“12 Years a Slave” is a 2013 British-American historical drama film based on the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.
In this film, we’re light-years away from the cartoonish violence of Django Unchained.
In his treatment of slavery in the American South in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville contrasts modern with ancient slavery. While ancient slavery, he wrote, typically aimed to constrain only the body — to force the enslaved into servile work – modern slavery aims to entrap the mind. It “overturns the order of nature,” constituting what Tocqueville chillingly called “spiritualized despotism and violence.” That thesis is amply illustrated in the compelling new film from the London-born black director Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, which boasts an all-star cast and a gripping story based on a mid-19th-century autobiography by a free black man, Solomon Northrup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.
A talented musician living in New York in 1841 with his family, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) accepts an attractive financial offer from a group of traveling performers. Without leaving word for his wife, who is away at the time, he travels with the group to Washington, D.C., where he awakens to find himself drugged and bound in chains. Severed from his previous life, he is given the name Platt, shipped off to Louisiana, and forced into slavery. Early on, Solomon, untrained in the ways of servitude, resists. He responds to his circumstances as one would hope any free individual would do, not just denying that he is a slave but also adding, “I will have satisfaction for this wrong.” That line might give viewers the false expectation of a revenge film — something 12 Years a Slave most definitely is not. It is rather a story of endurance, courage, and hope in the midst of grave injustice.
For his resistance, Solomon/Platt is given severe beatings and taunted with the not-so-rhetorical question, “Are you a slave?” Another slave warns him: “Tell no one who you are and tell no one you can read or write, unless you want to be a dead nigger.” The incompatibility between education and slavery is a leitmotif of 19th-century writing about slavery. Tocqueville notes it, as does Frederick Douglass, who concludes: “to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.”
To survive, Solomon/Platt must not only avoid active resistance; he must also pretend to be what he is not, a contented slave. His path from freedom to slavery makes him a fitting vehicle for the communication of the evils of slavery to those who cannot imagine themselves as slaves. He begins where every ordinary free citizen begins. The focus of the film is on the dramatic contrast between, on the one hand, the expectation of an ordinary life rich with work, leisure, and family and, on the other, a nightmare condition of barbaric injustice. Ejiofor is magnificent as Solomon/Platt. He manages to accommodate himself, sometimes with great anguish, to his state of servitude without ever surrendering to it. He maintains his sense of dignity throughout, and his life is testimony to the possibility of transcendence in the midst of the most oppressive of conditions