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Sold Down The River
12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen
© 2013 James LaFond
12 Years A Slave is the best written and best acted movie I have seen in years. On that level it was a very good movie. It was based on an 1853 book by Solomon Northrop. I will have to get a copy of that along with some slave-handling manuals. For the past three years I have been researching a book on slavery which my ancient boxing research led me to. In case you are wondering if all of the troubling content I review reflects some form of morbidity please consider it a strand of my research into a large nonfiction project. This website is largely my notebook.
As a boy I was convinced that grownups were mostly crazy and mostly stupid. Unfortunately, I also knew that I was one of the stupid as well. I found this depressing, and have, ever since, tried to fathom the secrets behind grownup activities. You might say I’m a rebellious fifty-year-old brat.
Early on my fascination with this question led me to the same study as most historians and history geeks: war. Warfare is the big flashy game changer in history, indeed the game of rulers. I let my focus drift between warfare and religion in my hopeless attempts to figure out those crazy adults who had conspired to circumscribe my childhood and convert me to their cause, the brainwashing of the next generation of victims. It was not until I investigated the origins and practice of ancient athletics and combat sports that I kept running into this everyday connection in the historic record: slavery, bondage, servitude. I suppose I’m still a long way from ‘getting it’ in a ‘cause and effect’ context.
However, the fact that war movies and war books are forever spewing forth, and that books on the more insidious, more formative, and far more constant aspect of the human condition—being slavery—are so few and far between, and the fact that these stories tend to deny that slavery has been the universal lot of most of mankind throughout most of history, compels me to suspect that bondage is the biggest question most often unasked by historians.
Steve McQueen made a movie with a deep talented cast and without going for the fantastical hip-hop flash of Django, where characters were so totally archetypical if hilariously entertaining. I have not read the book and do not know how faithful the movie is. However, there is nothing in it that contradicted a word written by the few surviving slaves whose memoirs I have read. The most insidious aspect of slavery is that so few slaves have ever lived into the future as the presenters of ideas, as authors. Very few slaves, from Aesop to Booker T. Washington, have managed to leave their story behind.
The most interesting aspect of the movie is the demonstration of how Christianity was the ideological battleground where black plantation slavery was concerned. The slave owners promoted the Old Testament to justify the evil they did. Of course the abolitionists used the New Testament to make their case [and made Frederick Douglas apologize for describing Christianity as the slavery-enabling institution that it was.] Listening to the debate between the Canadian carpenter played by Brad Pitt and the main slave owning character who was brilliantly played by some actor whose name I could not pick off the screen [I’ll get back to that below], was like listening to a debate between Jesus and Joshua. Ultimately the Old Testament carries more weight when it comes to ordering a society, as demonstrated by the depiction of the slaves buying into the very faith that was used to justify their inferiority, and the success of Islam as our most tenacious form of social glue.
Another authentic feature of the script was the period dialogue. This is very difficult to write and requires a lot of research. The importance of authentic dialogue from another period is as a reflection of a pattern of thought. How we speak reflects the ordering of thought. I'll view this film again with a pen and paper as a dialect study.
Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglas both held the strong opinion that slavery was as toxic for the owner as the owned. This film depicts that reality better than any film I have seen. The plantations depicted in 12 Years A Slave were not the glorious ‘best mansion in the south’ that you get in Django, but more like the one-step-from-white-trash plantation of Mandingo. I stayed and talked with my friend after the viewing, wondering if there was any position on those plantations that would not seem a living hell to a modern person. There was not. Even being a slave-holding plantation master was a shit gig. Everybody else’s lot was nigh unbearable.
I was one of two whites in the theater, and did feel a little hard when I laughed at a really good line by the slave trader played by Paul Giamatti. As far as a viewing experience two things really struck me. First was the power of the whipping scene, the final one [there were quite a few]. You need to see that. Then, after you see it, remind yourself that that happened every day in the British Navy. Southern plantation slavery evolved as a British institution. The most vaunted institution in British society for the past 500 years has been its navy. For most of that time the ships of that navy sailed by the hands of abducted men, often beaten and worked to death, who when broken after years of service were cast off to die on country roads, in London gutters, and in debtor’s prisons. If you find yourself thinking—no, a master would not treat their property like that—than recall that the greatest nation on earth, at that same time, treated its heroes like that. How must their abused-child of a separatist nation have treated their slaves?
The second aspect of the viewing that intrigued me was how interested the audience would be concerning the fate of Solomon Northrop. The movie ends at a perfect narrative place. Any time I see a movie that begins with a notice that it is based on a true story I really want to see the parting notice. Three or four blocks of text appeared after the last scene. They were difficult to read as most of the audience was rising to leave. Apparently they did not take note of how much importance the slave owners put on making sure their slaves could not read, for these black moviegoers, living a princely life compared to that of the slave owners depicted in the film, valued that ability, if they had it, not at all. It was as if they had made an obligatory appearance so that they could say, ‘Yeah, we had it bad back in the day.’
I was disgusted along with a few others. What the text said though was intriguing and hopeful. After Solomon was taken back north by a white friend to safety he became an activist and wrote a book, which was overshadowed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel written by a white woman. The time, circumstance and date of his death were not known. I’m guessing on the dark side here. Blacks were not safe in the north. They had few if any legal rights, so could not successfully press a case against white kidnappers or slave hunters, and were subject to retrieval by slave-catchers just as modern felons are subject to arrest by bail bondsmen and their agents.
The other great favor that the filmmaker did was note that Solomon had been a victim of kidnapping. Thank you Mister McQueen for using the term that was coined in Britain for the abduction and sale of poor Scotch, Irish, Welsh, Cornish and English boys, who were sold to scum as diverse as Lord Baltimore [who arrived here in possession of one of my ancestors] and William Bradford, scumbag Puritan cult leader who brought 21 boys to New England to die in bondage slaving way for his crackpot religious cult.
The biggest problem with our view of slavery is that it is all vested in the Black American Experience. Few of us stop to think that most people who breathed Earth’s air before the kidnapping of Solomon Northrop were disposable human property, or that more people today live as slaves than at any point in human history. Slavery is still our big dirty secret. 12 Years A Slave, thus far, is the best popular look into the reality of our secret shared heritage that I have seen on film, and a good movie besides.
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