We welcome a guest post from Glenn David Brasher, author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, which was awarded the Wiley-Silver Prize from the Center for Civil War Research. Brasher’s unique narrative history delves into African American involvement in this pivotal military event, demonstrating that blacks contributed essential manpower and provided intelligence that shaped the campaign’s military tactics and strategy and that their activities helped to convince many Northerners that emancipation was a military necessity.
In the following post, Brasher brings a historian’s perspective to his review of the film 12 Years a Slave, which is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup. As part of our DocSouth Books series distributed for the UNC Chapel Hill Library, we have published an edition of Northup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853.
Everything you have heard about the film 12 Years a Slave is true; it is exceptionally well acted, gorgeously filmed, and brutally honest about antebellum slavery. There are moments that are extremely difficult to watch and this is as it should be, leaving audiences stunned into numbness. Film critics and historians alike have praised it as a watershed in the depiction of slavery in American cinema, and this is certainly true. Nevertheless, the film demonstrates that Hollywood has not yet fully caught up with current interpretations of slave life in the antebellum South.
The film is based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a literate and talented free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. For twelve years he toiled on plantations in Louisiana, ultimately obtaining his freedom once his true identity was legally established. His experiences were therefore far from typical, but they provide a riveting narrative and a remarkable window into slave life.
The most gripping aspects of the film derive from a faithful adherence to Northup’s autobiography. This provides a heartrending depiction of the slave market’s separation of families, reveals the sexual exploitation of young enslaved women, and presents a remarkably frank and accurate portrayal of the typical dynamic between plantation mistresses and the particular enslaved women for whom their husbands often lusted. It also emphasizes the unrelenting days of labor in the fields, powerfully demonstrates the psychological terrorism that masters utilized to control their slaves, and includes perhaps the most brutally realistic whipping scene in film history. In doing so, 12 Years a Slave distances us from films such as the still-influential Gone With the Wind (1939) that embraced the Lost Cause interpretation of slavery as a benign institution comprised of humane and indulgent masters and their faithful and sassy slaves.
Yet 12 Years a Slave does not do enough to move us past older interpretations. Besides Northup, the slaves seem to have had all life beaten out of them, choosing to become docile and completely compliant in order to survive. (And Northup himself is on the verge of doing so when he was eventually saved). This is perhaps true to Northup’s experience, as his second master was especially sadistic. Still, the filmmakers were willing to deviate from the book when doing so helped to flesh out Northup’s narrative. A slave murder near the start of the film is fictional, an intimate scene between Northup and an enslaved woman is not found in the book, and a character’s request for him to kill her to end her misery either is based on a misreading of the text or is fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Thus the film could have also deviated from its source material to demonstrate that slavery was far more complex than the complete degradation of the slaves depicted in the narrative.
In the last 40–50 years, historians have demonstrated that antebellum slaves were far from docile automatons and that they found creative and ingenious ways to reach within themselves to create a culture that resisted the complete domination of their lives. Slaves routinely played tricks on their owners, covertly left the plantation for moonlit social and religious gatherings, entertained themselves, and created strong bonds that enabled them to maintain sanity and hope. Slaves laughed at their master’s expense; told stories to teach their young how to outwit, control, and fool their owners; engaged in slowdowns and “laid out” to negotiate their work load; and worshipped a Christian God that they believed would one day free their people and damn their masters to hell. There are few and only fleeting glimpses of this type of resistance, self-determination, and hope depicted in 12 Years a Slave.
Still, the side of slavery this film depicts is honest and real, and director Steve McQueen has rendered it with agonizing detail. No one who sees 12 Years a Slave will come away with anything other than complete abhorrence and disgust with the antebellum South’s “peculiar institution.” Together with 2012’s Django Unchained, the film demonstrates that mainstream Hollywood is taking great strides away from the romanticized “moonlight and magnolias” version of the Old South, and such depictions should help to obliterate the popular perceptions created by films of the past. Hopefully, the next slave film that comes along will more fully catch up with the last 40–50 years of slave interpretation, revealing the means by which slaves creatively and successfully resisted complete domination by the master class.
Glenn David Brasher is instructor of history at the University of Alabama and author of the award-winning The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom.