Solomon Northup, John Ridley, and Steve McQueen, 2013
#17, 2013 Skandies; AMPAS Best Picture
So here we have the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man of roughly 5/8 African ancestry, who followed a job offer from upstate New York to Washington, D.C., only to be kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana; as the title suggests, he regained his freedom twelve years later, after a Canadian drifting through the South as an itinerant worker mouthed off about his abolitionist views, leading Northup to take a chance and ask him to smuggle a letter to Northup's friends in New York, even though discovery could well have cost both of them their lives. There is some risk in telling a story like this. Northup's case for freedom hinges on the notion that he isn't supposed to be a slave, that because of his wealth, his education, his partial European ancestry, his birthplace, he's different from the others working the fields with him. That is, that's his legal case; the film has several characters verbally make the case that of course, morally, no one is supposed to be a slave. But verbiage tends to take a back seat to story structure. Steven Spielberg said that in Schindler's List he didn't want to focus on individual Jews too much, lest viewers start thinking of the Holocaust as "that thing that happened to those five people", and though the film does give a little bit of screen time to some other slaves, it is structured in a way that suggests that slavery is that thing that happened to this one guy. The flip side of this reservation is that, as he related in a much-mocked article, apparently it was only by watching a story so focused on one person that Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen finally felt "confronted" by the fact that, despite what he'd been taught in his youth, "slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks".
I generally despise the "you agree with me, but you didn't agree with me soon enough so I'm going to tear into you anyway" genre — I've read way too many smug hit pieces over the years that have me looking forward to the day when their authors find that some of their attitudes, which they don't yet realize are less than enlightened, are reviled by their grandchildren. But even I have to concede that Cohen's article merits some incredulity. Based on Cohen's testimonial, I was braced for 12 Years a Slave to offer up some particularly shocking detail that went far beyond the textbooks in hammering home the horror of slavery — something like the scene in the wildly uneven Django Unchained in which a slave is torn apart by dogs, say, or that in Amistad in which several slaves on a ship are chained together and thrown overboard to drown. Instead, when the movie was over, I was left wondering what Cohen had seen that could possibly be new to him. The lynching? The systematic rape and casual physical abuse? The regularity with which both men and women were flayed to within an inch of their lives? The bottomless grief of parents whose children were forever ripped away from them? All of that is what's in the textbooks. But, I acknowledge — as the people who attacked Cohen generally did not acknowledge — that it may not have been in the 1950s textbooks. No, not even in New York City, shocking as that might be to the hipsters who sneer that only in "the ass end of Georgia or Alabama" could anyone graduate from high school so ignorant. I mean, I grew up in Southern California decades after Cohen came of age, and I still had to listen to some very bright kids in the magnet program in which I was enrolled — kids who considered themselves much more progressive than the Wally George fanboys in the computer lab — solemnly intone that the Civil War was really about economics and that colonialism had been a blessing to the people of the Third World. The question, then, is how blind an eye and how deaf an ear do you have to turn to the world between high school and the release of this movie to never in all that time truly register what constituted the life of an American slave — especially when your job is to comment on American society. It seems to me that what we've got here is a pretty common phenomenon: you get taught something at an impressionable age — in this case, that the evils of slavery were overstated, and that anyone who argued to the contrary, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, was an anti-American propagandist — and when you (inevitably) encounter information that conflicts with this imprinted ideology, it just bounces right off you. The human brain is a diseased piece of meat. When it encounters facts that conflict with its preexisting beliefs, it has a disturbing tendency to throw out the facts.
But while the depictions of slavery in 12 Years didn't surprise me the way they did Richard Cohen, I too found a number of scenes in the film quite striking: in my case, they were the ones that depicted Solomon Northup and his family, in 1841, walking around their upstate New York town in their starchy antebellum clothes, being treated as equals by their white neighbors and seeming to take that treatment for granted, as their due. These sequences feel almost as if they take place in a superior alternate universe where racism never happened. But of course there were free, educated, well-to-do people with African ancestry in America before the Civil War — and there were white Americans who believed in full racial equality. As James Loewen has pointed out, part of the reason that generations of students have graduated from American high schools with the "gauzy" view of our nation's history that Richard Cohen had is that not only has racism been soft-pedaled in the textbooks, but so has antiracism — because it's easier to excuse racists as people "of their time" if you omit mention of the men and women who lived at the exact same time yet rejected the racists' repulsive attitudes. Solomon Northup was able to regain his freedom in large part because, during William Seward's term as governor, the Whig-dominated New York legislature chartered a program to aggressively pursue legal action against those who kidnapped free black New Yorkers to sell into slavery and those who eventually purchased them. That is to say, Northup was able to escape from Louisiana because he was from New York, and New York was better than Louisiana. But the authorities in Louisiana don't like their children learning that New York was better than Louisiana. Neither do those in Texas, which due to its size essentially controls the content of textbooks used in every state except for California — explaining why kids in Queens can indeed wind up with a Dixified perspective on American history.