12 Years a Slave


We saw 12 Years a Slave the other night, finally. I have been avoiding it for a month and a half. I am not so sure that I actually did see it, I know I was in the theater but I may have been too guarded to really let all the movie in. I probably would be useful to see it again. Nevertheless, what did come across was the utter helplessness and almost utter hopelessness of Solomon Northup – stunningly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – once he was shipped south; the utter helplessness and hopelessness of being a slave in 1841, in the United States. Moreover, the word slave doesn’t approach the horror of the reality; to be owned by another human being, as Frederick Douglas said, for twelve years a thing…classed with mules and horses.

The movie makes it clear that the South – and, in many ways, most of the United States – was a slave society. It wasn’t just that a couple of people owned slaves and, if the slave could escape them, they would be free; everything revolved around slavery (Northup’s father was owned by a white man in Rhode Island). The Constitution was written to protect slavery. As James McPherson points out During forty-nine of the seventy-two years from 1789 to 1861, the presidents of the United States were Southerners–all of them slaveholders. The only presidents to be reelected were slaveholders. Two-thirds of the Speakers of the House, chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, and presidents pro tem of the Senate were Southerners. At all times before 1861, a majority of Supreme Court justices were Southerners.

As I thought about the movie the next day, several things bothered me and I began to wonder if the book was real. I have since read that they were not in the book but added to the movie for reasons I don’t understand, taking them out does make the book believable. Frederick Douglas believed it, as did Harriet Beecher Stowe, so who am I to doubt?

What also comes across in the movie is that the slave system was a means of social organization and control that extended way past the plantation. And the plantations! In our national mythology, they are peopled by Thomas Jeffersons and Vivien Leighs along with some happy dark people. In 12 Years a Slave, the closest we get to Jefferson is Mr. Ford – played by Benedict Cumberbatch – and, actually, he is pretty close. Like Jefferson, Ford spouts pieties while worrying how much his slaves are costing him or making for him. For Vivien Leigh we get Mistress Ford who confronts the problem of a Eliza, a black woman, having her children stolen from her, with, Some food and some rest, your children will soon be forgotten. When the Eliza doesn’t stop crying after a couple of days, the problem is solved by selling her.

Think about that for a second, these are human beings who are bought and sold. Ford bought Eliza without her kids because he couldn’t afford the whole package, so, What the hell, just buy the mother. He payed a $1,000 for Solomon – who even has his name taken away – and when Solomon becomes a problem, he is sold because Ford doesn’t want to incur the loss.

Nevertheless, the women are both the biggest heavys – and the biggest victims – in 12 Years a Slave. At first look, it seems like the brutal and insane slave breaker, Mr. Epps, is the worst human being in the movie – a movie filled with despicable human beings – but he is nowhere near as bad as his wife. Her cruelty out of jealousy because her husband is serial rapeing Patsy seems to have no gain except satisfaction in seeing somebody suffer.

Even before I saw this movie, even before I saw Django Unchained, I started having the feeling that a good part of America is ready to face our racist Past and, by extrapolation, our racist present. Not all of it, not everybody, not even everybody I know. I don’t think that makes us post racial as a country. I do think that makes us increasingly able to talk about race and talk about it more objectively.

Obama is part of it, no doubt, but so is the fact that  this NFL season started with nine African-American quarterbacks (in the 80’s or 90’s they would have been diverted to play receiver or cornerback). Lewis Hamilton and Oprah are part of it, but so is Django and Morpheus. Each time we see people of color exell, it moves the public expectation just a little bit. Much of the right expected Obama to lose to Romney because of their expectations – Romney is white and smart and successful and all Obama ever did was go up against an old man – they also thought Congress could outplay him. I think that those are mistakes that are less likely to be made in the future.

One hundred fifty years after the Civil War, forty five years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood proudly on the winner’s platform in Mexico City, it is about time.

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