Jane Ahlin, Published November 30 2013
Ahlin: Slave film not to be missed, but difficult to sit through
The year is 1841, and the story is of Solomon Northup, a black man born free and living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Northup is a carpenter and an accomplished fiddler, a married man with two young children. Offered an attractive salary to travel to Washington, D.C., to play the fiddle in a circus, Northup can’t resist taking the job. Once there, the two men who made him the offer get him drunk and drug him, and Northup wakes up in chains. He has been given the name “Platt” and suffers the lash when he protests he is a free man named Solomon Northup. Soon he is sold into slavery. What follows is the story of the 12 years he spent as a slave, the movie ending rather abruptly with his extraordinary return in 1853 to his home and family in Saratoga Springs, a full eight years before the Civil War.
If only one word could be used to describe the movie, it would be “relentless.” There is no relief to be found in the picture of slavery director Steve McQueen paints. The world is grueling and utterly devoid of hope. When a spark of possibility glimmers that life for Northup will improve, it’s quickly snuffed out. There is no deep breathing in the movie for the characters or for the audience, only gasps for survival.
Like Solomon Northup, moviegoers are thrust into the reality that slaves had no claim to decent working or living conditions or, for that matter, to treatment as human beings. At the slave market, they are stripped naked and inspected like cattle. Young children are sold separately from their mothers. Even the kindest plantation owner viewed them as investments that had to pay off. In fact, the first owner of Northup, Mr. Ford, is portrayed as a man of kind sensibilities. Ford gives Northup a violin and also recognizes his intelligence when Northup comes up with a way to save money and man-hours by floating logs down a stream. And yet, when Ford’s overseer becomes incensed at Northup’s favored treatment and tries to kill Northup, Ford – telling him no one else will buy him – sells Northup to a plantation owner known to be viciously cruel to his slaves.
Indeed, Northup’s new owner, Mr. Epps, is cruel to the point of madness and has a wife as heartless as he is. Still, the portrayal of brutality is not as oppressive as the ever-present state of foreboding, an unbearable feeling that brutality could erupt at any second. For slaves, only death was escape. (The great Negro spirituals that grew in that environment of unrelieved oppression are powerful because slaves knew they’d find no justice or freedom in this life. Death was deliverance.) The toll of human degradation is amplified by scenes of slaves going about their everyday duties near to other slaves being lashed or raped or hung. All their energy is put toward making their work quotas and avoiding beatings themselves.
That Northup survived and returned to his family after 12 years is a true story. Frankly, as fiction, the circumstances that led to freedom for him would not be believable. Nor, perhaps, could we believe that his account of those years was published in his lifetime, except that it really was.
Watching the movie is sobering and downright hard to do. Yet, the white supremacists currently trying to take control of Leith, N.D., remind us that the dehumanizing mindset responsible for slavery still exists. For that matter, human trafficking remains a worldwide scourge. We’d like to think that one generation learns from another and that lessons of history, once learned, prevail. But they don’t.
The stain of slavery on the fabric of American history can’t be removed, and we shouldn’t pretend it can. We are better off acknowledging it in every generation. Then, the importance of human dignity and respect for all people is absolutely clear.
Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.