doubt not hundreds have been as unfortunate as myself; that hundreds of free citizens have been kidnapped and sold into slavery, and are at this moment wearing out their lives on plantations… -Solomon Northup, 1853, Twelve Years a Slave
Questioning the Story:
During what years was Solomon Northup a slave?
Like in the movie, the real Solomon Northup was tricked and sold into slavery in 1841 and did not regain his freedom until January 3, 1853.
Was Solomon Northup married with two children?
In researching the 12 Years a Slave true story, we discovered that Solomon Northup married Anne Hampton on Christmas Day, 1828. Unlike the movie, they had three children together, not two. Their daughter Margaret and son Alonzo are portrayed in the movie, while their other child, Elizabeth, was omitted. At the time of the kidnapping, Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo were 10, 8 and 5, respectively.
Solomon Northup with Wife Anne and Children
Left: From back to front, actors Kelsey Scott, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Quvenzhané Wallis and Cameron Zeigler portray the Northup family in the movie. Right: Solomon Northup is reunited with his wife and children at the end of his 1853 memoir.
While enslaved, did Solomon Northup pleasure a woman he discovered was in bed with him?
No, the flash-forward scene that unfolds early in the 12 Years a Slave movie is entirely fictitious and was created by director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley. « I just wanted a bit of tenderness—the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries. »
Did Solomon Northup really play the violin?
Yes. During our investigation into the 12 Years a Slave true story, we learned that Solomon began playing the violin during the leisure hours of his youth, after he finished his main duty of helping his father on the farm. In his memoir, he calls the violin « the ruling passion of my youth, » going on to say, « It has also been the source of consolation since, affording pleasure to the simple beings with whom my lot was cast, and beguiling my own thoughts, for many hours, from the painful contemplation of my fate. »
Did two men really trick Solomon into going to Washington, D.C. with them?
Yes. Solomon met the two men in the village of Saratoga Springs, New York. The men had heard that Solomon was an « expert player of the violin ». They identified themselves using fake names and told him that they were part of a circus company that was looking for someone with his precise musical talent. The two men, later identified as Joseph Russell and Alexander Merrill, asked Solomon to accompany them on a short journey to New York City and to participate with them in performances along the way. They only delivered one performance to a sparse crowd, and it consisted of Russell and Merrill performing somewhat elementary feats like tossing balls, frying pancakes in a hat, ventriloquism and causing invisible pigs to squeal.
Once in New York City, Russell and Merrill encouraged Solomon to go to Washington, D.C. with them, reasoning that the circus would pay him high wages, and since it was the summer season, the troupe would be traveling back north anyway.
Did Solomon’s kidnappers really drug him?
As he indicated in his autobiography, the real Solomon Northup is not positive that he was in fact drugged, however, he remembers various clues that led him to that conclusion. He had spent the day with Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell making stops at a number of saloons in Washington, D.C. They were observing the festivities that were part of the great funeral procession of General Harrison. At the saloons, the two men would serve themselves, and they would then pour a glass and hand it to Solomon. As he states in his memoir, he did not become intoxicated.
By late afternoon, he fell ill with a severe headache and nausea. His sickness progressed until he was insensible by evening. He was unable to sleep and was stricken with severe thirst. He recalls several people entering the room where he had been staying. They told him that he needed to come with them to see a physician. Shortly after leaving his room and heading into the streets, his memory escapes him and the next thing he remembers is waking up handcuffed and chained to the floor of the Williams Slave Pen in Washington, D.C.
Solomon Northup Washington Slave Pen
Left: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up handcuffed and chained to the floor of a Washington, D.C. slave pen in the movie. Right: An 1860s photograph of a real Alexandria, Virginia slave pen.
Why didn’t Solomon tell anyone that he was a free man?
Shortly after his kidnapping, Solomon did try to tell the slave dealer James H. Birch (spelled « Burch » in the book and movie) that he was a free man. Like in the movie, he also told Birch where he was from and asked Birch to remove the irons that were shackling him. The slave dealer refused and instead called upon another man, Ebenezer Rodbury, to help hold Solomon down by his wrists. To suppress Solomon’s claims of being a free man, Birch whipped him with a paddle until it broke and then with a cat-o’-nine tails, delivering a severe number of lashes. Solomon addresses the lashings in his memoir, « Even now the flesh crawls upon my bones, as I recall the scene. I was all on fire. My sufferings I can compare to nothing else than the burning agonies of hell! » Following the lashings, Birch told Solomon that he would kill him if he told anyone else that he was a free man.
Below is a picture of Birch’s slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1865. It had been used to house slaves being shipped from Northern Virginia to Louisiana. The building still stands today and is currently home to the offices of the Northern Virginia Urban League. It should be noted again that this is not the D.C. slave pen where Solomon was held. Solomon was held at the Williams Slave Pen (aka The Yellow House), which was the most notorious slave pen in the capital. The Williams Slave Penn was located at roughly 800 Independence Avenue SW, one block from the Capitol, and is now the site of the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration.
James H. Birch
Left: The real James H. Birch’s slave pen in Alexandria, Virginia, circa 1865. Right: Actor Christopher Berry portrays slave dealer Birch (spelled « Burch » in the movie).
Did a sailor really murder one of the slaves on the ship?
No. The real Solomon Northup did come up with a plan to take over the brig Orleans along with two other slaves, Arthur and Robert. However, unlike what happens in the film, Robert did not die after being stabbed when he came to the defense of Eliza, who in the movie is on the verge of being raped by a sailor. Instead, Robert died from smallpox and the plan to take over the ship was scrapped.
Was Solomon Northup’s name really changed?
Yes. Evidence discovered while researching the true story behind 12 Years a Slave confirmed that Solomon Northup’s name was in fact changed to Platt Hamilton. An official record of the name appears on the April 1841 manifest of the brig Orleans, the ship that carried Northup southward from the Port of Richmond, Virginia to the Port of New Orleans, Louisiana. The portion of the ship’s manifest that displays the name « Platt Hamilton » is pictured below. -Ancestry.com
Brig Orleans Manifest
Solomon Northup’s slave name Platt Hamilton appears on the April 1841 ship manifest of the brig Orleans, supporting his story.
Is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) accurately portrayed in the movie?
No. The movie paints William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a hypocrite, contradicting his Christian sermons by overlaying them with his slave Eliza’s agonizing screams. In his memoir, Solomon Northup offers the utmost words of kindness for his former master, stating that « there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. » Northup blames William Ford’s circumstances and upbringing for his involvement in slavery, « The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. » He calls the real William Ford a « model master », going on to write, « Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness. »
Did Northup really get into a scuffle with Tibeats over a set of nails?
Yes. Like in the movie, the scuffle over the nails resulted in a carpenter named John M. Tibeats trying to whip Northup, but Northup fended off the attack, grabbed the whip, and began to strike his attacker. Afterward, Tibeats fetched two overseers that he knew on neighboring plantations. The men bound Northup and put a noose around his neck. They led him out to a tree where they were going to hang him, but were stopped and chased off by Mr. Chapin, a just overseer who worked for William Ford. When Ford returned from a trip later that day, he personally cut the cord from Northup’s wrists, arms, and ankles, and he slipped the noose from Northup’s neck.
Not depicted in the movie, the 12 Years a Slave true story brings to light a second scuffle that Northup got into with Tibeats while Ford and Chapin were away, resulting in Tibeats chasing Northup with an axe. Fearing impending retaliation from Tibeats, that time he ran away. However, Northup returned to the plantation after being unable to survive on his own in the harshness of the surrounding swamps. Even though he was forgiven by Ford, the plantation owner decided to sell Northup in part to prevent any more feuds with Tibeats. To Northup’s misfortune, he ended up being bought by a much crueler master, Edwin Epps.
Was Edwin Epps really as cruel as the movie portrays?
Yes. In fact, the real Edwin Epps was crueler than actor Michael Fassbender portrays him to be in the movie. In addition to Edwin Epps being overcome by « dancing moods », where he would force the exhausted slaves to dance, in real life, Epps also had his « whipping moods ». Epps usually found himself in a « whipping mood » when he was drunk. He would drive the slaves around the yard and whip them for fun.
Edwin Epps House
The real Edwin Epps house (left) prior to its restoration and relocation. The single story Louisiana cottage was less grand than the house shown in the movie. Northup helped to build the home for Epps’ family.
Did Edwin Epps really obsess over his female slave Patsey?
Yes, but the movie puts more focus on Edwin Epps’s alternating passion for and disgust with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) than Northup’s memoir. In his book, the real Solomon Northup refers to Epps’s « lewd intentions » toward Patsey, especially when he was intoxicated.
Did Edwin Epps really chase after Solomon with a knife?
Yes. In the movie, after Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) fetches Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), he tells her not to look in Epps direction and to continue on walking. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who was half intoxicated and contemplating satisfying his lewd intentions toward Patsey, demands to know exactly what Solomon said to Patsey. When Solomon refuses to tell him, he chases after Solomon with a knife, eventually tripping over the fence of a pig pen. In the book, he does chase after Solomon with a knife, but there is no mention of him tripping over the fence.
Did Mistress Epps really encourage her husband to whip Patsey?
Yes. Despite Patsey having a remarkable gift for picking cotton quickly, she was one of the most severely beaten slaves. This was mainly due to Mistress Epps encouraging her husband Edwin to whip Patsey because, as Northup writes, Patsey had become the « slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. » Northup goes on to describe her as the « enslaved victim of lust and hate », with nothing delighting Mistress Epps more than seeing Patsey suffer. Northup states that it was not uncommon for Mistress Epps to hurl a broken bottle or billet of wood at Patsey’s face.
As portrayed in the 12 Years a Slave movie, in his book Northup describes one of the whippings that Patsey received as being « the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness—one I can never recall with any other emotion than that of horror ». It was during this whipping that Epps forced Northup to deliver the lashings. After Northup pleaded and reluctantly whipped Patsey more than forty times, he threw down the whip and refused to go any further. It was then that Epps picked up the whip and applied it with « ten-fold » greater force than Northup had.
Edwin Epps and Patsey
Left: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) pleads with her master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Right: A drawing in Northup’s 1853 memoir depicts the « staking out and flogging » of Patsey, who can be seen on the ground. Epps is shown directing Solomon to continue the lashings after Solomon throws down the whip and refuses.
Did Patsey really beg Solomon to end her life?
No. This pivotal, emotionally-charged scene is perhaps the movie’s biggest blunder with regard to the true story. It was most likely unintentional and is the result of the filmmakers misreading a line in Northup’s autobiography. In the book, Northup is discussing the suffering of Patsey, who was lusted for by her master and hated by his jealous wife.
« Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp. Gladly would Patsey have appeased this unforgiving spirit, if it had been in her power, but not like Joseph, dared she escape from Master Epps, leaving her garment in his hand. »
It is rather obvious that it is Mistress Epps who wants to bribe Northup to kill Patsey. Patsey wants to escape like Joseph, not kill herself. It seems that the filmmakers misread the line, attributing Mistress Epps’ wishes to Patsey. It is a little discouraging to realize that this crucial scene was likely the result of a misunderstood antecedent. -TheAtlantic.com
Did Patsey and Mistress Shaw really talk over tea?
No. In the movie, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the black wife of a plantation owner, have a conversation over tea. This scene was invented for the film. Director Steve McQueen wanted to give Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) a voice.
Did Armsby betray Northup by letting Epps know about Northup’s letter to his friends in New York?
Yes. In his memoir, Northup describes Armsby as a man who came to the plantation looking to fill the position of overseer but was reduced to labor with the slaves. In an effort to better his role on the plantation, he divulged Northup’s secret to Edwin Epps. When Epps confronted Northup, he denied ever writing the letter and Epps believed him.
Although it is not shown in the movie, this was not the first time that Solomon Northup tried to have someone help him send a letter home. When he was on the ship that brought him south, a sailor helped him mail a letter he’d written. That letter actually made it home to New York and was obtained by attorney Henry B. Northup, a relative of Solomon’s father’s former master. Since Solomon was not yet aware of his final destination, he could not provide a location in the letter. Officials in New York told Henry that no action would be taken until they knew where to look for Solomon.
Was Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass, based on a real person?
Yes. Samuel Bass’s portrayal in the 12 Years a Slave movie is very accurate to how Northup describes him in the book, including his argument with Edwin Epps. Much of what Bass (Brad Pitt) says during that scene is taken almost verbatim from the book, « …but begging the law’s pardon, it lies. … There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just. »
Did the real Samuel Bass help to free Northup?
Yes. Like in the movie, Samuel Bass, who also appears in Northup’s autobiography, was influential in Northup’s release. As the movie indicates, Samuel Bass was a Canadian who was in Louisiana doing carpentry work for Northup’s owner, Edwin Epps. Northup began assisting Bass and eventually decided to confide in him after he learned that Bass was against slavery. After Solomon shared his story of being tricked and kidnapped into slavery, Samuel Bass became determined to help him, even vowing to travel to New York himself. Bass wrote letters on Solomon’s behalf to various individuals back in New York. The first of these letters ended up being the one that set in motion the events that led to Solomon’s release from slavery in early 1853. -Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave
Henry B. Northup
Attorney Henry B. Northup, a relative of Solomon’s father’s former master, rescued Solomon from slavery.
Who was responsible for Solomon Northup’s release?
The letters written by Samuel Bass that were sent to New York eventually caught the attention of New York Whig attorney Henry B. Northup, who was a relative of Solomon’s father’s former master. Henry was a part of the family that took in Solomon’s father Mintus after he was freed.
Realizing the injustice, Henry made the long journey south to Louisiana and successfully brokered a deal for Solomon’s release. After he rescued Solomon, he returned home with him and fought to bring Solomon’s kidnappers to justice. Henry was also instrumental in securing a publisher for the memoir that would tell Solomon’s story, and in finding the ghost writer, David Wilson, who lived within five miles of Henry’s home. Henry hoped that the book would alert the public to his case against Solomon’s two kidnappers.
Were Solomon Northup’s parents slaves?
Our exploration into the true story behind 12 Years a Slave brought to light the fact that Solomon’s father Mintus Northup was a former slave who had been emancipated in approximately 1798. His mother had never been a slave. She was a mulatto and was three quarters white (her name is never mentioned in the book). Solomon was therefore born a free man in 1807, at a time when slavery still existed in New York. Solomon’s father had been a slave to Capt. Henry Northup, a Loyalist who freed Mintus around 1798 as part of a provision in his will. Mintus took his master’s surname.
What happened to Solomon Northup after he was freed?
Ghost Writer David Wilson
With input from Northup, ghost writer David Wilson, an attorney and great orator, wrote the memoir.
Upon his return home to Saratoga Springs, New York, Northup shared his story and gave interviews to the local press. His story became well known in the North and he started to speak at abolitionist rallies. An 1855 New York State Census confirms that he had indeed returned to his wife Anne, as the two were together again. He also lists himself as a land owner and a carpenter.
In the hands of a ghost writer by the name of David Wilson (pictured), Northup started to provide input for his book. It was published around the middle of July, 1853, after just three and a half months of research, writing, and interviews by the white ghost writer Wilson, who was himself a prominent New York lawyer and author of two books about local history. Henry Northup, the attorney who helped to free Solomon, also contributed to the production of the book and encouraged its speedy publication in an effort to garner public interest in bringing Northup’s kidnappers to trial.
Were Solomon Northup’s kidnappers ever brought to justice?
No. With the help of public interest in Northup, partially as the result of his book, attorney Henry Northup set his sights on two men, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, who were believed to have played pivotal roles in the kidnapping. The two men were arrested but never convicted. Disagreements over where the case should be tried, New York or the District of Columbia, led to the decision over jurisdiction to be sent to the New York Supreme Court and then to the New York Court of Appeals. This was after three of the four counts against the two men had already been dropped since it was determined that these counts originated in Washington, D.C., not the state of New York.
During this time, the men in custody applied for release. Joseph Russell’s bail was nominal and Alexander Merrill’s bail was set at $800. The New York Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the lower courts, citing that the indictment legally could not be split, with one count being valid while the other three were ruled invalid due to issues over jurisdiction. In May of 1857, the case was discharged and the two men were never brought to trial. -Twelve Years a Slave – Dr. Sue Eakin Edition
When and how did Solomon Northup die?
The last known details about Solomon Northup’s life are mostly speculative and no one is certain of his exact fate. It is believed that he might have been involved with the Underground Railroad up until the start of the American Civil War. There are also reports of angry mobs disrupting speeches that he gave at abolitionist rallies. This includes speeches that he was giving in Canada in the summer of 1857. Some believe that this could have led to him being murdered, while others have conjectured that it’s possible he was kidnapped again, or that his two former kidnappers who had been on trial went looking for Northup and killed him. Certain members of his family have passed down the story that he had been killed in Mississippi in 1864, but there is no evidence to support that claim. An 1875 New York State Census lists his wife Anne’s marital status as « Widowed ». No grave of Solomon Northup has ever been found. -Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave
Is it possible that Solomon Northup planned his kidnapping with the two men in order to split the profits?
Though the idea might seem far-fetched, there has always been some conjecture that Solomon Northup was a willing accomplice to his kidnappers, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell. The theory was that Northup planned to split with Merrill and Russell the profits from being sold into slavery after he would either escape or have Merrill and Russell subsequently arrange for him to be freed. In a response to reader inquiries, a newspaper column that appeared in The Saratoga Press at the time goes as far as to raise the possibility that the case against Merrill and Russell was thrown out for such reasons.
« We would answer by saying that since the indictment was found, the District Attorney was placed in possession of facts that whilst proving their guilt in a measure, would prevent a conviction. To speak more plainly, it is more than suspected that Sol Northup was an accomplice in the sale, calculating to slip away and share the spoils, but that the purchaser was too sharp for him, and instead of getting the cash, he got something else. »
According to the testimony of John S. Enos, Alexander Merrill had attempted this scenario earlier in his kidnapping career. Yet, with regard to Northup, no evidence was ever found to prove that he was involved in his own kidnapping and the events chronicled in his book Twelve Years a Slave have been widely accepted as being none other than the true story. -Twelve Years a Slave – Dr. Sue Eakin Edition
ADDITIONAL HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
by historian David Fiske
David Fiske’s interest in Solomon Northup began in the 1990s, when he visited the Old Fort House Museum in Fort Edward, New York. This house is possibly the only structure still standing in which Northup resided. An exhibit at the museum mentioned Northup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave, and Fiske became curious and slowly began researching N orthup’s life after his rescue. He recently worked with several other researchers, Professor Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman to write a full biography of Northup: Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.
Q: Solomon Northup was not the only free black pers on who was kidnapped and sold as a slave – can you talk about how much of a problem kidnapping was before the Civil War and if black people in the North were aware of the threat of bei ng kidnapped? Blacks (both free persons and slaves) were kidnappe d and sold as slaves even in colonial times. The despicable practice was carried on with greater fre quency after 1808, the year that the federal government banned the importation of slaves. Slaves could no longer be brought into the U.S. from other countries–a very good thing–but there was an unfortunate side-effect. The supply of additional slave labor (much desired by plantation owners in t he South) was reduced, causing the value of slaves to rise–which made it very profitable for criminals to kidnap black people and transport them to a sla ve market where they could be sold. Slave traders, anx ious to acquire slaves to send to the South, probably did not ask questions about where these bl ack people had come from. In New York State, the law recognized that kidnappi ng could be accomplished by trickery, because the statute against kidnapping included an old word “in veigling,” which meant the same thing. The law further provided that those accused of kidnapping c ould not argue as a defense that their victims had left with them willingly. Citizens in the northern states, including blacks, had some idea of the possibility of black people be ing lured away and sold as slaves. An acquaintance of S olomon Northup, Norman Prindle, claimed, after Northup’s return to the North, that back in 1841 he had warned Northup that the men he met in Saratoga might have other plans for him once they g ot him south. However, Northup either trusted the men or was so much in need of money that he decided to take the risk.
Q: What did Solomon Northup do after he was rescued from slavery? Northup was reunited with his family (who had reloc ated from Saratoga to Glens Falls) a few weeks after being freed. Remarkably, in the first few day s of February 1853, he appeared at anti-slavery 32 meetings with several famous abolitionists (includi ng Frederick Douglass). Just one month earlier, he had still been a slave! The general public was very interested in his story of kidnapping, slavery, and rescue, and he worked with David Wilson, an attorney and author, to compo se a book, Twelve Years a Slave . The book was quite popular, and Northup traveled around giving l ectures and selling copies of his book. He was also involved with some theatrical productions based on his narrative. One newspaper noted that, during Northup’s travels, he was generous toward fugitive slaves he encountered. Given his personal experience as a sla ve, it is understandable (predictable, even) that h e would want to help others who had escaped from a li fe of servitude. There is evidence that he participated in the Underground Railroad, working w ith a Vermont minister to help escaped slaves reach freedom in Canada. The last reference to Northup’s presence was a reco llection by the minister’s son, who said that Northup had visited his father once after the Emanc ipation Proclamation in 1863. After that, no newspaper articles or personal papers have been fou nd that mention contact with Northup. Neither the circumstances of his death, nor his burial site, ar e known.
Q: What did Northup’s family do while he was a slav e in Louisiana? As Northup mentioned in Twelve Years a Slave , his wife Anne had a successful career as a cook a t various dining establishments in the Saratoga/Glens Falls area of New York. After the disappearance of her husband–along with his earnings–she probably needed additional income. In the fall of 1841 she moved to New York City with her family. She worked there for the wealthy woman, Madame Eliza Jumel (who was once the wife of Vice President Aaro n Burr). Anne was Madame Jumel’s cook and resided at her mansion in Washington Heights (which is today open to the public as the Morris-Jumel Mansion). Her children filled other roles: Elizabe th assisted at the mansion, Margaret served as a playmate for a young girl who was related to Jumel, and Alonzo was a footman and did minor chores. The family’s stay with Jumel lasted from one to tw o years, after which mother and children returned to Saratoga. After a few years, the family moved to Glens Falls, a bit north of Saratoga, where Anne ran the kitchen at the Glens Falls Hotel. The famil y (which now included Margaret’s husband Philip Stanton and their children) was living in Glens Fal ls in 1853 when Northup was rescued and rejoined his family. In the 1860s, the family (though apparently not Nor thup himself) moved to nearby Moreau (to a neighborhood known as Reynolds Corners). Anne proba bly still worked as a cook locally, and during the summers she would work at a hotel at Bolton Lan ding on Lake George. Anne died in 1876 at Reynolds Corners.
Q: Why was the book Twelve Years a Slave so popular before the Civil War? Northup’s book was not the only one that gave a fir st-hand account of slavery, but his had a unique perspective because he was a free man who had becom e a slave, whereas other writers had grown up as slaves. Northup was able to make comparisons bet ween his life as a free person and his life as a slave. In addition, Northup’s book was surprisingly even-handed. He did not condemn all Southerners–he mentions how several of them, such a s Master Ford and overseer Chapin (whose name 33 in real life was Chafin), had treated him kindly. A s one review of the book in a northern newspaper said at the time: “Masters and Overseers who treat ed slaves humanely are commended; for there, as here, were good and bad men.” Authors of slave narratives who had escaped slavery by running away had an extra motivation to portray slavery in a very bad light–they had to jus tify why they had become fugitives. Northup, however, should never have been a slave in the firs t place (“if justice had been done,” he told Samuel Bass, “I never would have been here”). Northup ther efore had little motivation to exaggerate the evils of slavery. He surely describes the many sufferings endured by slaves, but he also tells about their everyday life, the ways they supported one another, and the few occasional sources of pleasure they had. By telling the good as well as the bad, Northu p’s account came across as authentic and convincing.
Q: Did Solomon Northup help with the Underground Ra ilroad once he was free again and how did he get involved? In the early 1860s (and possibly earlier) he worked on the Underground Railroad in Vermont. The Underground Railroad was a system run by anti-slave ry advocates which helped slaves who had run away from the South. Northup, Tabbs Gross (another black man) and Rev. John L. Smith energetically helped fugitives make their way north, to Canada an d freedom. The details of how Northup became involved are not known, but it seems likely that, during his lecture tours, he at some point met Gross, a former slave w ho traveled around New York and New England at the same time as Northup, and who also gave lecture s. At any rate, the minister’s son recalled later o n that Northup and Gross were constantly at work aidi ng fugitives. Northup no doubt tackled this mission with his customary initiative and competenc e, and ended up keeping many fugitives from being returned to servility.
Q: What became of Northup’s slave masters — Willia m Prince Ford, Edwin Epps and Mistress Epps? William Prince Ford was forced to sell Northup afte r he experienced financial difficulties The man he sold him to, John M. Tibaut (called Tibeats in Nort hup’s book and in the film) could not afford to pay Northup’s full value, so Ford was in a way still a part-owner. This is why Ford was able to prevent Tibaut from murdering Northup. Ford was a prominent Baptist minister, serving several congregations. One of them, the Springhill Baptist Church, expelle d him for heresy, partly because he had allowed a Methodist to take communion at the church (an examp le of his generous spirit). Ford wore several other hats: in addition to operating the lumber mi ll where Northup worked, Ford manufactured bricks and mattresses. The woman Ford was married to while Northup was his slave, Martha (Tanner) Ford passed away in 1849, and he got married a second time, to Mary Daw son. Rev. Ford passed away on August 23, 1866 and was buried in a cemetery known as the Old Chene y Cemetery in Cheneyville, Louisiana. Edwin Epps had wanted to contest Northup’s removal from his possession, but his legal counsel 34 advised him that the case was so clear-cut (due to documents presented in court in Marksville, Louisiana, which proved Northup had been born free) , that he should simply give up Northup rather than incur pointless legal expenses, and he did so. Epps gave up drink while Northup was still his slav e, since Northup mentions that in his book. Epps continued working his plantation after Northup’s de parture. The 1860 Federal Census shows that he had assets amounting to over $20,000. During the Civil War some northern soldiers sought out the Epps plantation as the army worked its way through Louisiana. They found many people, both black and white, who remembered Northup and his fiddle-playing, and they even located Epps. Wha t Northup wrote in his book, Epps told the soldiers, was mostly true, and in a back-handed com pliment to Northup he told them that he was an “unusually smart nigger.” Epps died on March 3, 186 7. His place of burial is uncertain. The house that Northup and carpenter Samuel Bass wo rked on for Epps still exists. It has avoided destruction several times, and has also been moved several times. It is now located on the campus of the Louisiana State University at Alexandria, and i t has been declared a historic structure. Mistress Epps, whose maiden name was Mary Robert, b ecame the “Natural Tutrix” (or guardian) of her and her husband’s minor children following Epps ’ death. However she died soon afterward. Many, if not all, of the children left Louisiana and relo cated to various places in Texas.
Q: Were the men involved in Solomon Northup’s kidna pping ever brought to justice? The slave trader in Washington, D.C. who purchased Northup from the men who lured him away from Saratoga was identified as James H. Birch, and was brought up on charges in that city when Northup was on his way home from Louisiana. In Washington, the law at that time did not permit black people to testify in court, and without Northup’s testimo ny, there was little evidence of the crime, so Birc h was not convicted. It surely helped that Birch had some influential friends in the city. In 1854, over a year after Northup was freed, a man who had read Twelve Years a Slave helped to identify the two men who had taken Northup to Washi ngton. (Their real names were Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell–they had given Northup aliases. They were arrested, jailed, indicted, and put on trial. After various delays and appeals, the case a gainst them was dropped without explanation in 1857 . Their only punishment was the seven months they spe nt in jail while awaiting trial before they were released on bail.
Q: Solomon Northup was able to read and write–how d id he get his education? In New York State, blacks had never been formally e xcluded from the schools. In the city of Albany, slave children in colonial times attended school al ongside white children. Even when slavery was still allowed in New York, a state law specified that sla ve owners had to teach their slaves to read, so tha t they could read the Bible. As time went on, some large cities had separate sch ools for black students (which was permitted under state law). During his childhood, Northup lived in small towns in Washington County, which would not have had enough money to establish separate sch ools for blacks, so he probably attended school with white pupils from his neighborhood. Acquaintan ces of Northup and his father (who was illiterate 35 but whom Northup wrote made sure his sons received an education) were Quakers, to whom education was very important, so that may have offered extra encouragement for him to learn. Northup tells of his love of reading as a boy, so he probably built on what basic, formal schooling he received due to his curiosity and intelligence.
Q: Is it true that 12 Years a Slave was actually written by a ghost writer named David Wilson, who was an abolitionist? David Wilson certainly assisted Northup with his bo ok, but he was not a ghost writer. Ghost writers typically write behind the scenes on behalf of some one else, implying that a book was actually authored by that person. When the book was first pu blished in 1853, Wilson was clearly identified as its editor–he even wrote an Editor’s Preface. Ther e was nothing furtive about Wilson having been helped with the writing of the book. The precise method of Wilson’s and Northup’s collab oration is not known, but based on Wilson’s preface, newspaper reports at the time, and a lette r written later on by a relative of one of the prin cipals in Northup’s story, Wilson extensively interviewed Northup, undoubtedly taking copious notes. Northup, who during his years of slavery had no way to record information, must have constantly reviewed in his head the events he had experienced, committing to memory the details of people he had met and places he had been. Wilson wrote that h e was entirely convinced of the authenticity of Northup’s recounting, because Northup had « invariab ly repeated the same story without deviating in the slightest particular. » Even Edwin Epps, located by Union soldiers when the y reached Louisiana during the Civil War, admitted that Northup had pretty much told the trut h in his book. After Wilson had put the words onto paper, Northup reviewed them closely. He « carefully perused the manuscript, dictating an alteration wherever the mo st trivial inaccuracy has appeared, » Wilson says. I t is likely that the writing style–with its literary flourishes and turns of phrase–can be attributed to Wilson, but Northup was clearly satisfied that Wils on got all the facts right and he was also comfortable with the final wording. Though Wilson has sometimes been described as an ab olitionist, there is no evidence of that. One newspaper at the time said of Wilson: « I believe he never was suspected of being an Abolitionist–he may be anti-slavery–somewhat conservative. » A few y ears after Twelve Years a Slave was published, Wilson was identified as a member of the American P arty (called the “Know-Nothings”), which had no strong stance concerning slavery. In Wilson’s ow n words, in his preface to the book, he writes « Unbiased, as he conceives, by any prepossessions o r prejudices, the only object of the editor has bee n to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s lif e, as he received it from his lips. » 36 SHIP MANIFEST FOR THE BRIG ORLEANS, THE VESSEL THAT TRANSPORTED NORTHUP TO LOUISIANA AFTER HIS CAPTURE 37
Callaloo, No. 20 (Winter, 1984), pp. 46-73
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Anyone who sets about reading a single slave narrative or even two or three slave narratives might be forgiven the natural assumption that such a narrative will be, or ought to be, a unique production; for – so would go the unconscious argument – are not slave narratives autobiography, and is not every autobiography the unique tale, uniquely told, of a unique life ? If such a reader should proceed to take up another half dozen narrative show ever (and there is a great lot of them from which to choose the half dozen), a sense not of uniqueness but of overwhelming sameness is almost certain to be the result. And if our reader continues through two or three dozen more slave narratives, still having hardly begun to broach the whole body of material (one estimate puts the number of extant narratives at over six thousand), he is sure to come away dazed by the mere repetitiveness of it all: seldom will he discover anything new or different but only, always more and more of the same. This raises a number of difficult questions both for the student of autobiography and the student of Afro-American literature. Should the narrative be so cumulative and so invariant ? Why so repetitive and so much alike ? Are the slave narratives classifiable under some larger grouping (are they history or literature or autobiography or polemical writing ? and what relationship do these larger groupings bear to one another?); or do the narratives represent a mutant development really different in kind from any other mode of writing that might initially seem to relate to them as parent, as sibling, as cousin, or as some other formal relation? What narrative mode, what manner of do we find in the slave narratives, and story-telling, what is the place of memory both in this particular variety of narrative and in autobiography more generally? What is the relationship of the slave narratives to later narrative modes and later thematic complexes of Afro-American writing? The questions are multiple and manifold. I propose to come at them and to offer some tentative answers by first making some observations about autobiography and its special nature as a memorial, creative act; then outlining some of the common themes and nearly invariable conventions of slave narratives; and finally attempting to determine the place of the slave narrative 1) in the spectrum of autobiographical writing 2) in the historyof American literaturea, and 3) in the making of an Afro-American literary tradition.
I have argued elsewhere that there are many different ways that we can legitimately understand the word and the act of autobiography; here, however, I want to restrict myself to a fairly conventional and common-sense understanding of autobiography. I will not attempt to define autobiography but merely to describe a certain kind of autobiographical performance – not the only kind by any means but the one that will allow us to reflect most clearly on what goes on in slave narratives. For present purposes, then, autobiography may be understood as a recollective/narrative act in which the writer, from a certain point in his life – the present -, looks back over the events of that life and recounts them in such a way as to show how that past history has led to this present state of being. Exercising memory, in order that he may recollect and narrate, the autobiographer is not a neutral and passive recorder but rather a creative and active shaper.
Recollection, or memory, in this way a most creative faculty, goes backward so that narrative its twin and counterpart may go forward: memory and narration move along the same line only in reverse direc tions. Or as in Heraclitus, the way up and the way down, the way back and the way forward, are one and the same. When I say that memory is immensely creative I do not mean that it creates for its events that never occurred (of course this can happen too, but that is another matter). What I mean instead is that memory creates the significance of events in discovering the pattern into which those events fall. And such a pattern, in the kind of autobiography where memory rules, will be at eleologic alone bringing us,in and through narration and asit were by an inevitable process, to the end of all past moments which is the present. It is in the inter lay of past and resent,of present memory over on its to reflecting past experience way becoming present being, that events are liftedout of time to be resituated not in mere chronological sequence but in patterned significance.
Paul Ricoeur,in apaper on « Narrative and Hermeneutics,makes the ina different but in a that allows us to sort point slightly way way out theplace of timeand memoryboth in autobiographyin general and in theAfro-Americanslave narrative in particular. »Poiesis, »according to Ricoeur’s analysis, »bothreflectasnd resolvestheparadox of time »;and he continues: »It reflects it to the extent that the act of combinesinvarious two emplotment proportions temporal and theother The first be chronological non-chronological. may one called theepisodicdimension.It characterizesthestoryas made out ofevents.The secondis the dimension thanks to which dimensions, configurational the plot construessignificantwholes out of scatteredevents. »‘ In autobiographyit is memory that in there collecting and retelling of events,effects »emplotment »it is memory that,shaping the past act is for »thecon- cording configuration present, responsible to the ofthe dimension »that »construes wholesout of scat- figurational significant teredevents. »Itisforthisreasonthatina classicofautobiographical literature like for is not Augustine’s Confessions, example, memory only I should verysubject writing. imagine, the mode but becomes the ofthe however,thatanyreaderofslavenarrativeiss mostimmediatelystruck by thealmostcompletedominanceof « theepisodicdimension, »the totallack of dimension, »and thevirtual nearly any « configurational absence of any referenceto memoryor any sense thatmemorydoes anythingbut make the past factsand eventsof slaveryimmediately presentto thewriterand his reader.(Thus one oftengets, »I can see evennow …. I can stillhear. .. ., » etc.) Thereis a verygood reason forthis,butitsbeinga verygood reasondoes notaltertheconsequence thattheslave narrative,witha veryfewexceptions,tendsto exhibit a highlyconventionalr,igidlyfixedformthatbearsmuchthesamerela- tionshiptoautobiographyina fullsenseas paintingbynumbersbears to paintingas a creativeact.
I say there is a good reason for this, and there is: The writerof a slave narrative finds himself in an irresolvably tight bind as a result of the very intention and premise of his narrative, which is to give a picture of »slavery as it is. »Thus it is the writer’s claim, it must be his claim, that he is not he is not and he is not emplotting, fictionalizing, performinagnyactofpoiesis(=shaping, making).To givea truepic- tureof slaveryas it it reallyis, he mustmaintainthathe exercises a clear-glassn,eutralmemorythatisneithercreativenorfaulty-indeed, ifitwerecreativeitwould be eo ipso faulty for »creative »would be understood by skeptical readers as a synonym for »lying. »Thus the ex-slave narrator is debarred from use of a memory that would make anything of his narrative beyond or other than the purely, merely episodic, and he is denied access, by the very nature and intent of his venture, to the configuration a dimension of narrative.
Of the kind of memorycentralto the act of autobiographyas I describeditearlier,ErnstCassirerhas written: »Symbolicmemoryis theprocessby whichmannotonlyrepeatshispastexperiencebutalso
reconstructshisexperienceI.maginationbecomesa necessaryelement oftruerecollection.I »n thatword »imagination,h »owever,liesthejoker foran ex-slavewho would writethenarrativeof his lifein slavery.
Whatwe findAugustinedoinginBook X oftheConfessions-offering up a disquisitionon memorythatmakesbothmemoryitselfand the narrativethatitsurroundsfullysymbolic-would be inconceivablein aslavenarrativeO.fcourseex-slavesdoexercisememoryintheirnar- ratives,buttheynevertalkaboutitas Augustinedoes,as Rousseau does, as Wordsworthdoes, as Thoreau does, as HenryJamesdoes, as
a hundredother (notto novelistslike do. autobiographers say Proust)
Ex-slavescannot talk about it because of the premisesaccordingto
whichtheywrite,one of thosepremisesbeingthatthereis nothing
doubtfulor about on the it is assumed mysterious memory: contrary,
to be a clear,unfailingrecordof eventssharpand distincthatneed
onlybe transformeidntodescriptivelanguagetobecomethesequen- tialnarrativeofa lifeinslavery.Inthesameway,theex-slavewriting his narrativecannotaffordto put thepresentin conjunctionwiththe past (again withveryrarebut significanetxceptionsto be mentioned later)forfearthatin so doinghe will appear, fromthepresent,to be
and so and the As a theslave reshaping distorting falsifying past. result,
narrativeis most oftena non-memorialdescriptionfittedto a pre- formedmold,a moldwithregulardepressionshereandequallyregular prominencetshere-virtuallyobligatoryfiguress,cenes,turnsofphrase, observances,and authentications-thatcarryoverfromnarrativeto narrativeand giveto themas a groupthespeciescharacterthatwe designateby thephrase »slave narrative. »
Whatisthisspeciescharacterbywhichwemayrecognizea slave narrativeT?hemostobvious markisthatitisanextreme-
mixed distinguishing orallofthe
ly productiontypicallyincludingany following:
an engravedportraitor photographof the subjectof the narrative; authenticatintgestimonialsp,refixedor postfixed;poeteicpigraphss,nat- chesofpoetryin thetext,poemsappended;illustrationbsefore,in the middleof,orafterthenarrative ofthenarrative
properby way of declamatoryaddressesto the readerand passages thatas to stylemightwell come froman adventurestory,a romance,
ora novelof a ofdocuments-letters sentiment; bewilderingvariety
to and fromthe narrator,bills of sale, newspaperclippings,notices
of slave auctionsand of escaped slaves, certificateosf marriage,of
thatappear beforethetext,in thetextitself,in footnotes,and in ap-
pendices;and sermonsand anti-slaveryspeechesand essaystackedon
at theend to demonstrate activitiesof thenarrator.In post-narrative
pointingout the extremelymixednatureof slave narrativesone im-
mediatelyhas to acknowledgehow mixedand impureclassic autobiographieasre or can be also. The lastthreebooks ofAugustine’s
volume, and Rousseau’s Confessions,which begins as a novelistic
romanceand ends in a paranoid shambles,can hardlybe considered
ters and to slave thenone thinks prefatory appended narratives, quickly
of thelettersat thedivideof Franklin’sAutobiography,whichhave muchthesameextra-textueaxlistenceasletterastoppositeendsofslave narratives.But all thissaid, we mustrecognizethatthenarrativelet-
all themixed, elementsinslavenarratives heterogeneoush,eterogeneric
come to be so regular,so constant,so indispensableto themode that theyfinallyestablisha setofconventions-a seriesofobservancesthat become virtuallyde riguer-for slave narrativesunto themselves.
The conventionsforslave narrativeswereso earlyand so firmly establishedthatone can imaginea sortof masteroutlinedrawnfrom thegreatnarrativesand guidingthelesserones. Such an outlinewould look somethinglike this:
B. A titlepage thatincludestheclaim,as an integralpartoftheti- tle, »WrittenbyHimself »(orsomeclosevariant: »Writtenfroma state- mentof FactsMade by Himself »;or « Writtenby a Friend,as Related to Him by BrotherJones »;etc.)
C. A handfulof testimonialsand/orone or moreprefacesor in-
(WilliamLloyd Garrison,WendellPhillips)or by a whiteamanuen-
sis/editor/author forthetext(JohnGreenleafWhit- actuallyresponsible
prefacethereaderis told thatthenarrativeis a « plain,unvarnished
tale »and thatnaught »hasbeensetdowninmalice,nothingexaggerated,
nothingdrawnfromtheimagination »-indeed,thetale,itis claimed, understatesthe horrorsof slavery.
D. A poeticepigraph,bypreferencferomWilliamCowper. E. Theactualnarrative:
1. a firstsentencebeginning, »I was born … , » thenspecifyinga placebutnota dateofbirth;
2. a accountof often a white sketchy parentage,, involving father;
3. descriptionofa cruelmaster,mistresso,roverseer,detailsoffirst observedwhippingandnumerousubsequentwhippingsw,ithwomen veryfrequentlythe victims;
4. anaccountofoneextraordinarilsytrong,hardworkingslave- often »pureAfrican »-who, because thereis no reasonforit,refuses
to be whipped;
whelmingdifficultieesncounteredin learningto read and write;
6. descriptionofa « Christian »slaveholder(oftenofonesuchdying in terror)and theaccompanyingclaimthat »Christian »slaveholders
are invariablyworsethanthoseprofessingno religion;
toslaves,theworkrequiredofthem,thepatternofa day,a week, a year;
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8. account of a slave auction, of familiesbeing separated and
destroyed,ofdistraughmtothersclingingtotheirchildrenastheyare tornfromthem,of slave cofflesbeingdrivenSouth;
9. descriptionofpatrols,offailedattempt(s)toescape,ofpursuit by men and dogs;
theday, travellingby nightguidedby theNorthStar,receptionin a freestatebyQuakerswho offera lavishbreakfastand muchgenial
11. takingofa newlastname(frequentlyonesuggestedbya white abolitionistt)oaccordwithnewsocialidentityas a freeman,butreten- tionoffirstnameas a markofcontinuityofindividualidentity;
12. reflectionosn slavery.
therreflectionosn slavery,sermons,anti-slaveryspeeches,poems,ap- peals to thereaderforfundsand moralsupportin thebattleagainst
Aboutthis’MasterPlan forSlave Narratives(« theironyofthephras-
neitherunintentionanlor twoobservations ing being insignificant)
shouldbe made: First,thatitnotonlydescribesratherlooselya great manylessernarrativebsutthatitalso describesquitecloselythegreatest ofthemall, NarrativeoftheLifeofFrederickDouglass, An American Slave, WrittenbyHimself,3whichparadoxicallytranscendstheslave narrativemode whilebeingat thesame timeitsfullest,mostexact representativeS;econd, thatwhat is beingrecountedin thenarratives is nearlyalways therealitiesof theinstitutionof slavery,almostnever
ofthenarrator(here,as often, emotional, growth
Douglass succeedsin beingan exceptionwithoutceasingto be thebest
example:he goesbeyondthesingleintentionofdescribingslavery,but he also describesitmoreexactlyand moreconvincinglythananyone else). The lives of thenarrativesare never,or almostnever,therefor themselveasnd fortheirown intrinsic, interesbtut
one sensethenarrativelivesoftheex-slaveswereas muchpossessed
and used by the abolitionistsas theiractual lives had been by
slaveholders.This is why JohnBrown’sstoryis titledSlave Lifein
and subtitled »A NarrativeoftheLife, and only Sufferings,
EscapeofJohnBrown,A FugitiveSlave, »anditiswhyCharlesBall’s story (which reads like historicalfictionbased on very extensive research)is called Slaveryin theUnitedStates,withthesomewhatex- tendedsubtitle »A NarrativeoftheLifeand AdventureosfCharlesBall, A BlackMan, who livedfortyearsinMaryland,SouthCarolinaand Georgia,as a slave, undervariousmasters,and was one yearin the
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navywithCommodoreBarney,duringthelatewar. Containingan ac- countof themannersand usages of theplantersand slaveholdersof theSouth-a descriptionoftheconditionandtreatmenotftheslaves, withobservationusponthestateofmoralsamongsthecottonplanters,
and the and
perils sufferings fugitive escaped
ofa slave,who twice from thecottoncountry. »Thecentralfocusofthesetwo,as ofnearlyall
thenarrativesi,s slavery,an institutionand an externalreality,rather thana particularand individualifeas itis knowninternallyand sub-
thenarratives are all trainedon one and the same objectivereality,theyhave a
Thismeansthatunlike in jectively. autobiography general
coherentand definedaudience,theyhave behindthemand guidingthem
an organizedgroup of « sponsors, »and theyare possessed of very specificmotives,intentionsa,ndusesunderstoodbynarratorss,pon- sors,and audiencealike: to revealthetruthof slaveryand so to bring about itsabolition.How, then,could thenarrativesbe anythingbut verymuchlike one another?
thistriangularelationshipofnarratora,udience,and sponsorsand the logicthatdictatesdevelopmentofthoseconventionswillbearand will reward closer scrutiny.The conventionsI have in mind are both thematicand formaland theytendto turnup as oftenin theparapher- naliasurroundingthenarrativesas inthenarrativesthemselvesI.have alreadyremarkedontheextra-textualelttersocommonlyassociated
suggested they logic
havea different about themfromthelogicthatallows or impelsFranklinto include similarlyaliendocumentsinhisautobiographyt;hesameistrueofthe
signedengravedportraitsor photographso frequentlyto be foundas
frontispieces portrait signature(which
one mightwell findin othernineteenth-centurayutobiographical documentsbutwithdifferenmtotivation),liketheprefatoryandap-
pendedletters,thetitulartag « Writtenby Himself, »and thestandard
opening »I was born, »are intendedto attestto thereal existenceof
a narrator,thesensebeingthatthestatusofthenarrativewillbe con-
narrativesis thattheeventsnarratedare factualand truthfualnd that
« I exist. » lettersall Photographs,portraitss,ignaturesa,uthenticating
makethesameclaim: »Thismanexists. »Onlythencanthenarrative
begin.And how do mostofthemactuallybegin?Theybeginwiththe existentiacllaimrepeated. »I was born »are thefirstwordsofMoses Roper’sNarrativea,nd theyarelikewisethefirstwordsofthenarratives ofHenryBibband HarrietJacobs,ofHenryBox Brown4and William
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Wells Brown,of FrederickDouglass5and JohnThompson,of Samuel RinggoldWardandJamesW. C. Penningtono,fAustinStewardand JamesRoberts,ofWilliamGreenand WilliamGrimes,ofLevinTilmon and PeterRandolph,ofLouis Hughesand LewisClarke,ofJohnAn- drewJacksonandThomasH. Joneso,fLewisCharltonandNoahDavis, ofJamesWilliamsand WilliamParkerand Williamand EllenCraft (wheretheopeningassertionis variedonlyto theextentofsaying, »My wifeand myselfwereborn »).6
We can see thenecessityforthisfirstand mostbasic assertionon thepartoftheex-slaveinthecontrarysituationofan autobiographer likeBenjaminFranklinW.hileanyreaderwasfreetodoubtthemotives ofFranklin’msemoir,noonecoulddoubthis andsoFranklin
existsbutwithan explanationofwhyhe has chosento writesucha
documentas theone in hand. Withtheex-slave,however,it was his
existenceand his nothisreasonsfor thatwerecalled identity, writing,
intoquestion:iftheformercould be establishedthelatterwould be obviousand thesamefromone narrativeto another.Franklincitesfour motivesforwritinghisbook(tosatisfydescendantsc’uriosityt;ooffer an exampleto others;to providehimselfthepleasureofrelivingevents inthetelling;tosatisfyhisownvanity),andwhileonecanfindnar- rativesby ex-slavesthatmighthave in themsomethingofeach ofthese motives-JamesMars, forexample,displaysin partthefirstof the motives,Douglass inpartthesecond,JosiahHensoninpartthethird, and SamuelRinggoldWardinpartthefourth-thetruthis thatbehind everyslave narrativethatis in any way characteristiocr representative thereis the one same persistentand dominantmotivation,which is determinedbytheinterplayofnarrator,sponsors,and audienceand whichitselfdeterminetshenarrativeintheme,content,and form.The themeis therealityof slaveryand thenecessityof abolishingit; the contentisa seriesofeventsanddescriptiontshatwillmakethereader see and feeltherealitiesofslavery;and theformis a chronological, episodicnarrativebeginningwithan assertionof existenceand sur- roundedby various testimonialevidencesforthatassertion.
In thetitleand subtitleofJohnBrown’snarrativecitedearlier-Slave
in A Narrative the
Life Georgia: of Life,Sufferings, Escape of
and John Brown,AFugitiveSlave-we seethatthethemepromisestobetreated on two levels, as it were titularand subtitular:the social or institu-
tionaland thepersonalor individual.What typicallyhappensin the
is thatthesocial theme,therealityofslaveryand thenecessityof abolishingit,trifurcateosn thepersonallevelto becomesubthemesof
and freedom not sightcloselyrelatedmattersn,evertheleslseadintooneanotherinsuch
and at first literacyi,dentity, which,though obviously
a that end
up beingaltogetherinterdependent virtually
as thematicstrands.Here,as so often,
rativeis at oncethebestexample,theexceptionaclase,and thesupreme
of the Life of FrederickDouglass, An AmericanSlave, Writtenby
Himself.7Thereis muchmoreto thephrase »writtenby himself, »of
course,thanthemerelaconicstatementofa fact:itisliterallya part
all and withouthefirst, to
acquiredsimultaneously according Douglass, thelattertwo would neverhave been. The dual factof literacyand
identity(« written »and »himself »r)eflectbsackontheterribleironyof the phrase in apposition, »An AmericanSlave »: How can both of these-« American »and « Slave »-be true?And thisin turncarriesus back to thename, « FrederickDouglass, » whichis writtenall around thenarrativei:n thetitle,on the and as thelastwords
of the text:
Sincerelyand earnestlyhopingthatthislittlebook may do somethingtowardthrowinglighton theAmericanslave system, andhasteningthegladdayofdeliverancetothemillionsofmy
brethrenin bonds-faithfullyrelyingupon the power of truth, love, and justice,forsuccessin myhumbleefforts-andsolemn-
lypledgingmyselfanew to thesacredcause,–I subscribemyself, FREDERICK DOUGLASS
« Isubscribemyself »-IwritemyselfdowninlettersI,underwritmey identityand myverybeing,as indeedI have done in and all through theforegoingnarrativethathas broughtmeto thisplace,thismoment, thisstateof being.
The to utterhis and more to utterit in ability name, significantly
insilenceso as readerscontinuetoconstruethe iswhat long characters,
Douglass’ Narrativeis about, forin thatletteredutteranceis assertion ofidentityand inidentityisfreedom-freedomfromslavery,freedom fromignorance,freedomfromnon-being,freedomeven fromtime. WhenWendellPhillips,ina standardletterprefatorytoDouglass’Nar- rative,says thatin thepast he has always avoided knowingDouglass’ « real name and birthplace » because it is « still dangerous, in Massachusetts,forhonestmentotelltheirnames, »oneunderstands wellenoughwhathe meansby « yourrealname »and thedangerof tellingit-« Nobody knowsmyname, »JamesBaldwinsays.Andyet
in a veryimportantway Phillipsis profoundlywrong,forDouglass had beensayinghis »realname »eversinceescapingfromslaveryin
theway in whichhe wentabout creatingand assertinghis identityas a freeman:FrederickDouglass.IntheNarrativehesayshisrealname notwhenhe revealsthathe « was born »FrederickBaileybutwhenhe putshissignaturbeelowhisportraibteforethebeginningand subscribes himselfagain aftertheend of thenarrative.Douglass’ name-changes and self-namingare highlyrevealingat each stage in his progress: « FrederickAugustusWashingtonBailey »by thenamegivenhimby hismotherh,ewasknownas »FrederickBailey »orsimply »Fred »while growingup; heescapedfromslaveryunderthename »Stanley, »but whenhe reachedNew York took thename « FrederickJohnson. »(He wasmarriedinNewYorkunderthatname-and givesacopyofthe marriagecertificatien thetext-by theRev. J.W. C. Penningtonwho had himselfescapedfromslaverysometenyearsbeforeDouglass and who wouldproducehisown narrativesomefouryearsafterDouglass.) Finally,in New Bedford,he foundtoo manyJohnsonsand so gave to
hishost( one ofthetoo the many-Nathan Johnson) privilege
ofnam- inghim, »buttoldhimhe mustnottakefromme thenameof ‘Frederick.’
Imustholdontothat,topreservea senseofmyidentity.T »husa new social identitybut a continuityof personalidentity.
In narratingtheeventsthatproducedbothchangeand continuity in his life,Douglass regularlyreflectsback and forth(and herehe is verymuchtheexception)fromthepersonwrittenabout to theperson writingf,romanarrativeofpasteventstoapresentnarratorgrown out of thoseevents.In one marvellouslyrevealingpassage describing thecoldhesufferefdromas a child,Douglasssays,’My feethavebeen so crackedwiththefrost,thatthepen withwhichI am writingmight belaidinthegashes. »One mightbeinclinedtoforgethatitisa vastly
writtenabout,butitis a personwriting person very
and effectivreeminderto referto the in- significant immensely writing
strumentas a way ofrealizingthedistancebetweentheliterate,ar- ticulatewriterand the illiterate,inarticulatesubjectof the writing. Douglasscouldhavesaidthatthecoldcausedlesionsinhisfeeta quarter ofan inchacross,butinchoosingthewritinginstrumenhteldat the presentmoment-« the pen withwhichI am writing »-by one now known to the world as FrederickDouglass, he dramatizeshow far removedhe is fromtheboy once called Fred(and other,worsenames, of course)withcracksin his feetand withno moreuse fora pen than foranyoftheothersignsand appendagesoftheeducationthathehad beendeniedand thathewouldfinallyacquireonlywiththegreatest
success,as we feelin difficulty greatest, telling
butalso withthe most thequalityofthenarrativenow flowingfromtheliteraland symbolic
heholdsinhishand.Herewehave andfreedom, pen literacyi,dentity,
theomnipresenthematictrioof themostimportantslave narratives, all conveyedin a singlestartlingimage.8
Thereis, however,onlyone FrederickDouglass amongtheex-slaves who told theirstoriesand the storyof slaveryin a singlenarrative, and in even the best known, most highlyregardedof the other narratives-those,forexample,by WilliamWellsBrown,CharlesBall, HenryBibb,JosiahHenson,SolomonNorthup,J.W. C. Pennington, and Moses Roper–all theconventionsare observed-conventionsof content,theme,form,and style-but theyremainjustthat:conven- tionsuntransformeadndunredeemedT.hefirsthreeoftheseconven- tionalaspectsofthenarrativesare,as I have alreadysuggested,pretty clearlydeterminebdy therelationshibpetweenthenarratorhimselfand thoseI have termedthesponsors(as wellas theaudience)ofthenar- rative.Whentheabolitionistsinvitedan ex-slaveto tellhisstoryof
experiencein slaveryto an anti-slaveryconvention,and when they
subsequentlysponsoredtheappearanceof thatstoryin print,1t0hey
had certainclear wellunderstood themselveasnd well expectations, by
understoodby theex-slavetoo, about thepropercontento be observ- ed, theproperthemeto be developed,and theproperformto be follow- ed. Moreover,content,theme,and formdiscoveredearlyon an ap-
propriatestyleand thatappropriatestylewas also thepersonalstyle displayedby thesponsoringabolitionistsin thelettersand introduc- tionstheyprovidedso generouslyforthenarrativesI.tisnotstrange, ofcourse,thatthestyleofan introductionand thestyleofa narrative shouldbe one and thesame in thosecases whereintroductionand nar- rativewerewrittenbythesameperson-CharlesStears writingin- troductionandnarrativeofBoxBrown,forexample,orDavid Wilson writingprefaceand narrativeof Solomon Northup.What is strange,
and a deal more is theinstancein whichthe perhaps, good interesting,
styleoftheabolitionistintroducercarriesoverintoa narrativethat iscertifiedas « WrittenbyHimself, »andthislatterinstanceisnotnear- lyso isolatedas onemightinitiallysuppose.I wanttolooksomewhat at threevariationson thatI taketo
closely stylisticinterchange repre-
sentmoreor less the of be- adequately spectrum possiblerelationships
tweenprefatorystyleand narrativestyle,or moregenerallybetween sponsorand narrator:HenryBox Brown,wheretheprefaceand nar- rativeare bothclearlyin themannerof CharlesStearns;SolomonNor- thup,wherethe enigmaticalprefaceand narrative,althoughnot so clearlyas inthecaseofBoxBrown,areneverthelesbsothintheman- nerofDavid Wilson;andHenryBibb,wheretheintroductionissign- ed byLuciusC. Matlackand theauthor’sprefacebyHenryBibb,and wherethenarrativeis « Writtenby Himself »-but wherealso a single
is in controlof author’s and narrativealike. style introduction, preface,
HenryBox Brown’sNarrative,we are told on the title-page,was WRITTEN FROM A
STATEMENT OF FACTS MADE BY HIMSELF. WITH REMARKS UPON THE REMEDY FOR SLAVERY. BY CHARLES STEARNS.
Whetheritis intentionaolr not,theorderoftheelementsand thepunc- tuationofthissubtitle(withfullstopsafterlinestwoand three)make
itveryunclearjustwhatis beingclaimedabout authorshipand stylistic responsibilityforthenarrative.Presumablythe »remarksupon the remedyforslavery »are by CharlesStearns(who was also, at 25 Cor- nhill,Boston,thepublisherof theNarrative),but thistitle-pagecould wellleavea readerindoubtaboutthepartyresponsibleforthestylistic mannerofthenarration.Such doubtwillsoon be dispelled,however, ifthereaderproceedsfromCharlesStearns' »preface »to Box Brown’s « narrativet »o CharlesStearns' »remarksupon theremedyforslavery. » The is a most most most
preface poetic, high-flown, grandiloquent perorationthat,oncecrankedup, carriesrightoverintoand through thenarrativetoissueintheappendedremarkswhichcometoan end in a REPRESENTATION OF THE BOX in whichBox Brownwas
transportedfromRichmondto Philadelphia.Thus fromthepreface:
seesomenewthing,n’ortogratifyanyinclinationonthepartofthe hero of thefollowingstoryto be honoredby man, is thissimpleand touchingnarrativeoftheperilsofa seekerafterthe’boon ofliberty,’ introducedto thepubliceye . … , » etc.-the sentencegoes on three timeslongerthanthisextractd,escribingasitproceeds »thehorridsuf-
ofone as, ina shutoutfromthe ofheaven, ferings portableprison, light
and nearly deprived of its balmy air, he pursued his fearful journey….. » As is usual in suchprefaces,we are addresseddirectly
« Not forthe of to a desireto ‘hearand purpose administering prurient
theauthor: »O reader,as this tale,letthe you peruse heart-rending
tearofsympathyrollfreelyfromyoureyes,and letthedeep fountains
shallflowtherefromon to thesurroundingworld,ofso invigorating
and a nature,as toarousefromthe’deathofthesin’of purifying slavery,
and cleansefromthepollutionsthereof,all withwhom you may be connected. »We maynotbe overwhelmedbythesenseofthissentence but surelywe mustbe by its richrhetoricalmanner.
Thenarrativeitselfw,hichisallfirstpersonand »theplainnarrative ofourfriend, »as theprefacesays,beginsinthismanner:
I amnotabouttoharrowthefeelingsofmyreadersbya ter-
rificrepresentationof theuntoldhorrorsof thatfearfuslystem
aroundtheformofitsunfortunatveictim.It is notmypurpose
to descenddeeplyintothedarkand noisomecavernsofthehell
of and fromtheir abode thoselost slavery, drag frightful spirits
who hauntthesouls of thepoor slaves, daily and nightlywith theirfrightfuplresence,and withthefearfusloundoftheirter-
rificinstrumentosf torture;forotherpens farabler thanmine
have that ofthelaborofan effectuallpyerformed portion exposer
of the enormitiesof slavery. Sufficeittosayofthispieceoffinewritingthatthepen-than which therewereothersfarabler-was heldnotbyBoxBrownbutbyCharles Stearnsand thatitcouldhardlybe furtheremovedthanitisfromthe penheldbyFrederickDouglass,thatpenthatcouldhavebeenlaidin thegashesin his feetmade by thecold. At one pointin his narrative Box Brownis made to say (afterdescribinghow his brotherwas turn- ed away froma streamwiththeremark »We do not allow niggersto fish »), »Nothingdaunted,however,by thisrebuffm, ybrotherwent
successfulin his obtain- undertaking,
to another and was place,
inga plentifuslupplyofthefinnytribe. » »It maybe thatBox Brown’s
storywas toldfrom »a statementoffactsmadebyhimself, »butafter
thanthe of thebox itself)thatremainsin thenarrative. representation
And indeed for everyfact thereare pages of self-conscious,self-
gratifyings,elf-congratulatorpyhilosophizingby CharlesStearns,so thatifthereis any lifehereat all it is thelifeof thatman expressed in his veryown overheatedand foolishprose.12
David Wilsonis a good deal morediscreethanCharlesStearns,and
the relationshipof prefaceto narrativein Twelve Years a Slave is
thereforae deal more butalso more than great questionable, interesting,
intheNarrativeofHenryBox Brown.Wilson’sprefaceis a page and a halflong; Northup’snarrative,witha song at theend and threeor
fourappendices,is threehundredthirtypages long. In the preface Wilsonsays, « Many of thestatementcsontainedin thefollowingpages are corroboratedby abundantevidence-othersrestentirelyupon Solomon’sassertionT.hathehasadheredstrictlytothetrutht,heeditor, at least, who has had an opportunityof detectingany contradiction or discrepancyin his statementsi,s well satisfied.He has invariably repeated the same story without deviating in the slightest particular…. « 13 Now Northup’snarrativeis not only a verylong onebutisfilledwitha vastamountofcircumstantial andhence
itstrainsa reader’scredulitysomewhatto be toldthathe « invariably
repeatedthesame storywithoutdeviatingin theslightestparticular. » Moreover,sincethestyleofthenarrative(as I shallargueina mo-
ment)isdemonstrablynotNorthup’sown,wemightwellsuspecta fill- inginand fleshingouton thepartof-perhaps notthe »onliebegetter » butatleast-theactualauthorofthenarrativeB.utthisisnotthemost
of Wilson’s in the nor theone performance preface
interestinagspect thatwillrepayclosestexamination.Thatcomeswiththeconclusion of theprefacewhichreads as follows:
It is believedthatthefollowingaccountofhis [Northup’s]ex-
perienceon Bayou Boeufpresentsa correctpictureof Slavery, in all itslightsand shadows,as itnow existsin thatlocality.Un-
biased,as heconceives,byanyprepossessionsorprejudices,the onlyobjectoftheeditorhasbeentogiveafaithfuhlistoryof Solomon Northup’slife,as he receivedit fromhis lips.
In the ofthat accomplishment object,
thenumerousfaultsof and of it be withstanding style expression may
do well to startwiththefinalsentence,whichis relativelyeasy to understand.To acknowledgefaultsin a publicationand to assume
forthemis ofcoursea in responsibility commonplacegesture prefaces,
thoughwhythequestionofstyleand expressionshouldbe so impor- tantingiving »afaithfuhlistory »ofsomeone’slife »as…receiv-
ed . . . fromhislips »isnotquiteclear;presumablythevirtuesofstyle
he trustshe has succeeded,not-
itwhatever expression superadded history give
and are to thefaithful to
authorfeelsthe need to acknowledgeresponsibilityand apologize. Neverthelessp,uttingthisambiguityaside,thereisno doubtaboutwho isresponsibleforwhatinthissentence,which,ifI mightreplacepro- nounswithnames,would read thus: »In theaccomplishmenotf that object,David Wilsontruststhathe [David Wilson]has succeeded,not-
thenumerousfaultsof and of which
it be found thereader responsibility] may by
penetrableboth in syntaxand in the assertiontheyare presumably designedto make. Castingthefirststatementas a passive one (« It is
believed.. . ») and danglinga participlein the second (« Unbias- ed . . . « ), so thatwe cannotknowineithercase towhomthestate- mentshould be attached,Wilson succeeds in obscuringentirelythe authoritybeingclaimedforthenarrative.1I4t would take too much
to the the (one however, space analyze syntax, psychology might, glance
at thefamiliaruse ofNorthup’sgivenname),and thesenseofthese
affirmationsb,ut I would challengeanyone to diagramthe second sentence(« Unbiased . . . « ) withany assuranceat all.
As to thenarrativeto whichtheseprefatorysentencesrefer:When
we get a sentencelike this one describingNorthup’sgoing into a
swamp-« My midnightintrusionhad awakenedthefeatheredtribes
relativesofthe tribeo’fBoxBrown/Charles which [near ‘finny Steams],
seemedto throngthemorassin hundredsof thousands,and theirgar-
a of sullen in thewaterall aroundme- fluttering wings-such plunges
that I was affrightedand appalled » (p. 141)-when we get such a
sentencewe maythinkitprettyfinewritingand awfullyliteraryb,ut thefinewriterisclearlyDavid WilsonratherthanSolomonNorthup. Perhapsa betterinstanceofthewhiteamanuensis/sentimentnaolvelist
hismannered overthefaithful as receivedfromNor- laying style history
thup’slipsistobefoundinthisdescriptionofa Christmascelebration wherea huge meal was providedby one slaveholderforslaves from surroundingplantations: »Theyseat themselvesat therustictable- themaleson one side,thefemaleson theother.The twobetweenwhom theremayhavebeenan exchangeoftendernessi,nvariablymanageto sitopposite;fortheomnipresenCtupid disdainsnottohurlhisarrows into the simpleheartsof slaves » (p. 215). The entirepassage should be consultedto get the fulleffectof Wilson’s stylisticextravagances whenhepullsthestopsout,butanyreadershouldbe forgivenwho declinestobelievethatthislastclause,withitsreferencteo « thesimple heartsofslaves »and its inverted
self-conscious, syntax(« disdainsnot »), was writtenby someonewho had recentlybeen in slaveryfortwelve
years. »Red, »we aretoldbyWilson’sNorthup, »isdecidedlythefavorite coloramongtheenslaveddamselsofmyacquaintance.Ifa redribbon does notencircletheneck,you willbe certainto findall thehairoftheir wooly heads tiedup withred stringsof one sortor another »(p. 214). In the light of passages like these, David Wilson’s apology for « numerousfaultsof styleand of expression »takes on all sortsof in- terestingnew meaning.The rustictable, the omnipresentCupid, the simpleheartsofslaves,and thewoollyheadsofenslaveddamsels,like thefinnyand featheredtribes,mightcomefromanysentimentanlovel ofthenineteenthcentury-one,say,byHarrietBeecherStowe;and so it comes as no greatsurpriseto read on the dedicationpage the following: »To HarrietBeecherStowe:WhoseName,Throughouthe World,IsIdentifiedwiththeGreatReformT:hisNarrative,Affording AnotherKey to UncleTom’s Cabin, Is RespectfullyDedicated. » While notsurprisingg,iventhestyleofthenarrative,thisdedicationdoes lit- tleto clarifytheauthoritythatwe are asked to discoverin and behind thenarrative,and thededication,like thepervasivestyle,calls into seriousquestionthestatusof Twelve Yearsa Slave as autobiography and/orliterature.15
ForHenryBibb’snarrativeLuciusC. Matlacksuppliedan introduc-
tionin a mightypoeticvein in whichhe reflectson theparadox that
ductions. »Gushingfountainsof poetic thought,have startedfrom
beneaththerod ofviolence,thatwilllongcontinueto slakethefeverish
authenticated, excelling touchingpathos,
fictionin their fromthepenofself-emancipatesdlaves,do nowexhibitslaveryinsuch
revoltingaspects,as to securetheexecrationsof all good men,and
as sacredwritagainstit. »16The pictureMatlackpresentsof an outrag-
ed humanitywitha feverishthirstforgushingfountainstartedup by
speaking, not very healthy. At any rate, the narrativeto which
the of a slave severaltimes), pen self-emancipated (self-emancipated
about them;butthereallycuriousthingabout Bibb’snarrativeis that
we findin or as-told-tonarrativesand also in ghostwritten prefaces
suchas thoseby CharlesStearns,Louis AlexisChamerovzow,and LuciusMatlackhimselfC.onsidertheaccountBibbgivesofhiscourt- shipandmarriage.Havingdeterminedbya hundredsignsthatMalin- dalovedhimevenashelovedher-« I couldreaditbyheralwaysgiv- ingme thepreferencoef hercompany;by herpressinginvitationsto visiteven in oppositionto her mother’swill. I could read it in the languageofherbrightand sparklingeye,penciledby theunchangable fingerofnature,thatspakebutcouldnotlie »(pp. 34-35)-Bibb decid- ed to speak and so, as he says, « broachedthe subjectof marriage »:
I said, »I neverwillgivemyheartnorhandtoanygirlinmar-
untilI firstknowhersentiments the sub- riage, upon all-important
jectsof Religionand Liberty.No matterhow well I mightlove her,norhow greatthesacrificein carryingout theseGod-given principles.And I herepledgemyselffromthiscourseneverto be shakenwhilea singlepulsationofmyheartshallcontinueto throbforLiberty. »
Anddidhis »deargirl »funkthechallengethusproposedbyBibb? Farfromit-if anythingsheprovedmorehigh-mindedthanBibb himself.
WiththisideaMalindaappearedtobewellpleased,andwith a smileshelookedmeinthefaceandsaid, »Ihavelongenter- tained the same views, and this has been one of the greatest reasonswhyI havenotfeltinclinedtoenterthemarriedstatewhile a slave;Ihavealwaysfelta desiretobefree;Ihavelongcherish- ed a hope thatI shouldyetbe free,eitherby purchaseor running away.InregardtothesubjectofReligion,Ihavealwaysfeltthat itwas a good thing,and somethingthatI would seekforat some futureperiod. »
Itisalltothegood,ofcourse,thatnoonehaseverspokenorcould everspeakasBibbandhisbelovedaresaidtohavedone-no one,that is,outsidea bad, sentimentanlovelofdatec. 1849.17Thoughactual- lywrittenbyBibb,thenarrativef,orstyleandtone,mightas wellhave
beentheproductofthepenofLuciusMatlack.Butthecombination ofthesentimentarlhetoricofwhitefictionand whitepreface-writing witha realisticpresentationofthefactsofslavery,all paradingunder the bannerof an authentic-and authenticated-personalnarrative, producessomethingthatis neitherfishnorfowl.A textlikeBibb’sis committedtotwoconventionaflormst,heslavenarrativeandthenovel ofsentimenta,nd caughtbybothitis unableto transcendeither.Nor
Considerone smallbutrecurrenatnd tellingdetailin therelation- shipofwhitesponsorto black narrator.JohnBrown’snarrative,we are toldby Louis AlexisChamerovzow,the »Editor »(actuallyauthor) of Slave Lifein Georgia,is « a plain, unvarnishedtale of real Slave- life »;EdwinScrantom,inhisletter »recommendatoryw, »ritesto Austin Stewardofhis Twenty-TwoYearsa Slave and FortyYearsa Freeman, « Letitsplain,unvarnishedtalebe sentout,and thestoryofSlavery and its abominations,again be told by one who has feltin his own personitsscorpionlash,and theweightofitsgrindingheel »;thepreface writer(« W. M. S. ») forExperienceofa Slave inSouthCarolinacalls it « theunvarnished,but ower truetale of JohnAndrewJackson,the
ofhis »ex-slave, »saysof TheNarrativeofJamesWilliams, »Thefollow- ingpagescontainthesimpleand unvarnishedstoryofan AMERICAN SLAVE »; RobertHurnardtellsus thathe was determinedto receive and transmitSolomon Bayley’sNarrative »in his own simple,unvar- nished style »; and HarrietTubman too is given the « unvarnished » honorifibcySarahBradfordinherprefaceto ScenesintheLifeofHar- rietTubman: »Itisproposedinthislittlebooktogivea plainandun- varnishedaccountofsomescenesandadventureisnthelifeofa woman who, thoughone of earth’slowly ones, and of dark-huedskin,has shownan amountofheroisminhercharacterarelypossessedbythose ofanystationinlife. »Thefactthatthevarnishislaidonverythickly indeedin severalof these(Brown,Jackson,and Williams,forexam-
is but it is not theessential whichis to ple) perhapsinteresting, point,
be foundin therepeateduse of just thisword-« unvarnished »-to describeall thesetales.The OxfordEnglishDictionarywilltellus (which we shouldhave surmisedanyway)thatOthello,anotherfigureof »dark- huedskin »butvastlyheroiccharacterf,irstusedtheword »unvarnish- ed »-« I willa roundunvarnish’dtaledeliver/Of mywholecourseof love »;andthat,atleastsofarastheOED recordgoes,theworddoes notturnup againuntilBurkeuseditin1780,some175yearslater(« This
UncleTom’sCabin sensibility produced
is thereasonfarto seek:the that
was closelyalliedto theabolitionistsensibilitythatsponsoredtheslave narrativesand largelydeterminedthe formthey should take. The master-slaverelationshipmightgo undergroundor itmightbe turned insideout but it was not easily done away with.
Carolinianslave »;JohnGreenleafWhittier, the escaped apparently dupe
is a true,unvarnished,undisguisedstateoftheaffair »).I doubtthat anyonewould imaginethatwhiteeditors/amanuensehsad an obscure passagefromBurkeinthebackoftheircollectivemind-or deepdown inthatmind-when theyrepeatedlyusedthiswordtocharacterizethe narrativeoftheirex-slaves.No, itwas certainlya Shakespeareanhero theywereunconsciouslyevoking,and notjustany Shakespeareanhero but always Othello, theNoble Moor.
Various narratorsof documents »writtenby himself »apologize for
theirlack of grace or styleor writingability,and again various nar-
rators thattheirsare factual,realistic but say simple, presentations;
noex-slavethatI havefoundwhowriteshisownstorycallsitan « un-
varnished »tale: thephraseis specificto whiteeditors,amanuenses, writersa,ndauthenticatorMs.oreover,toturnthematteraround,when
an ex-slavemakesan allusionto Shakespeare(whichis naturallya very infrequenotccurrencet)osuggestsomethingabouthissituationorim-
ofhis theallusionis neverto Othello.Frederick plysomething character,
Douglass, forexample,describingall theimaginedhorrorsthatmight overtakehimand hisfellowsshouldtheytryto escape,writes, »I say,
thispicturesometimesappalled us, and made us:
‘ratherbear those ills we had, Than flyto others,thatwe knew not of. »‘
Thus it was in the lightof Hamlet’s experienceand characterthat
Douglass saw his own, not in the lightof Othello’s experienceand
character.Not so WilliamLloyd Garrison,however,who says in the
prefaceto Douglass’ Narrative, »I am confidenthatit is essentially
nothingexaggeratedn,othingdrawnfromtheimagination…. « 18We can be sure that it is entirelyunconscious,this regularallusion to
Othello,butitsaysmuchaboutthepsychologicarlelationshipofwhite patronto black narratorthattheformershouldinvariablysee thelat- ter not as Hamlet, not as Lear, not as Antony, or any other Shakespeareanhero but always and only as Othello.
When you shall theseunluckydeeds relate,
Speak of themas theyare. Nothingextenuate,
Nor set down aughtin malice. Then mustyou speak Of one thatlov’d not wiselybut too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, beingwrought, Perplex’din the extreme….
TheMoor, Shakespeare’sor Garrison’s,wasnoble,certainlyb,uthe
was also a creatureofunreliablecharacterand irrational passion-such,
at least,seemsto havebeenthelogicoftheabolitionistsa’ttitudetoward
theirex-slavespeakersand narrators-and it was just as well forthe whitesponsorto keep him,ifpossible,on a prettyshortleash. Thus itwas thattheGarrisonians-thoughnotGarrisonhimself-wereop- posed to theidea (and lettheiroppositionbe known)thatDouglass and WilliamWellsBrownshouldsecurethemselveasgainsttheFugitive Slave Law by purchasingtheirfreedomfromex-mastersa;nd because it mightharmtheircause theGarrisoniansattemptedalso to prevent WilliamWellsBrownfromdissolvinghismarriage.The reactionfrom theGarrisoniansand fromGarrisonhimselfwhenDouglass insisted
ongoinghisownwayanyhowwasbothexcessiveandrevealing,sug- gestingthatforthemtheMoor had ceased to be noble whilestill,un-
fortunatelyr,emaininga Moor. My Bondageand My Freedom,Gar-
risonwrote, »initssecondportion,is reekingwiththevirusofper-
sonal towardsWendell and theold malignity Phillips,myself, organiza-
tionists and and basenesstowardsas true generally, fullofingratitude « 19
and disinterestefdriendsas any man everyethad upon earth. That
thissimplyis not trueof My Bondage and My Freedomis almostof
rison’sattitudetowardhis ex-slaveand theunconsciouspsychology
risonwroteto his wifethatDouglass’ conduct »has been impulsive,
inconsiderateand highlyinconsistent »and to Samuel J. May that
Douglasshimselfwas « destitutoefeveryprincipleofhonor,ungrateful
to thelast and malevolentin the is clear: degree spirit, »20 picture pretty
forGarrison,Douglass had becomeOthellogonewrong,Othellowith all his dark-huedskin,his impulsivenessand passion but none of his nobilityof heroism.
TherelationshiopfsponsortonarratordidnotmuchaffecDtouglass’ ownNarrative:hewas capableofwritinghisstorywithoutaskingthe Garrisoniansl’eave or requiringtheirguidance.ButDouglass was an
manand an writera,nd othernar- extraordinary altogetherexceptional
rativesby ex-slaves,even thoseentirely »Writtenby Himself, »scarce- ly riseabove thelevel of thepreformedi,mposedand acceptedcon- ventional.Of thenarrativesthatCharlesNicholsjudgesto have been writtenwithoutthehelpofan editor-thoseby »FrederickDouglass, WilliamWells Brown,JamesW. C. Pennington,Samuel Ringgold Ward, Austin Steward and perhaps Henry Bibb »21-none but Douglass’ has any genuineappeal in itself,apartfromthetestimony itmightprovideaboutslavery,oranyrealclaimtoliterarymeritA.nd whenwegobeyondthisbarehandfulofnarrativestoconsiderthose writtenunderimmediateabolitionistguidanceand control,we find, as we mightwell expect,even less of individualdistinctionor distinc- tivenessas thenarratorshow themselvesmoreor less contentto re- main slaves to a prescribed,conventional,and imposed form; or
perhapsitwould be morepreciseto say thattheywerecaptiveto the abolitionistintentionsand so thequestionof theirbeingcontentor
otherwisheardlyenteredin.Justasthetriangularelationshiepmbracing sponsor,audience,and ex-slavemadeofthelattersomethingotherthan an entirelyfreecreatorinthetellingofhislifestory,so also itmade
ofthenarrativperoduced(alwayskeepingtheexceptionaclase inmind) somethingotherthanautobiographyinanyfullsenseand something otherthanliteraturein any reasonableunderstandingof thattermas
an act of creativeimagination.An autobiographyor a piece of im- aginativeliteraturemay of courseobservecertainconventions,but it cannotbe only,merelyconventionalwithoutceasingto be satisfac- toryas eitherautobiographyor literaturea,nd thatis thecase, I should say, withall theslave narrativesexceptthegreatone by Frederick Douglass.
theslavenarrativedso notqualifyas eitherautobiographyorliterature,
and whilewe mayargue,againstJohnBaylissand GilbertOsofskyand others,thattheyhave no realplace inAmericanLiterature(justas we mightargue,and on thesame grounds,againstEllenMoers thatUncle Tom’sCabinisnota greatAmericannovel),yettheundeniablefact is thattheAfro-American traditiontakesitsstart,in themecer-
tainlybut also oftenin contentand form,fromtheslave narratives.
RichardWright’sBlack Boy, whichmanyreaders(myselfincluded) would take to be his supremeachievementas a creativewriter,pro- videstheperfectcase inpoint,thougha hostofotherscouldbe adduc- ed thatwouldbe nearlyas exemplary(DuBois’ variousautobiographical works;Johnson’sAutobiographyofan Ex-ColouredMan; Baldwin’s autobiographicalfictionand essays; Ellison’sInvisibleMan; Gaines’ AutobiographyofMissJanePittman;MayaAngelou’swritinge;tc.). In effectW, rightlooks back to slave narrativesat thesame timethat he projectsdevelopmentsthatwould occurin Afro-Americanwriting afterBlackBoy(publishedin1945).ThematicallyB,lackBoyreenacts boththegeneral,objectiveportrayaloftherealitiesofslaveryas an institution(transmutedto whatWrightcalls « The EthicsofLivingJim Crow » in thelittlepiece thatlies behindBlack Boy) and also thepar-
ticular,individualcomplexof literacy-identity-freedtohmatwe find at the thematicenterof all of the most importantslave narratives. IncontentandformaswellBlackBoyrepeats,mutatismutandism,uch of thegeneralplan givenearlierin thisessaydescribingthetypicalslave narrativeW:rightl,iketheex-slave,afteramoreorlesschronological, episodicaccountof theconditionsof slavery/JimCrow, includinga
vivid of the or near
particularly description difficulty impossibility-
butalso theinescapablenecessity-ofattainingfullliteracy,tellshow he escapedfromsouthernbondage,fleeingtowardwhathe imagined
would be freedom,a new and the to exercisehis identity, opportunity
exactlywhat he expectedin Chicago and New York changesnothing about Black Boy itself:neitherdid Douglass findeverythinghe an-
ticipatedor desiredin theNorth,but thatpersonallyunhappyfactin
no way affectshis Narrative.Wright,impelledby a nascentsense of
freedomthatgrewwithinhim in directproportionto his increasing
literacy(particularlyin thereadingofrealisticand naturalistifciction),
had imposeduponhim(« I was whatthewhiteSouthcalleda ‘nigger »‘),
writerwe know as « RichardWright. » »Fromwherein thissouthern
only one answer to his question: « It had been only through
books . . . thatI hadmanagedtokeepmyselfaliveina negativelyvital
way » (p. 282). It was in his abilityto construelettersand in thebare
possibilityofputtinghislifeintowritingthatWright »caughta sense
offreedom »and knewthathe mustworkout a new « I could identity.
submitandlivethelifeofa genialslave, »Wrightsays, »but, »headds,
« thatwas impossible »(p. 276). Itwas impossiblebecause,likeDouglass and otherslaves,he had arrivedat thecrossroadswherethethreepaths
literacy,identity, met, knowledge
and aftersuch therewas
BlackBoy resembleslave narrativeisn manywaysbutin otherways
itis differenftromits and ancestors.It is ofmore crucially predecessors
thantrivial that narrativedoes not with insignificance Wright’s begin
« Iwasborn, »norisitundertheguidanceofanyintentionorimpulse otherthanitsown, and whilehis book is largelyepisodicin structure, itis also-precisely by exerciseofsymbolicmemory-« emplotteda »nd
insucha as toconstrue wholesout « configurational » way « significant
and freeto exercisethatcreativememorythatwas peculiarlyhis. On
thepenultimatpeageofBlackBoyWrightsays, »I was leavingtheSouth to flingmyselfintotheunknown,to meetothersituationsthatwould
perhapselicitfromme otherresponses.And ifI could meetenough
ofa different and I learn life,then,perhaps,gradually slowly might
who I was, whatI mightbe. I was notleavingtheSouthto forgethe South,butso thatsomedayI mightunderstandit,mightcometoknow whatitsrigorshaddonetome,toitschildrenI. fledso thatthenumb- nessofmydefensivelivingmightthawout and letmefeelthepain- yearslaterandfaraway-of whatlivingintheSouthhadmeant. »Here Wrightnotonlyexercisesmemorybutalso talksaboutit,reflecting
on itscreative,therapeuticr,edemptivea,nd liberatingcapacities.In his conclusionWrightharksback to thethemesand theformof the
slavenarrativesa,ndatthesametimeheanticipatesthemeandform in a greatdeal of morerecentAfro-Americanwriting,perhapsmost notablyinInvisibleMan. BlackBoyislikea nexusjoiningslavenar- rativesof thepast to themostfullydevelopedliterarycreationsof the presentt:hroughthepowerofsymbolicmemoryittransformtsheearlier narrativemodeintowhateveryonemustrecognizeas imaginative, creativeliteratureb,othautobiographyand fiction.In theirnarratives we mightsay, theex-slavesdid thatwhich,all unknowinglyon their partandonlywhenjoinedtocapacitiesandpossibilitiesnotavailable to them,led righton to the traditionof Afro-Americanliteratureas we know it now.
1ProfessorRicoeurhas generouslygivenme permissionto quote fromthisunpublishedpaper.
2 I haveinmindsuchillustrationass thelargedrawingreproduced
as to Andrew a SlaveinSouth frontispiece John Jackson’Esxperienceof
Carolina(London:Passmore& Alabaster,1862),describedas a « Fac-
simileofthegimletwhichI usedtoborea holeinthedeckofthevessel »;
theengraveddrawingofa torturemachinereproducedon p. 47 ofA Narrativeof the Adventuresand Escape of Moses Roper, from
AmericanSlavery(Philadelphia:Merrihew& Gunn, 1838); and the « REPRESENTATION OF THE BOX, 3 feet1 inchlong,2 feetwide, 2 feet6 incheshigh, »in whichHenryBox Browntravelledby freight fromRichmondto Philadelphia,reproducedfollowingthetextof the Narrativeof HenryBox Brown,Who Escaped fromSlaveryEnclosed in a Box 3 FeetLong and 2 Wide. Writtenfroma Statementof Facts Made by Himself.WithRemarksupon theRemedyforSlavery.By CharlesSteams. (Boston: Brown& Stearns,1849). The verytitleof Box Brown’sNarrativedemonstratesomethingof themixedmode of slavenarrativesO.nthequestionofthetextofBrown’snarrativesee also notes4 and 12 below.
3 Douglass’NarrativedivergesfromthemasterplanonE4(hewas himselftheslave who refusedto be whipped),E8 (slave auctionshap- penednottofallwithinhisexperienceb,uthedoestalkofthesepara- tionof mothersand childrenand thesystematicdestructionof slave families),and E10 (he refusesto tellhow he escaped because to do so would close one escape routeto thosestillin slavery;in theLifeand TimesofFrederickDouglass he revealsthathis escape was different fromtheconventionalone). Forthepurposesofthepresentessay-
and also, I think,in general-the Narrativeof 1845 is a much more
and a betterbook than twolater
interesting Douglass’ autobiographical
texts:My Bondage and My Freedom(1855) and Lifeand Timesof
FrederickDouglass (1881). These lattertwo are diffuseproductions
(Bondage and Freedomis threeto fourtimeslongerthanNarrative,
Lifeand Timesfiveto sixtimeslonger)thatdissipatethefocalizedenergy
of the Narrativein lengthyaccounts of post-slaveryactivities-
terestingways it seemsto me thattherelativeweaknessof thesetwo
of RichardWright’sautobiographypublishedas AmericanHunger (orginallyconceivedas partofthesametextas BlackBoy).
4 This is true of the version labelled « firstEnglish edition »-
NarrativeoftheLifeofHenryBox Brown,WrittenbyHimself(Man- chesterL:ee&Glynn,1851)-butnotoftheearlierAmericanedition- NarrativeofHenryBox Brown,Who EscapedfromSlaveryEnclosed ina Box3 FeetLongand2 Wide.Writtenfroma StatementofFacts Made by Himself.WithRemarksupon theRemedyforSlavery.By
CharlesSteams. (Boston:Brown& Stearns,1849). On thebeginning of theAmericaneditionsee thediscussionlaterin thisessay, and on therelationshipbetweenthetwo textsof Brown’snarrativesee note 12 below.
5 Douglass’ Narrative begins this way. Neither Bondage and FreedomnorLifeand Timesstartswiththeexistentiaalssertion.This
is one thing,thoughby no meanstheonlyor themostimportantone,
It is as ifby 1855 and evenmoreby 1881 FrederickDouglass’ existence
and his weresecure and wellknownthat identity enough sufficiently
he no longerfeltthenecessityof thefirstand basic assertion.
6 WiththeexceptionofWilliamParker’s »The Freedman’sStory » (publishedin theFebruaryand March1866issuesofAtlanticMonthly) all thenarrativelsistedwere Thereare more
separatepublications. many brief »narratives »-so briefthat theyhardlywarrantthe title »nar-
rative »:froma singleshortparagraphtothreeorfourpagesinlength-
thirtysuchinthecollectionofBenjaminDrewpublishedas TheRefugee: A North-SideViewofSlavery.I havenottriedtomultiplytheinstances by citingminorexamples;thoselistedin thetextincludethemostim- portantofthenarratives-Roper,Bibb,W. W. Brown,Douglass, Thompson, Ward, Pennington,Steward, Clarke, the Crafts-even JamesWilliams,thoughitisgenerallyagreedthathisnarrativiesa fraud perpetratedon an unwittingamanuensis,JohnGreenleafWhittierI.n additionto thoselistedin thetext,thereare a numberof othernar- rativesthatbeginwithonlyslightvariationson theformulaictag-
that with »I was born »;thereare,for or begin example,twenty-five
WilliamHayden: »Thesubjectofthisnarrativweasborn »;MosesGran-
dy: »MynameisMosesGrandy;Iwasborn »;AndrewJackson »:I,An-
drew was Elizabeth lifehas beenan event- Jackson, born »; Keckley: »My
fulone. I was born »; Thomas L. Johnson: »Accordingto information
receivedfrommymotheri,fthereckoningis correctI, was born… «
more thantheseis thevariation Solomon Perhaps interesting playedby
Northup,who was born a freeman in New York State and was kid- nappedand sentintoslaveryfortwelveyears;thushe commencesnot with »I was born »butwith »Havingbeenborna freeman »-as itwere theparticipialcontingencythatendowshisnarrativewitha special poignancyand a markeddifferencferomothernarratives.
Thereis a niceand ironicturnon the »I was born »insistencein the
ratherfoolishscenein UncleTom’s Cabin (ChapterXX) whenTopsy
famouslyopinesthatshewas notmadebutjust »grow’d. »MissOphelia catechizesher: » ‘Wherewereyou born? »Neverwas born!’persisted
Topsy. » Escaped slaves who hadn’tTopsy’s peculiarcombinationof Stowe-icresignationand manichighspiritsin thefaceofan imposed
non-existencweere toassertoverandover, »I non-identity, impelled
was born. »
by HenryBibb, changingonly thename in theformulaand inserting « Adventures,p »resumablyto attractspectacle-lovinrgeaders:Narrative oftheLifeand AdventuresofHenryBibb,An AmericanSlave, Writ-
tenby Himself.Douglass’ Narrativewas publishedin 1845, Bibb’s in 1849.I suspectthatBibbderivedhistitledirectlyfromDouglass. That ex-slaveswritingtheirnarrativeswereaware ofearlierproductionsby fellowex-slaves(and thuswereimpelledto samenessin narrativeby outrightimitationas well as by theconditionsof narrationadduced inthetextabove) ismadeclearintheprefaceto TheLifeofJohnThomp- son,A FugitiveSlave; ContainingHis Historyof25 YearsinBondage, andHisProvidentialEscape.WrittenbyHimself(WorcesterP:ublish- edbyJohnThompson,1856),p. v: « Itwas suggestedtomeabouttwo yearssince,afterrelatingto manythemainfactsrelativeto mybon- dage and escape to theland of freedom,thatit would be a desirable thingtoputthesefactsintopermanentform.I firstsoughttodiscover whathadbeensaidbyotherpartnersinbondageonce,butinfreedom now…. » Withthisforewarningthereadershouldnotbe surprised to discoverthatThompson’snarrativefollowstheconventionsof the formverycloselyindeed.
8 However much Douglass changed his narrativein successive incarnations-theopeningparagraph,forexample,underwentcon- siderabletransformation-hcehose to retainthissentenceintact.It oc- curson p. 52 oftheNarrativeoftheLifeofFrederickDouglass . . . ed. BenjaminQuarles (Cambridge,Mass., 1960); on p. 132 ofMy Bon-
dageandMyFreedom,intro.PhilipS. Foner(NewYork,1969);and on p. 72 ofLifeand TimesofFrederickDouglass, intro.RayfordW.
Logan (New York, 1962).
9 For convenienceI have adopted thislistfromJohnF. Bayliss’in-
troductiontoBlackSlaveNarratives(NewYork,1970),p. 18.Aswill be apparent,however,I do notagreewiththepointBaylisswishesto
make withhis list. Having quoted fromMarion Wilson Starling’sun- publisheddissertation, »The Black Slave Narrative:Its Place in AmericanLiteraryHistory, »to theeffecthattheslave narrativese,x- cept those fromEquiano and Douglass, are not generallyvery distinguishedasliteratureB,aylisscontinues: »Starlingisbeingunfair heresincethenarrativesdo showa diversityofinterestinsgtyles… Theleadingnarratives,uchas thoseofDouglass,WilliamWellsBrown, Ball,Bibb,Henson,Northup,Penningtona,nd Roperdeservetobe con- sideredfora in American a the
place literature, place beyond historical. »Since Ball’s narrativewas writtenby one « Mr. Fisher »and
Northup’sbyDavid Wilson,andsinceHenson’snarrativsehowsa good
toincludethemamongthoseslavenarrativesaidtoshowthegreatest literarydistinctionT.o putitanotherway,itwouldbeneithersurpris- ingnorspeciallymeritoriouisfMr. Fisher(a whiteman),David Wilson (a whiteman),andJosiahHenson(TheOriginalUncleTom)wereto display »a diversityofinterestinsgtyles »whentheirnarrativesareput alongsidethoseby Douglass, W. W. Brown,Bibb, Penningtona,nd
Butthe fact,as I shall in thetext,is that Roper. reallyinteresting argue
theydo not show a diversityof interestinsgtyles.
10Here we discoveranotherminorbut revealingdetailof thecon-
vention itselfJ.ustasitbecameconventionatlohavea establishing sign-
ed and so it became at least portrait authenticatinlgetters/prefaces,
semi-conventionatlo have an imprintreadingmore or less like this:
« Boston:Anti-SlaveryOffice,25 Cornhill. »A Cornhilladdressis given
for,amongothers,thenarrativesof Douglass, WilliamWells Brown,
Box Brown,Thomas Jones,JosiahHenson,Moses Grandy,and James
as ‘The UncleTom, »itseemsatbesta errorfor Original strategic Bayliss
Williams.The lastoftheseis especiallyinterestinfgor,althoughitseems thathisnarrativeis at least Williamsis on this
as on so
11NarrativeofHenryBoxBrown…. (Boston:Brown& Stears,
1849), p. 25.
12 The questionof thetextof Brown’sNarrativeis a good deal more
complicatedthanI have space to show, but thatcomplicationrather
thaninvalidates above. The textI strengthens my argument analyze
above was publishedin Boston in 1849. In 1851 a « firstEnglishedi- tion »was publishedinManchesterwiththespecification »Writtenby
Himself. »It would appear that in preparingthe Americanedition Steamsworkedfroma ms.copyofwhatwouldbe publishedtwoyears lateras thefirstEnglishedition-or fromsome ur-textlyingbehind both. In any case, Stearnshas laid on theTrue AbolitionistStylevery heavily,but thereis already,in theversion »Writtenby Himself, »a good deal of theabolitionistmannerpresentin diction,syntax,and tone.IfthefirstEnglisheditionwas reallywrittenbyBrownthiswould makehiscase parallelto thecase ofHenryBibb,discussedbelow,where theabolitioniststyleinsinuatesitselfintothetextand takesoverthe styleof thewritingeven when thatis actuallydone by an ex-slave. Thisis nottheplace forit,buttherelationshipbetweenthetwotexts, thevariationsthatoccurin them,and theexplanationforthosevaria- tionswould providethesubjectforan immenselyinterestinsgtudy.
13 TwelveYearsa Slave: NarrativeofSolomonNorthup,a Citizen
of New-York,Kidnapped in WashingtonCity in 1841, and Rescued in 1853,froma CottonPlantationNear theRed River,in Louisiana
(Auburn:Derby & Miller,1853), p. xv. Referencesin thetextare to thisfirstedition.
14 IamsurprisedthatRobertStepto,inhisexcellentanalysisofthe internawl orkingsoftheWilson/Northupbook, doesn’tmakemoreof thisquestionofwheretolocatetherealauthorityofthebook. SeeFrom BehindtheVeil:A StudyofAfro-AmericanNarrative(Urbana,Ill., 1979), pp. 11-16.
Whether or not,Gilbert misleadsreaders intentionally Osofskybadly
calledPuttin’On Ole Massa whenhefails unfortunately
toincludethe »Editor’sPreface »byDavid Wilsonwithhisprintingof
TwelveYearsa Slave: NarrativeofSolomonNorthup.Thereis nothing
thuphad anythingto do withthenarrative-on thecontrary: »Nor-
menof wisdomand talent.Each was of his
creativity, capable writing life with (PuttinO’nOleMassa York,
story sophistication » [New
p. 44). Northuppreciselydoes notwritehislifestory,eitherwithor
withoutsophisticationa,nd Osofskyis guiltyof badly obscuringthis fact.Osofsky’sliteraryjudgementw,ithtwo-thirdosfwhichIdonot
agree,is that »TheautobiographieosfFrederickDouglass,HenryBibb,
They are penetratingand self-criticasl,uperiorautobiographyby any standards »(p. 10).
15 To anticipateone possibleobjection,I would arguethatthecase is essentiallydifferenwtithTheAutobiographyofMalcolmX, written
byAlexHaley. To putitsimply,thereweremanythingsincommon between Haley and Malcolm X; between white ama- nuenses/editors/authoransdex-slaves,ontheotherhand,almost nothingwas shared.
16 Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An AmericanSlave, WrittenbyHimself.Withan IntroductionbyLucius C. Matlack (New York: Publishedby the Author; 5 Spruce Street, 1849), p. i. Page citationsin the textare fromthisfirstedition.
Itisa thatinmodern ofslavenarratives-the greatpity reprintings
threeinOsofsky’sPuttinO’nOleMassa,forexample-theillustrations in theoriginalsare omittedA. modemreadermissesmuchoftheflavor ofa narrativelikeBibb’swhentheillustrationss,o fullofpathosand tendersentimentn,otto mentionsomeexquisitecrueltyand violence, arenotwiththetext.The twoillustrationosn p. 45 (captions: »Can
a motherforgethersucklingchild? »and « The tendermerciesof the
wickedare cruel »),theone on p. 53 (« Nevermindthemoney »),and
theone on p. 81 (« My heartis almostbroken »)can be takenas typical.
An interestinpgsychologicalfactabout theillustrationisn Bibb’snar-
rativeis thatof thetwenty-onetotal,eighteeninvolvesome formof
133 of two naked slaves on whom some infernal is be- p. punishment
ingpractisedsaysmuchabout(inMatlack’sphrase)thereader’sfeverish thirstforgushingbeautifulfountains »startedfrombeneaththerod of violence. »
17 Or 1852, thedate of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. HarrietBeecherStowe recognizeda kindrednovelisticspiritwhenshereadone (justas David Wilson/SolomonNorthupdid). In 1851,whenshewas writingUncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe wroteto FrederickDouglass sayingthatshe was seekinginformationabout lifeon a cottonplantationforhernovel: « I have beforeme an able paper writtenby a southernplanterin which thedetails& modusoperandiaregivenfromhispointofsight-I am anxioustohavesomemorefromanotherstandpoint-Iwishtobe able tomakea picturethatshallbegraphic& truetonatureinitsdetails- Such a personas HenryBibb, ifin thiscountry,mightgive me just thekindofinformationI desire. »Thisletteris datedJuly9, 1851and has been transcribedfroma photographicopy reproducedin Ellen Moers, HarrietBeecherStowe and AmericanLiterature(Hartford, Conn.: Stowe-DayFoundation,1978),p. 14.
18 Sincewritingtheabove, I discoverthatinhisLifeand Times
Douglass saysoftheconclusionofhisabolitionistwork, »Othello’soc-
cupationwasgone »(NewYork:Collier-Macmillan1,962,p. 373),but thisstillseemstomerathera differenmtatterfromthewhitesponsor’s invariantallusionto Othelloin attestingto thetruthfulneosfs theblack narrator’saccount.
A contemporaryreviewerofTheInterestingNarrativeoftheLife of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, theAfricanwrote,in The GeneralMagazineandImpartialReview(July1789), »Thisis’a round unvarnishedtale’ofthechequeredadventuresofan African …. « (see
appendixto vol. I of The Lifeof Olaudah Equiano, ed. Paul Edwards [London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969].
JohnGreenleafWhittiert,houghstungonceinhissponsorshipof JamesWilliams’Narrative,didnotshrinkfroma second,similarven-
ture,writingi,n his « introductorynote » to theAutobiographyof the Rev. JosiahHenson (Mrs. HarrietBeecherStowe’s « Uncle Tom ») – also knownas UncleTom’sStoryofHis LifeFrom1789to 1879-« The earlylifeoftheauthor,as a slave, . . . provesthatintheterriblepic- turesof ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ thereis ‘nothingextenuateor aughtset downinmalice »‘(Boston:B. B. Russell& Co., 1879,p. viii).
19 Quoted by Philip S. Foner in the introductionto My Bondage
and My Freedom,pp. xi-xii.
20 BothquotationsfromBenjaminQuarles, « The BreachBetween
DouglassandGarrison, »JournaolfNegroHistory,XXIII(April1938), p. 147, note 19, and p. 154.
University1,948), « A Studyof theSlave Narrative, »p. 9. 22BlackBoy:A RecordofChildhoodandYouth(NewYork,1966),
That, the integrity of the piece and of the world it creates, of its internal logics and rules, is what matters. My hope was always that as genre gestures got more integrated into mainstream literature and television and film, the overreliance on realism-based critiques would fade. Instead, it’s intensified and is becoming a major mode of critical discourse. It’s sad, really. There’re so many more riches to be discovered in fiction if we could just let ourselves see them and not be so afraid that it might take us somewhere new.