Twelve Years a Slave: the ‘war of representation’ then and now

By: Kate Donington

Steve McQueen’s intensely powerful film Twelve Years a Slave has raised important issues around the relationship between slavery, history, memory and identity. The film is based on the autobiographical narrative of Solomon Northup, a free African-American who lived in New York, but was kidnapped and forced into a life of slavery in the South. Although the film is set in the US, it functions as an uncomfortable reminder to all those nations who participated in and benefitted from transatlantic slavery that the historical injustices of the past continue to haunt the present. Whether people chose to disavow it or see it as an opportunity for a reappraisal, there is no doubt that the film has created a cultural dialogue in which people are talking about their relationship to this history.

 The importance of historical interpretation to the ways in which we understand ourselves as a nation has been exposed in the media by the spat between Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt over the memorialisation of the First World War. History has never been an apolitical subject; what we chose to remember and forget reveals much about the ways in which we see ourselves, as well as the way we would wish to be seen by others. Historians do not operate in a vacuum and history is written about and represented by people who have concerns firmly rooted in their own present. Indeed in that respect McQueen also holds a mirror up to those in modern society who, like their historical counterparts, are all too willing to turn a blind eye to persisting forms of coercive and unfree labour in a market driven quest for cheaper consumables. The film acts as a savage critique of the relationship between slavery and capitalism; the breakdown of human relationships in the pursuit of profit is at the centre of a film which is relentless in its representation of the transformation of men, women and children into units of production.

Frontispiece for Solomon Northup, Twelve years a slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana (New York: C. M. Saxton 1859).

 Perhaps this is why it was so important for McQueen that the story he told began with a free man. Northup was a literate, articulate, skilled and creative individual. He and his family were presented as respectable and respected members of society living in the kind of freedom that would be recognisable and valued by modern and contemporary audiences alike. The decision to depict slavery through the lens of someone who had experienced liberty enabled the director to juxtapose black freedom with black slavery in a visually powerful way. This story was not, however, representative of the vast majority of those who endured slavery, something alluded to in the scene where a young enslaved man named Jasper looked on in fascination at a black man (Northup) being treated as an equal by a white shopkeeper.

 The emphasis on Northup’s learned exceptionalism has been raised by Hadley Freeman as potentially ‘problematic’ owing, she argues, from the ‘suggestion that the main character, Solomon Northup, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a stoical saint who was different from, even ‘above’, the other ‘typical’ slaves.’[1] This comment can perhaps be better understood when Northup’s text is considered alongside the literary traditions and racial politics of slave narratives.[2] The emphasis on Northup’s literacy, demonstrated in the opening sequence of the film which begins with Northup’s ingenious and yet ultimately futile attempt to write a letter, stems from a historically rooted cultural construction of race. As Henry Louis Gates (a consultant on the film) has argued, the ability to write ‘was the very commodity that separated animal from human being, slave from citizen… since mastery of the arts and letters was Enlightenment Europe’s sign of that solid line of division between human being and thing.’[3]

 Slave narratives were published for a specific audience and were often edited by white abolitionists who were invested (for obvious political reasons) in portraying their subjects in particular ways. For instance, the sexual abuse suffered by women like Harriet Jacobs was often glossed over in a bid to protect the Christian modesty of both the enslaved as well as the white female abolitionists who read the texts. In the case of Northup, as Sue Eakin has pointed out, his arrests for public drunkenness prior to his kidnapping are absent from the text, as they are also absent from McQueen’s film.[4] Representations of the enslaved had to be carefully controlled because, as with the case of Mary Prince, any suggestion of a blemished character would be seized upon by the proslavery lobby as evidence of an inferior nature.[5]

As a modern audience do we still need to be shielded from the human complexity of the enslaved? How should we read McQueen’s emphasis on Northup’s literacy and respectability? Do we consider Northup’s degradation as all the more complete because he embodied a cultured civility denied to those who were born into slavery? Do we find the scene in which he is initially beaten more powerful because moments earlier he had been seated in a plush dining room surrounded by the accoutrements of the ‘civilised’ world? Or is it important first to see his humanity before we witness the process by which he was stripped of it?

 Given that the majority of African-Americans in the film are enslaved, the initial manifestation of Northup as a freeman offers an alternative representation which rejects racial assumptions propagated by the proslavery lobby of the natural ‘inferiority’ of black people. As Northup wrote himself, quoting Samuel Bass, the Canadian who helped him gain his freedom ‘If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything.’[6] Northup then represents potential, he stands for what could be if only freedom were a reality for all.

‘Scene in the slave pen at Washington’, taken from Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.45.

 The contradiction between a ‘civilised’ liberty loving society and the practice of slavery threads throughout the film, acting as a reminder that the land of the free was forged through a brutal system of racialised unfreedom.[7] Northup’s own narrative is prefaced by a poem by William Cowper which included a remonstration to the man who would be ‘a despot absolute, and boast / Himself the only freeman of his land.’[8] The tension between civilisation and barbarism also manifested itself in the construction of the slave-owner William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are echoes of Gone With Wind’s Ashley Wilkes in the character of Ford, although McQueen is entirely more critical in his portrayal.

 The trope of the paternal master was one which the proslavery lobby returned to time and again during the abolition debates in both Britain and later the United States. This construction can be found in the proslavery play The Benevolent Planters which included the closing line ‘we declare, that you have proved yourselves The Benevolent Planters, and that under subjugation like yours, slavery is but a name.’[9]  Appropriating the language of benevolence and paternalism, the construction of the ‘good’ slave-holder became a vital part of what Catherine Hall has described as the ‘war of representation.’[10] During the debates over abolition the representation of the planter and the enslaved became contested ground, with each side determined to prove the ‘truth’ of their version of slavery. Playing on racialised notions of African ‘barbarity’, those who supported slavery argued that the institution offered a means to ‘civilisation’ through exposure to European culture and Christianity.

 This concept was masterfully undermined by McQueen in his depiction of Ford, who the audience is first introduced to at the slave auction. Ford’s impotence in the face of the slave auctioneer’s refusal to sell him Eliza’s daughter was demonstrative of a morally bankrupt system which could not be mitigated by the existence of ‘humane’ slave-owners. This point was reinforced during a scene in which Ford’s sermon to the enslaved was drowned out by Eliza’s anguished cries. McQueen touches several times upon the relationship between slavery and Christianity. The use of religion as a form of social control is evident in the scene with Ford as well as the scriptural justifications for slavery employed by the cruel and violent Epps, played with disturbing brilliance by Michael Fassbender.[11] ‘Separation of Eliza and her last child’, taken from Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.85.

 In his book, Northup differentiated between the men who claimed ownership in him. He described his  experience with Ford as the ‘bright side of slavery.’[12] Whilst Northup praised Ford as a ‘good man’, he also included a passage which shed a more practical light on Ford’s benevolent behaviour. Northup recalled a discussion between Ford and Tibeats in which the former chided the latter for using hatchets and broad axes on the enslaved. Ford claimed that this would lead to an increase in runaways and that ‘A little kindness would be far more effectual in restraining  them, and rendering them obedient, than the use of such deadly weapons.’[13] In the end, the relationship which Northup had established with Ford was not enough to save him; under slavery Northup was a chattel possession and despite Ford’s good intentions he was still sold to repay a debt. Even the kindest master was still complicit in a system which put a monetary value on human life.

Interestingly, Ford’s relatives have weighed into the debate to defend the reputation of their ancestor. ‘He was a highly moral man’ said his great-great-grandson, 77-year-old William Marcus Ford, who also suggested that ‘slaves were regarded as valuable pieces of property and that it wouldn’t be in an owner’s interest to treat his slaves badly.’[14] One of the things that the film makes clear is that fear (instilled through both physical and emotional violence) was an invaluable commodity and one which was an absolute necessity for maintaining control on the plantation. Whilst Epps was a brutal master, it was Ford who sold Northup to an unknown fate. The failings of a defence of the benevolent planter are perhaps best explained by Northup himself who wrote, ‘There may be humane masters, as there certainly are inhuman ones, there may be slaves well-clothed, well-fed, and happy, as there surely are those half-clad, half-starved, and miserable; nevertheless, the institution which tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one.’[15]

 When we consider the vast scale of suffering which the institution wrought it is perhaps easy to lose sight of the humanity, not just of the enslaved but also of the enslavers. McQueen’s film has been hailed for its unflinching visualisation of slavery, but arguably one of the things that it does most successfully is to humanise the actors involved in the system. Northup himself believed that slavery was degrading to both master and slave, he wrote that ‘The influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosoms of those who, among their equals, are regarded as humane and generous.’[16] Does this mean we should feel pity for the slave-holder? No, but it does tell us something about the complexity of human nature and the ultimately corrosive effects of unfettered power.

[2] Sarah Churchill, ’12 Years a Slave: the book behind the film’, The Guardian, Friday 10 January 2014.

[3] Henry Louis Gates, Figures in black: words, signs and the ‘racial’ self (Oxford University Press, 1987), p.25.

[4] Ed. Sue Eakin, Twelve Years a Slave (Eakin Films and Publishing, 2014).

[5] Prince published her narrative The History of Mary Prince in 1831. She was then subject to character assassination by the proslavery supporter James MacQueen in a letter to Blackwood’s Magazine. There then followed two libel suits. For more on the case, see Barbara Baumgartner, ‘The Body as Evidence: Resistance, Collaboration, and Appropriation’ in The History of Mary Prince’, Callaloo, Vol. 24, No. 1, (Winter, 2001), pp. 253-275.
[6] Solomon Northup, Twelve years a slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana (New York: C. M. Saxon, 1858), p.267.

[7] This tension has been raised in relation to Britain as well. See Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). For the pre-abolition period see William Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[8] William Cowper quoted in Northup, Twelve Years a Slave.

[9] Thomas Bellamy, The Benevolent Planters (London: Debrett, 1789), p.13.
[11] For an interesting discussion of religion within the film see Donovan Schaefer, ‘Our Peculiar Institution: American Protestantism, Shame, and McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (film review essay)’, Religion Bulletin, 6 November 2013.
[12] Northup, Twelve year a Slave, p.103.

[13] Northup, Twelve years a Slave, p.150.

[15] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.206.

[16] Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, p.261.