Move over Kunta Kinte, Solomon Northup is back! Actually, there is no objective basis for ranking Roots and 12 Years a Slave as they served two very different Americas. The former, which first aired in 1977, struck viewers still healing from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and the urban uprisings of the 1960s and still coping with the overt bigotry of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker and his ilk. The latter is hitting theaters with the nation’s first African American president in his second term and with racism, though still a potent force, lurking deep in institutional crevices and exposed to public scrutiny only occasionally, by series like HBO’s The Wire.
As a period piece, 12 Years a Slave is extremely well executed. It is so good, in fact, that I hope that some well-heeled individual or well-endowed foundation will buy the rights and make it available to the world for free. Yes, people can read the book for free on Google and elsewhere online but the big screen version supersedes the text in some respects. The savagery of the whipping scenes, followed by tenderness of the post-whipping care that slaves provided each other, belie the slavers’ claims that it was the enslaved who were the savages. The hanging scenes expose how powerless the enslaved ultimately were: Northup watches helplessly as two slaves are strung up while later slaves go about their daily activities as Northup himself tiptoes in the mud with a noose about his neck for hours on end. Similarly, the wailing of a mother separated from her children by sale will not be soon forgotten by most viewers.
Director Steve McQueen has gotten the details right too. The overseers and slave traders are suitably grimy and ignorant. The economic activities depicted, shopping in stores, picking cotton, cutting cane, milling, and so forth, are accurately portrayed. Masters lust after their chattel, as we know many did, and their wives respond in authentic ways. And Paul Giamatti plays a scumbag slave trader oh so well. In short, professors can show this film in class confident that students will come away with an accurate glimpse into antebellum American chattel slavery.
There is a deeper layer here as well, one that I hope professors will explore in their classrooms. In short, we’re all Solomon Northup now. We may get a glimpse of slavery, as Northup did in a flashback scene to his pre-abduction life in Saratoga Springs, New York, but we do nothing about it, confident that slavery is something that happens to somebody else, somebody far removed from us in time or space. We cannot believe that our loved ones could ever end up in bondage but the simple fact is that it could happen, that it already has happened to millions of people worldwide, including untold numbers of Americans both at home and overseas. (Exact figures are disputed but not the point here.)
Our abduction and sale are unlikely, but so was it for Northup. His trusting nature and high market value ($1,000 at the time, or approximately a quarter million dollars today) put him at risk and bad luck sealed his fate. Today, females and children are most at risk, both to be prostituted and put to forced labor, but in some areas adult men are still prized as agricultural field hands, fishers, or industrial workers. The remote possibility of abduction must be weighed against the high cost of losing a cherished one to slavers, even if you are one of the lucky few to possess Liam Neeson’s “very particular set of skills.”
We simply do not know what percentage of the enslaved are ever emancipated from modern bondage. Surely some perish and others never recover their former identities (including possibly Northup himself, who disappeared with nary a trace in 1857). Although modern forms of slavery take place all around us, the enslaved are trapped by invisible chains similar to those that prevented Northup from trying to escape, the fear of corporal punishment and even death. While Northup, a Dickensian surname to be sure, had to contend with the great physical distance from the Louisiana plantations where he was forced to whip his fellow slaves to freedom in the North, he did not have to worry about slavers killing his family like many slaves today must.
Spreading the word about modern slavery can help people to avoid abduction in the first place but just as importantly it can help to turn everyone into Brad Pitt, or rather Bass, the Canadian laborer who Pitt plays in 12 Years. Bass was antislavery but he not an abolitionist hero. He was just a handsome working stiff who saw injustice and risked his own neck and livelihood to save a fellow human being in trouble. He probably did not know that free blacks were abducted and enslaved by the hundreds (possibly thousands) but he was intelligent enough to see that Northup’s story was plausible. Had white wage laborer Armsby (played by Garret Dillahunt) been more intelligent, or at least more informed, he might have chosen to help Northup instead of taking Northup’s money and ratting him out to the master.
Maybe by next fall term, professors can show 12 Years a Slave to their students legally and at no cost. It is good enough to be used as a straight up period piece to supplement lectures or readings on antebellum American chattel slavery but the connections to modern slavery should be explored in classrooms as well. Like Northup, most of us know a little about modern slavery but rest content in our comfortable middle class lives barely cognizant that we, too, could fall victim to slavers. More likely, we could be cast to play a potential savior and will have to choose between Armsby and Bass. Let’s help our students to pick the latter every time.