Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Slow Burn of ‘12 Years a Slave’

Approbation is in order for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013). It smartly conveys fresh permutations of evil in the antebellum American South, telling the story of free black New York State resident Solomon Northup’s capture and sale into slavery in 1841. The film explores the slaveholder’s machinations and the slave’s rebellion with equal vigor. The institution of slavery breaks Northup and his principal antagonist Edwin Epps. Everyone associated with the plantation way of life is diminished by it.

The film also succeeds in establishing, in the guise of Northup, a new archetype for the antebellum free black—a rare character in Hollywood history. The script provides outlines for Northup: talent and modesty. The character is given soul by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance. Where 12 Years a Slave plays traditional dramatic chords without amendment, it is weakest. One is reminded of Robert Frost’s adage: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Most critical buzz concerns the film’s most violent scenes: whipping, rape, and hanging. Northup’s torture at the noose, composed in a long take over the course of a balmy Southern afternoon, ignites the conscience.

Yet, the film’s unexpected, quieter scenarios likewise stain memory: plantation owner Epps forcing his slaves to dance at night, after a long day’s work in the cotton fields; slave trader Freeman asking a black boy to run in place to exhibit his athleticism for a potential buyer; and Epps, at his most manic aggressive, chasing Northup all over the farm until the former falls into the pig pen. Flushed and soiled, Epps resembles the swine.

Given its intellectual subtlety on issues of race, 12 Years a Slave favorably resembles Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967). Interracial social etiquette is one shared motif. As a free man before his capture, Northup enters an urban shop in the North. He peruses inventory with his family. The shopkeeper ignores color lines, talking business with Northup and then inviting another walk-in black to look around until his master finds and scolds his wayward slave. The shopkeeper likewise ignores this inhumanity. Laissez-faire rules.

Two scenes in 12 Years a Slave recall an aspect of Sidney Poitier’s role in In the Heat of the Night as black Philadelphia policeman Virgil Tibbs—its emphasis on pride as a spark for racial violence. First, Northup aggravates his state of slavery by allowing Tibeats, a plantation overseer, to bait him into an argument about carpentry that can only lead to a whipping and worse. This moment resembles Tibbs’s slapping of plantation owner Eric Endicott in In the Heat of the Night, which incurs retaliation from the local vigilantes. Outside Endicott’s house, Sheriff Gillespie warns Tibbs, “You better clear out. And I mean fast…I didn’t know you’d slap any white man! Least of all Endicott!”

Second, Northup’s violin is a symbol of his pride and identity, just as Tibbs’s detective skills are his proudest asset. At a low moment, Northup destroys his violin, perhaps to avoid accusations of intellectual insurrection. Tibbs never apologizes for his intellectuality despite Sheriff Gillespie’s race-laced taunts: “No, because you’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You’ve got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don’t think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.”

In 12 Years a Slave, an inferiority complex seems to be the crux of Epps’s abusive behavior toward his wife and slaves. His marriage has failed. His slaves despise him. His cotton withers. When Northup’s friends arrive to rescue him to the North, they mock Epps’s social station. Parker, Northup’s old friend, sarcastically invites Epps to take the matter of Northup’s freedom to trial: “As it will be my pleasure to bankrupt you in the courts. Your decision.”

If Hollywood is the best hope for reclaiming the lost grand narratives in American history, then 12 Years a Slave’s successful run as a commercial drama provides a template for history-conscious, conscientious filmmakers. Its producers overcome the common Hollywood temptation to force romance into the plot. Instead, they seem eager to fit as much historical information and character development as possible into each scene, holding back dramatic resolution until the last possible moment. Brad Pitt’s character in the film, Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass, stalls as long as possible before acceding to Northup’s request to send a message to the North. “What you have said to me scares me,” Bass says, “and I must say, sir, I am afraid. Not just for you, but for me.”

In McQueen’s world, as in Aeschylus’s, pain and redemption enter our lives drop by drop. The film’s final scene, the Northup family reunion, is a relief to the viewer, turning as it does on pure overflowing emotion.

Surely there are more undervalued diaries like Northup’s in attics, libraries, and warehouses around the country, waiting for reappraisal and redistribution. 12 Years a Slave has primed the mainstream media for a revival of interest in the antebellum free professional black. Writers should exploit this opportunity for creating more great adaptations, documentaries, and popular history.