12 Years a Slave (2013) – dir. Steve McQueen

'Strange Fruit' - Lynching in Indiana, 1930

‘Strange Fruit’ – Lynching in Indiana, 1930

You wait years for a film to come along which addresses the issue of slavery in the United States and then you get two within a year of each other – and both being multi-nominated in the award season that sees the film industry worldwide slapping itself on the back. But these are very different films and perhaps in that way show that there is no real consensus on how to portray one of the issues that determined North American society, more or less from its inception. 12 Years a Slave is the latest offering and it shows there’s still a long way to go before the matter can be said to have been put to rest.

One of the problems of such emotive issues (the Holocaust and the Nazi plan of the ‘final solution’ which led to the murder of millions of Jews being another) is that to criticise a film which portrays slavery as not being very good is seen as tantamount to condoning the practice.

By the end of 12 Years a Slave we are not left with a clear message of the obscenity of slavery or any other exploitative and oppressive means by which a minority of the population use the majority for their own perverse pleasures. At the end of the film Solomon Northup returns to his family (this is not giving anything away as the very title suggests that his slavery was not for life, as was the fate of millions of others) not by an act of defiance, not by risking everything (including his life) to escape but by a legal ploy, by presenting a piece of paper which proves that he is a ‘free man’ – the fact of anyone having to have that piece of paper in the first place being another obscenity within American society at that time, in antebellum USA.

There are gaping holes in the story from the very beginning. Northup is depicted as a ‘fine fiddle player’ but seems to have become exceptionally wealthy from playing a musical instrument. Musicians can make a mint out of their music both in the past and now but surely he’s not in the same league as a Mozart or The Beatles? He is abducted after spending some time playing in a circus which doesn’t have the same resonance as playing in whatever was the Madison Square Garden of the early 19th century. When he doesn’t return home after this circus engagement, his family not having the slightest idea of what had happened to him, how is it they seem to be able to survive very well thank you when the principal bread-winner has disappeared? In a Dickens novel they would have been on the way to the workhouse before Northup would have been put up for auction.

His life pre-abduction is displayed as quite idyllic. He’s respected by wealthy and distinguished whites, he’s fated as a good customer in a white owned shop and generally shown as living in what can only be described as a multi-ethnic paradise. This is not the picture of the United States that seems to fit with what else was going on at the time.

Although slavery in the northern states was gradually being made illegal in 1841 (when the film starts) slaves would still have been common on the streets of New York as they accompanied their owners on trips north. We see an example of this when Northup goes shopping with his family. A southern slave is depicted as astounded that a black man could be free – but in this scene Northup is more interested in buying trinkets than the fact that chattel slavery is evident on the streets of cities north of the Mason-Dixon line.

(Jumping ahead here – during the final credits we are told that Northup became active in anti-slavery movements from 1853. It’s a tragedy that many people don’t see injustice in the world, even though it exists all around them, until it directly effects them personally. Incidences of police brutality, inefficiency and conspiracy or miscarriages of justice are just a few cases in point that are occurring all the time in the UK.)

It also doesn’t fit in with the open racism that existed in the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, only eight years after the period of his forced labour. The film Glory (1989) is a cinematic reference to the racism that existed in a war that, we are generally told, was to rid the country of the scourge of slavery – and it’s also worth remembering that these black only units even existed in the Second World War.

What is also missing from the state sponsored version of the history of that period in the mid 19th century was the real reason for the civil war in the first place. Firstly, the Confederates wanted to secede and that would have weakened the young US in economic struggle with the European capitalist powers – that ‘great liberator of the black race’, Abraham Lincoln, once stated that he would have accepted slavery if it would ensure the Union.

Secondly, and more importantly, slavery was a brake on capitalist development and exploitation. If we ignore any moral repugnance at the institution of slavery we have to accept that it is unbelievably inefficient. Although it was brutal it didn’t mean high levels of productivity and that was what American capitalism wanted, and needed, if it was to play a role on the world stage.

At the same time the film is full of stereotypes. We have the brutal slave owner who gets drunk and forces the slaves to get up in the middle of the night to dance for him, Northup providing the musical accompaniment. He’s also infatuated with one of the young slave girls and regularly rapes her. We have the put upon and ever suffering ‘southern belle’ who knows what her husband is doing but society wouldn’t thank her for leaving him and her petty acts of spite against the innocent slave girl only seems to stress her impotence and frustration.

We have the ignorant and vicious white overseer whose only claim to importance is his brutal control of the slaves and he hits out at any challenge to his ‘authority’ – yet another example of the economic inefficiency of slavery. Then we have a couple of liberals, probably to give ‘balance’. One a slave-owner who’s strapped for cash and the other a free thinking Canadian whose ideas, freely expressed, surely would have made his life impossible in the plantations of the time. He’s Northup’s ticket out. We even have a former slave woman who becomes mistress of her house and gets tea served to her by a slave girl on the terrace of the big house. Now I’m quite prepared to accept that all these stereotypes existed at the time, slavery being such that it was prone to anomalies, but do we need them all in one film?

But the trailer and the film’s poster try to mislead us. Although based on an autobiography this is known to only a few so images of him paddling along through the swamps on a makeshift raft imply an escape attempt as does the figure of him running in the poster. His quote immediately after his capture of not wanting to just to survive but to live is made so that we can see him on the point of breaking when he joins in the singing on the death of one of the older slaves, a religious chant that keeps the slaves in their place – they can suffer the indignities of their slavery if Christ (a black or a white one?) is waiting to greet them at the Pearly Gates standing beside Peter.

We see that he’s really been broken when he viciously whips the young girl who had infatuated the ‘Master’, preferring to beat rather than be beaten. To hurt the innocent on the orders of the guilty is what allows exploitative and oppressive societies to continue to exist and it’s this aspect of 12 Years a Slave I find most problematic.

There is no challenge to the institution of slavery anywhere in the 134 minutes. He looks back when the carriage comes to pick him up with a white friend from New York holding a piece of paper proving his status. That in itself is pushing things as by all accounts these plantation owners were a law unto themselves and we must remember that all this takes place only 8 years before the declaration of the Confederacy – about which we learn nothing at all from this film.

Steve McQueen (one of the few black directors making feature films that get wide distribution) has missed an opportunity if he wanted to really challenge the history of slavery. If he wanted to use a book as a starting place why not choose the brilliant novella The Kingdom of this World by the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier – about the revolt of the Haitian slaves, their revenge against the whites and their lackeys and the establishment of the first Black Republic. Or he could have based his film on The Confessions of Nat Turner, about a slave revolt in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, written by William Styron. This was controversial at the time of its publication but at least the slaves got up off their knees in one of the 250 documented revolts (why so few?). Yes they were defeated and cruelly put down but defeats are there to teach us to make sure of success the next time.

Because failure to get up off your knees doesn’t mean that repression won’t be as vicious. Lynchings of black people (and a few of their white supporters) weren’t an aspect only of the period of slavery. Just look at what happened after the Civil War and the way that Reconstruction was attacked with the growth of the Ku Klux Klan. Billy Holliday’s song Strange Fruit is about whites, men women and children, proudly posing for photographs at lynchings in the first part of the 20th century. And what of later killings of black people in the US, from George Jackson, who was murdered in the prison system on 21st August 1971 or the very recent shooting by a white racist vigilante of Trayvon Martin on 26th February 2012?

Or he could even have attempted something about the history of the Black Panthers where the black population were prepared, for the first time in any organised manner, to defend and protect their communities.

But that would end up asking more questions than it answered. If it’s right to rise up and fight against oppression under the system of slavery then surely it’s equally OK to do so against the system of wage slavery. But that would send a signal that perhaps so-called parliamentary democracy and recourse to the legal system is incapable of ridding the world of exploitation – and that wouldn’t do.

Django Unchained (2012) might have been a fanciful fantasy but at least it depicted a fight back and the exacting of revenge. However, in an age where Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom is the preferred way forward anything further than Tarantino’s comic book representation would probably never get past the pitching stage.