Life, etc

Much more than 12 Years a Slave

By J Brooks Spector 11 March 2014

Slavery’s been around pretty much since the beginning of mankind, but a recent American film made by a British director with a vibrant international cast on Solomon Northup’s biographical narrative is almost certainly the most extraordinary evocation of the reality of servitude ever put on screen. Slavery was central to America’s founding, just as it was South Africa’s; but while slavery features in many American films, it has just barely broached South Africa’s own local film and TV industry. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look at this landscape.

“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free…’

Exodus 21:1-6

Over thirty years ago, this writer lived in Surabaya, a vast, crowded, bustling city on the eastern side of the island of Java. (In fact, Surabaya was Joseph Conrad’s great East Indies metropolis, the New York City of Southeast Asia.) One day, I read a letter from a man in Cape Town that was printed in my copy of Indonesia’s leading weekly newsmagazine. This Capetonian had written to “Tempo” magazine in a real long-shot effort to find a connection with his long-lost relatives.

In his letter, the man had described how his family had been carefully protecting an early published copy of the Quran and a ceremonial dagger, a kris, for hundreds of years, ever since the original owner of the book and weapon had been carried off into exile and perpetual indentured servitude by the Dutch East India Company. In his handwritten note, using Arabic script but spelling out an early version of what eventually became Afrikaans, he described how he had dragged from his home where he had been a prince on the pepper growing islands of Ternate and Tidore and then unceremoniously deposited in the then-new settlement of Cape Town as a slave. Three hundred years ago.

The story fascinated me as I had already lived for two years in South Africa beforehand and my wife, a South African, might reasonably claim a common heritage with that long-ago prince-turned-slave. We never did make contact with that family in Cape Town, nor with any of their possible distant relatives in Tidore or Ternate, but the idea – and the history that came with it – connecting those places via seaborne empire and the institution of slavery has always remained vivid in our minds.

This all came back to me when we went to see the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave. We had actually been putting off seeing it because of reports about the horror of the story’s telling, but eventually we discovered we had little choice but to see it. Coincidentally, we had learned a long-time family friend, a young actor, musician (and, naturally, a sometime waiter as well) living in New York City, had snared a supporting role in that film. Austin Purnell had studied acting in university and, a few years before 12 Years a Slave had been made, he had acted in a small budget film based in New Orleans. There he had got to know the person who became the casting coordinator rounding up local actors for the many smaller roles that would populate the plantations in 12 Years, beyond those filled by the film’s main stars.

Austin told us he had been called about two weeks before shooting actually began to join the cast. He quickly began to read other authentic slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano’s own harrowing autobiographical work. Equiano had been a West African who, after he had escaped from servitude, had become a leading figure in England’s abolitionist movement that was gaining strength at the end of the eighteenth century. (There is, in fact, an extensive array of slave narratives, beyond Solomon Northup and Equiano’s books, such as The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and even conversations with the last remaining, aged Americans who had lived as slaves, recorded during the Great Depression by the Federal Writers Project.)

Purnell explained that from the sheer physical act of being on the film set, on a real plantation in Louisiana in the summer, actually doing the hard tasks of cutting sugar cane and harvesting cotton in the intense heat and humidity, he had had no choice but to gain a deep, personal, visceral understanding of the life for a slave in the antebellum American South. And this was without the perpetual diet of terrible food, foul living conditions, and the whippings, the arbitrary, enforced family breakups, and, perhaps most of all, the realization there was no other better place until death. Definitely no Gone with the Wind with its contented slaves devoted to their kindly masters there.

Gone with the Wind, of course, is only one of a numerous other big screen Hollywood fictions about the old South that have come complete with their comforting stories of those loving and benevolent princedoms that were the South’s plantations before the evils of abolition came along to upset the applecart. The start of this legend and the sketching out of its key tropes came in DW Griffith’s revolutionary film, made virtually at the beginning of the moving picture era, Birth of a Nation. The Foxes of Harrow, released a decade after Gone with the Wind, had the novelty of being right in line with that film’s weltanschauung, based on a novel by Frank Yerby, a prolific historical fiction writer – who just happened to be an African American.

More recent films like Mandingo, with its plot hinging on the sexual tension between master/mistress and slave, black and white, moved the bar somewhat, but it and the more recent film, Django Unchained, were both, at their core, essentially live action cartoons. They were candyfloss for the soul, more in sync with contemporary racial and power narratives, than evocations of the realities of slavery. Even a work like Amistad, detailing the only documented, successful revolt aboard a slave ship and the extended legal battle to keep the slaves from being sold back into slavery, actually focuses much more on former President John Quincy Adams’ legal efforts on their behalf than on the lives of the slaves themselves.

Watch: Trailer for 12 Years a Slave

As a sometimes curmudgeonly columnist Richard Cohen, writing in the Washington Post, said of Steve McQueen’s film, “12 Years a Slave has finally rendered Gone with the Wind irrevocably silly and utterly tasteless, a cinematic bodice-ripper. McQueen’s movie has more than a little unlearning in it. It has been decades since the gauze was removed to show the horror of American slavery. I know more than I once did, maybe more than most and maybe more than I like. Still, McQueen does something daring. He doesn’t focus on an institution or, as in Quentin Tarantino’s somewhat cartoonish Django Unchained, on cruel whites but on the effect of slavery on a single black man. In 12 Years a Slave that man is Solomon Northup, the author of the best-selling book upon which this movie is based.

In fact, 12 Years is a different manner of film than virtually any other that has depicted slavery – save, perhaps for the less-than-well-known, made-for-TV version of this very same story, produced nearly two decades ago. Built upon Northup’s 1853 published narrative, it is the barely believable but true story of an African American freeman who was living in Saratoga Springs, New York in the 1830s with his wife and children. At the beginning of his narrative, Northup is tricked into accompanying two con artists and covert slave traders to Washington, DC because they have promised him a few weeks’ temporary work as a violinist (he is talented on that instrument, his family is away, and he is in-between other remunerative work). Once he is in the nation’s capital, he is drugged and sold to another man, who in turn sells him onward to a plantation owner in rural Louisiana via a New Orleans slave auction.

The irony of Northup being sold and re-sold as a runaway slave while in sight of Congress’ Capitol Building is neither lost on the reader or film viewer, nor Northup in his role as the story’s narrator. Astonishingly, perhaps, Washington was federal territory where slavery remained legal until the end of the Civil War.

In both his published narrative, and now in this extraordinary film version of it, Northup remains conscious of the precariousness of his existence for a dozen years. He longs for his family, and he is desperate for someone to believe he really was not a slave and that he had been kidnapped and sold like a sack of potatoes. He learns to hide the dangerous fact he could read and write – skills assumed to be beyond the competence of slaves while simultaneously being illegal since they could be incitements to revolt. Then as now, knowledge is dangerous.

Eventually, by virtue of the intervention of a itinerant Canadian carpenter working in the South but who deeply disliked the region’s “peculiar institution”, Northup was able to get word to his family and influential former neighbours up North. After twelve years of crushing labour – he was actually released from his bondage. Yet despite the damning evidence and lengthy court proceedings, Northup was never able to extract an iota of retributive justice from any of the people who had kidnapped him, sold him, re-sold him, or nearly killed him in between working him like a plough horse.

The film itself; the film’s director Steve McQueen, a black Briton; its lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor; its supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o; a superb backing cast that includes Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alfre Woodard, among others; and a sense of the gritty reality of life on plantations have all been showered with praise by critics around the world. And the Academy Awards – and other accolades – have come to the work accordingly.

Typical of such comments is what veteran film critic David Denby, in The New Yorker, wrote, “12 Years a Slave is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery. It shows up the plantation scenes of Gone with the Wind for the sentimental kitsch that they are, and, intentionally or not, it’s an artist’s rebuke to Quentin Tarantino’s high-pitched, luridly extravagant Django Unchained.”

Or, as Jonathan Chait commented in New York magazine, “This last weekend, I finally saw 12 Years a Slave. It was the most powerful movie I’ve ever seen in my life, an event so gripping and terrifying that, when I went to bed ten hours later — it was a morning matinee — I lay awake for five hours turning it over in my mind before I could fall asleep. I understand it not merely as the greatest film about slavery ever made, as it has been widely hailed, but a film more broadly about race. Its sublimated themes, as I understand them, identify the core social and political fissures that define the American racial divide to this day. To identify 12 Years a Slave as merely a story about slavery is to miss what makes race the furious and often pathological subtext of American politics in the Obama era. [Italics added]”

But, as actor Austin Purnell pointed out when we spoke on the phone, there is another, relatively less noticed element of McQueen’s cinematic skill, crucial to giving the film its poignant, even intimate texture of verisimilitude. This is McQueen’s close attention to small, telling details, such as how a slave would have winced when he was about to be beaten, or the lingering on a caterpillar devouring its way through a cotton crop. These are the things that help pull the audience into the world McQueen has created on screen and that almost makes us forget we are watching a film, and not life itself.

But ultimately it is the way Northup must adapt to different plantations that helps hammer home the terrible iniquity of the institution itself. Each plantation operated virtually as a separate mini-state. If its master was somehow humane, slavery there was not a death sentence and might even have been almost tolerable, as long as a slave didn’t yearn for a breath of fundamental values like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But then, in a moment, one could have been sold to another master a hundred miles away, and one’s children or partner sent elsewhere in the opposite direction, never to be seen again. And the new plantation master or overseer could be a madman bent on violent sexual conquests and horrific beatings for the most trivial misreading of that owner’s intentions – or simply for looking too intently at the person giving orders. The film never flinches from any of this, even though it never offers the ågratuitous violence a Sam Peckinpaugh might easily have done with this material.

Given the origins of South Africa as a slave-holding settlement in the Cape from the 1650s onward, until it was abolished in 1834 (the event that immediately precipitated the migration of the Boers inland to new territories; that was then a major influence on the establishment of legal segregation throughout the Union of South Africa; and then, ultimately, that led to Apartheid), it seems astonishing that, as far as anyone seems to know, there has really only been one film made specifically about South Africa’s slave experience. John Badenhorst’s, 1999, made-for-television film, Slavery of Love, takes place in 1714. It is an intimate look at love across a not-yet–quite-finalised colour line in a story that speaks to the relationships between the colony’s Malay slaves and a Dutch immigrant new to the Cape.

But why no other South African directors have chosen to address this historical and social texture, especially given its impact on later South African history (as well as the now generally known truth that virtually all Afrikaner families also had slave ancestors), seems both surprising and a little unnerving. Perhaps it has been because, as filmmaker Junaid Achmed explained, “A period piece, and especially like the one you are alluding to, will cost millions…. And as SA filmmakers continue to live financially on the edge and try to survive, it doesn’t allow for that necessary creative space and freedom to develop projects on the scale of 12 years.”

Or as Slavery of Love director Badenhorst commented, in the case of his own film, because of that very scarcity of funds, his film had to be made on a shoestring over a ridiculously shooting short schedule. But, despite these pressures, Badenhorst added, “Maybe it’s pretentious, but these people [the slaves in his film] had no voice and I thought I should give them one.” In most other cases, though, the kind of government funding or subsidies needed to create a convincing period piece film is simply not forthcoming, and the private venture capital just isn’t there either, it seems.

But this seems a true shame. Film is such a powerful medium, it can make a major contribution to increasing the understandings of South African society of the fullest range of the nation’s historical tapestry – beyond the increasingly ubiquitous filmic liberation narratives or those “live hard die young” sagas of today’s urban youth. This more all-encompassing approach – via film and television – could help South Africans understand where they have come from, so that they can, in turn, have a better idea of where they may be going.

[The writer is indebted to film scholar Trevor Steele Taylor and filmmakers John Badenhorst and Junaid Achmed for their insights. All conclusions are this author’s, however.]

Photo: A still from 12 Years a Slave.

Read more:

  • What art says about the past, a column by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post
  • Films about Slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (a major list of films on slavery from around the world) from the Africa Today website
  • List of films featuring slavery from Wiki
  • Fighting to Survive from the New Yorker
  • 12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era from New York Magazine
  • The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias ‘12 Years a Slave’ Holds Nothing Back in Show of Suffering NYT Critics’ Pick from the New York Times
  • 12 Years a Slave – review from the Guardian
  • 12 Years a Slave – review from the Guardian


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"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer