There is a fundamental contradiction in making a film, or any work of art about slavery. The artist, whatever his economic status, is engaged in unalienated, disciplined creation. The slave, on the other hand, not only has the entire product of his labor stolen, but lives under the whims of an arbitrary power. Speak, and you are no longer a slave.
12 Years a Slave bridges the gap by dramatizing the descent of a literate, middle-class, free black man into the hell of involuntary servitude. Solomon Northup, an artist, a musician, lives a pleasant life far above the Mason Dixon Line in Saratoga Springs, New York. After a successful performance at a dance, he’s approached by two men, Hamilton and Brown, who offer him a lucrative job in Washington DC playing the violin for a travelling circus. While it’s not entirely clear why Northup would venture so perilously close to the south with two such obviously shady characters — apparently in the memoir he’s less prosperous than he is in the film and simply needs the money — he ends up drugged, kidnapped, then sold “down the river” to a plantation in Louisiana.
The morning of the abduction is staged with a claustrophobic power. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, after having spent most of the night believing himself sick from alcohol poisoning, wakes up in chains. As he struggles against the wrist and leg irons, and as he looks around him at the dank, windowless dungeon, the horrifying realization sets in. He’s no longer a free man. Everything he was, his ability to read, his self-respect, his pride and manhood are gone. They are not only a cruel reminder of the family that he thinks he’s lost forever, but a threat to his ability to survive. We feel the horror Solomon Northup feels. We see things through his captive eyes. The camera pans up to reveal Capitol Building, 20 years before the Civil War.
Years later, Northup is standing in a circle of his fellow slaves on the plantation of Edwin Epps, a hard, cruel, mentally unbalanced man who has owned him through most of his time in captivity. Someone starts singing the spiritual Roll Jordan Roll. Northup, who has long resisted identifying with his fellow blacks, initially resists singing. He’s not a “nigger.” The language he has adopted to survive, the “yes sirs” and the “no sirs,” still feels bitter on his tongue. He is not “Platt,” the runaway Georgia slave he’s been mistaken for. He’s Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York. Over the years, white men have used singing and dancing as a form of social control. Making the “darkies” clap their hands and sing is a way of training them to be happy, compliant slaves. But now Northup realizes that something is different. Roll Jordan Roll is not the white man’s song. It’s a song of endurance and resistance. He let’s himself sing. For a brief moment, he’s found a new voice as part of a collective. He speaks, not as a bourgeois but as one of the people.
Sadly, it’s only a very brief moment. 12 Years a Slave is a not a revolutionary film about a slave revolt, but a film about about one middle-class black man’s struggle to hold on to his middle-class identity. It might have been a better movie had Northup killed Edwin Epps and led his fellow slaves into the woods to form a maroon community, but it wouldn’t have been faithful to the real Solomon Northup’s memoir.
Freedom from chattel slavery in 12 Years a Slave is not only about the freedom from involuntary servitude. It’s about the freedom from your baser instincts that comes through self-mastery. If 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith’s’ film Birth of a Nation gave us subhuman animalistic blacks consumed by their desire for white women, 12 Years a Slave neatly flips the script. Edwin Epps, played by an understated but terrifying Michael Fassbender, isn’t just the villain of 12 Years a Slave, he’s Solomon Northup’s mirror imagine. If Northrup manages to keep his sense of chivalry and self-control in the most difficult circumstances, then Epps yields to his baser instinct. A superstitious drunk and rapist married to an ugly jealous witch of a woman played by Sarah Paulson — no Lilian Gish she — Epps singles out and torments his hardest working slave, a young woman named Patsey. As Patsey goes from a beautiful, vibrant woman to a raped and bloodied shell, Northup looks on in horror. There’s nothing he, a fellow slave, can do. Indeed, he risks his life even by whispering into her ear that she should quickly proceed into her cabin to avoid her drunken, and lustful master.
There is no way Solomon Northup can defeat Edwin Epps. When Epps realizes Northup feels protective of Patsey, he forces Northup to whip her until her skin breaks. If the role of Brad Pitt as a travelling abolitionist, a deus-ex-machina who allows Northup to leave the plantation and resume his life as a free, black northerner has been harshly criticized, there really was no other possible ending. Northup is given the choice between harming a fellow slave or dying. He chooses to live. Epps’s victory is complete. He has bent Northrop to his will, made him acknowledge his power, compelled him to betray his own soul. Northup’s body will escape the south. Part of his spirit will not. As he gets into the horse drawn cart that will take him back to Saratoga Springs, Northup looks back at Patsey. “Solomon,” one of his rescuers insists, “we must make haste,” and, indeed, they do, leaving her at the mercy her cruel master and even more cruel mistress. It is 1853, nine years before Union troops under Benjamin Butler would occupy Louisiana. Solomon is no Moses. He will see the promised land. But his people will not.