January 27, 2014

Twelve Years a Slave

Slavery is a big word. It is a horrific word, one that sums up a horrific reality in which the fortunes of a few were made with the sinews of the many. Its a concept that has been central to European thought since at least Aristotle and the fear of becoming a slave haunts the imagination of most European republican thinkers. Of course slavery became most famous on the western shores of the Atlantic, in the southern United States. I would be surprised if anyone now thought that slavery was in any way justified: the days in which a Calhoun or Alexander Stephens might fulminate on the floor of the senate in support of natural slavery are thankfully long gone. So why does the world need a new film which focuses on slavery and which retells the story of Solomon Northup, a kidnapped slave from the north who was brought to work on the cotton fields of the south for 12 long years? It is a question that some people have asked: I think they are wrong.

Slavery is a word that gets used a lot. Politicians talk about slavery all the time, comparing in America and Britain various political initiatives from their opponents to slavery. We have almost emptied slavery of its reality: it didn't look or feel like Obamacare, I could use other examples but am wary of going round the internet to find them. 12 years a slave brings you face to face with a reconstruction of what slavery might have been like. Based, fairly accurately on the life story of Northup, it doesn't spare any of the brutality. Once he is kidnapped, Northup gets beaten for claiming his real name. On the fields, he gets lashed by overseers and sadistic masters. He gets beaten and attacked by others. Perhaps the violence is not really the shocking element of the film: more its the sign of slaves being stripped down as their masters treat them and talk about them like cattle or horses, beasts whose muscles may be praised rather than humans whose feelings must be respected. (Of course, although the violence seers the screen, the director didn't portray as much as is in the memoir!)

Slavery in this context doesn't just mean theoretical subjugation, it means the real deprivation of freedom. Northup the slave may work even for a benevolent master such as Mr Ford, but when that master decides to sell him, his life is at that master's whim. This is particularly illustrated by the case of Eliza- a fellow slave of Northup in the early part of the film. She became the mistress of her master (as we can see later in the film this was not neccessarily a voluntary relationship): having born him a child, when he dies, she was flung out of his house by his wife and daughter. She was sold into slavery: and her children were sold separately so that Eliza spends most of the early part of the film weeping her loss. It is agonising to watch this innocent woman bewail her loss, a loss that she did not in any way deserve. Slavery reckoned a mother's love as less important than her children's price.

I think there is a real moral point in this film and its one that we should think about ourselves. Slavery reduced people to goods. Solomon forever as a slave is shown not speaking, a silent presence on the stage of history. He can't write- save for in blackberry juice. Only when he meets an abolitionist can his words get north. Without writing, without honest speech, he loses family and name- all the coordinates of his existence. He and his fellow slaves have become mere property. Save of course for the fact that they are not. This is nowhere more ironically portrayed than in the relationship of masters to slave girls: Patsey a young slave girl (amazingly played by Lupita Nyong'o) is treated as an economic asset, a piece of sexual meat and a threat but never as a person by her master. Only Northup treats her thus, by refusing to help her commit suicide. This is part of the fundamental immorality of slavery: 12 years a slave captures this on screen.

This lack of personhood is written through everyday life, it runs through it. So for example when Solomon for a trivial episode is hung by the neck, kids play around his body. McQueen captures the pettiness of the entire system, the bullying songs that were sung in the South, the environment in which slavery took place. The horror is partly the normality: a normality that has everything for a human apart from their humanity. At one point in the film, a slave owner lashes a slave: he responds to a question by telling the questioner that there is no sin in owning property. For him the fact that human beings have become property empties them of their humanity: he can enjoy ridiculing it, he can enjoy sexualising it, brutalising it, battering it, working it into the ground but it can never assert itself.

Perhaps one of the greatest horrors we have as human beings is to be treated not as beings but as things... if so then that's what slavery was in part about and that's what I found this film captured.