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Witnessing Violence: Thoughts on McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave is a narrative about how we see things. It’s the story of a free man in Saratoga, New York who is captured into slavery in 1843 and struggles for twelve years to regain his freedom. The book, published in 1853 and written by Northup with a white lawyer, David Wilson, focuses first and foremost on how Northup sees things: he describes the first 30 years of his life in the North in idyllic terms, blithely unaware of any potential danger on the horizon. However, his kidnap into slavery punctures Northup’s early illusions and the narrative is written from the perspective of someone who now realizes that even as a free man in the North there were those—such as his kidnappers—who saw him as a potential slave. I went into the movie thinking about what it would mean to translate this narrative, which is so much about how Northup sees and is seen, into the primarily visual medium of film. How would the black, British director Steve McQueen treat the visual horrors of slavery? How would the camera capture the two distinct perspectives Northup presents in his narrative? How would the audience be positioned in relation to those perspectival questions?

An unflinching representation of the quotidian nature of the slavery’s violence, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Making Django Unchained look like a trip to the amusement park, the film is both unrelenting and clear-eyed about the brutality required to transform people into commodities. As David Denby notes in his review in the New Yorker, one of the most striking images in the film is Northup (played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging from a tree, his feet barely touching the ground, dangling “halfway between stability and annihilation.” It’s a visual metaphor for the precarity of Northup’s situation: after fighting back against a sadistic slave driver Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup is nearly killed by Tibeats, who ties a rope around his neck and hangs him from a tree. Though the lynching is stopped just in time by the plantation’s overseer—in charge of protecting the master’s property—Northup is left hanging, for the better part of a day, standing on tip-toe desperately straining for purchase in the slippery mud under his feet.

But what is, perhaps, most shocking in this representation is its emphasis on how daily life continued around even the most shocking examples of slavery’s brutality and terror. After a time, the other slaves on the plantation quietly emerge from their cabins, holding baskets of laundry for washing or vegetables to be cooked for the evening meal. The camera even pans out to show some slave children laughing and playing a game in the sun a few yards away from where Northup hangs. The scene is striking both for its difficult imagery and for its duration—both of which are amplified in their translation from narrative to film. Although in the narrative Northup describes nearly losing his life to Tibeats in a violent confrontation, he is never hung. Picturing Northup’s deadly encounter as a potential hanging allows McQueen to both invoke the most iconic scene of U.S. racial violence—lynching—while demonstrating that that violence was a part of the fabric of daily life.

That daily life continues within sight of Northup’s fight for life implicates us all as witnesses to tremendous acts of cruelty, forcing us to ask what it means to be witness to these atrocities and continue on with the business of our lives. It is a question extended to us by the narrative itself, and all slave narratives, which expose the brutality slaves’ experiences in order to move readers to act against slavery.

12 years coverBut as many critics of slave narratives have asked, what is the cost of this route to empathy and political action? What price did the authors of these narratives pay to depict themselves to an audience in need of convincing? I couldn’t help thinking about this as I watched the film. While it at first seems McQueen might protect us from the most visceral aspects of racial violence, the film continually ratchets up our exposure, forcing us to look when we most want to look away. For example, when Solomon first regains consciousness after being drugged and sold into slavery, he is brutally beaten by the slave trader Burch for proclaiming his freedom. Each insistence that he is a free man from New York is answered by an increasingly vicious attack until he finally falls silent. It is Northup’s first moment of compromise, in which he understands that in order to survive this ordeal he cannot reveal his true identity, yet his silence is also a refusal to articulate the lie that he is a slave. After the beating Solomon is left alone and in darkness and the film cuts to a few days later when another trader, Radburn (Bill Camp), playing something of a good cop, brings Solomon food and a change of clothes. Radburn insists on taking his shirt because it is “absolutely in tatters.” With the camera trained resolutely on Solomon’s face, his torn, bloodied shirt comes into view as he takes it over his head. Theater-goers gasped around me—one sort of proof of McQueen’s success at shocking us into a new recognition of slavery’s horrors.

That is, afterall, one of McQueen’s primary goals. In an interview published in the NY Times, McQueen stated, “I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.”

But if McQueen succeeds in this attempt, he does so at the expense of some of the radical potential of the narrative. In emphasizing the importance of witnessing, he loses Northup’s own critique of how slaves suffered—and reproduced this suffering—so that white readers (viewers) might finally see. The film features increasingly visceral portrayals of slavery’s violence, ending in a brutal scene towards the end of the film in which Northup is forced to whip a fellow-slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). While McQueen begins the scene with the camera focused on Northup wielding the whip, it shifts to Patsey’s and we see her flesh flayed open, cut nearly to the bone. This time there is no shirt standing in for the damaged flesh: the movie shows us the injury to Patsey’s body as well as Northup’s sense of self.

"Solomon in his plantation suit."
“Solomon in his plantation suit.”

But what is the price of this moral lesson? While Northup, like McQueen, makes his readers witnesses to slavery’s cruelties, his book simultaneously offers a critique of the requirement that he show black suffering to satisfy his abolitionist audience. Acutely aware of the way black suffering circulated in abolitionist discourse—pain made into spectacle for an audience skeptical of the humanity of the enslaved—Northup folds a savvy awareness of black suffering-as-spectacle into his narrative. The scene of Patsey’s whipping by Northup is a good example. In the film the scene is a devastating example of the near-total domination of masters over their slaves; however, that scene actually collapses two different moments in the narrative, including one in which Northup successfully pantomimes whipping other slaves to protect them from the overseer or master’s lash. The pantomime—which works for a time in the narrative, unlike in the film—shows that Northup is fully aware of the effect the injured black body has on both Southern and Northern white onlookers. It is a canny scene in which he shows us a different aspect of slavery than the one emphasized by McQueen’s film. In Northup’s account we see the slave using his agency to contest the spectacle of black suffering, making readers encounter how profoundly the desire to see black suffering existed not just under slavery, but also within abolitionist narratives.

McQueen and Northup share the desire to provoke in their audience the question of where our complicity in the degradation and devaluation of black life begins and ends. In the narrative, published in 1853 after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Northup casts all American citizens—in the North and South—as witnesses to the cruelty of slavery, emphasizing the irony of being kidnapped in the nation’s capitol, the supposed symbolic center of democracy and political equality: “Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house [the slave pen where he is being held], looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!”

McQueen visualizes this moment, too, panning the camera up from the yard of the slave pen, where enslaved people are washing themselves in preparation for sale, to show the Capitol building dominating the city skyline. However, in the translation from Northup’s words to the iconic image of the capital, the focus shifts from Northup’s individual experience to a meditation on state power. Though the film is an important contribution to our understanding of the arbitrary and violent nature of the “peculiar institution,” it remains an open question for me whether its visualization could ever match the power of Northup’s critique of the routinized visualization of suffering, of violence itself.

–Janet Neary: Fierce

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