12 Years A Slave
A Review

by Steven Malik Shelton

The film, 12 Years a Slave, is based on the biographical account of musician Solomon Northrup, a “free” Black man that lived with his family in New York State in the 1800’s and who was shanghaied into chattel slavery by two White men posing as talent scouts for a traveling musical troupe.

Sandwiched between the early scenes and the ending of the movie are disturbing yet revealing scenes of a nameless Black enslaved man who is “rescued” by a White man as he is about to be auctioned off into nightmarish bondage. The Black man cuddles desperately next to his White benefactor as though he is second coming of Christ. This scene is mirrored again near the film’s conclusion when Northrup is discovered after 12 years on a southern plantation and falls gleefully into the arms of a White friend sent to save him.

Throughout the movie there is a nagging projection and insinuation of Northrup being detached and somehow superior to his enslaved brothers and sisters, even though the power and validity of his freedom is proven to be a based on capricious ground. Howbeit, this fantasy of Northrup’s is balanced by several powerful scenes such as when a Black woman who is auctioned off with him gives Northrup a wake-up call about his predicament and criticizes his propensity to use his ingenuity to gain brownie points with the “master.” It is also revitalizing to watch Northrup body slam and pummel a White-trash overseer that attempts to whip him for some alleged infraction.

Another powerful scene dripping with symbolic meaning is when Northrup is strung up by the neck (with only the tips of his toes between him and death by strangulation) and left to dangle while Blacks on the plantation go about their labors while oblivious to the terrible plight of their fellow slave. I could not help but make comparisons between the abandonment of the momentarily rebellious Northrup and the abandonment and neglect of many of the Black freedom fighters and resisters of oppression in more modern times.

The film could have benefited immensely if there were more incidents of Black intransigence and rebellion peppered throughout. As it is, it has the tendency to exhaust the viewer with constant onslaught of demonic brutalities and cruelties unleashed against Black bodies and Black minds. Thus, sadly, with the rare exception of Northrup’s manhandling of the frail punk of an overseer, there is nary an incident of Blacks breaking so much as a farm tool or kitchen utensil in righteous and rebellious angst.

In fact the movie seems to go out of its way to emphasize the appalling divisions amongst slaves as well as the collaborative, psychological dimensions that the slaves succumbed to in perpetuating their own castigation, torment, and subjugation. Perhaps none more so than when Northrup is ordered to whip the skin off the back of the only enslaved Black person in the film he seems to develop genuine empathy and fondness for; yet for whom he cannot muster the courage to mercifully help her to end her life when she pleads with him (earlier in the film) to drown her in a nearby stream. Apparently he is compelled by the same fear of their white “master” to whip her within an inch of her life in which has to be the most gruesome and vicious scene in the entire movie. Ostensibly, it is not enough to showcase Black men standing about like statues unwilling to protect or provide solace for Black women and children from beatings, rape and every kind of fiendish abomination; they had to depicted as active participants in the torture as well.

Even though the film is based on a true story, we must be on alert because the very nature of movie making leaves very little room for objective, reflective realism; the camera angles, the use of music and contrast; the props you see as well as those you don’t see are all crafted to deliver a power, subjective, psychological and political message. Besides if we want to see true stories on American slavery, the lives of Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, and many others cry out to us from the grave to posterity to have their stories illuminated on the silver screen.

Lastly, it is ironic the same self-delusion that made Northrup mentally and spiritualty separate himself from the rest of his fallen and suffering Black brothers and sisters in bondage, caused him to be susceptible to be fooled into going off with two White men that he know nothing about and had never seen before, and which resulted in his journey through the hells of chattel slavery. Northrup had forgotten that he was a Black man in the America of the 1800’s, and that the veil that separated him from millions of Black people in abject bondage was flimsy, uncertain and ephemeral.

12 Years A Slave: A Review by Steven Malik Shelton

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