I finally had a chance to see to see 12 Years A Slave. Like many other scholars that have opined on the film, I have a generally favorable opinion of it. Director Steve McQueen has made a reasonably faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative and one of the best commercial films in a while dealing with slavery. Of course, that is not a high hurdle, as Hollywood rarely deals in a straight fashion with the peculiar institution, preferring a sensationalist approach, like last year’s Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy, Django Unchained (or going back in history, 1975’s potboiler Mandingo).
Hollywood is usually at its best in depicting slavery when it adapts true stories, such as Roots, the epic 1977 television miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s historical novel about his slave ancestors, or in the present case the classic slave narrative, 12 Years A Slave. McQueen’s film is actually not the first time the story of Solomon Northup has been dramaticized. In 1984, PBS showed a decent made-for-television version of the tale, entitled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, starring Avery Brooks (best known to the public for his role as the station commander on Star Trek: Deep Space None) in the title role.
Since both the 2013 film and 1984 television version closely follow Northup’s slave narrative, the difference between them is mainly one of style. McQueen’s film is darker than Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, largely because of the more explicit depiction of slavery’s horrors that is possible in a R-rated movie compared to the self-censorship of a television program that had to satisfy broadcast standards.
Most of the violent horror in 12 Years a Slave is perpetrated by Edwin Epps, Northup’s last owner, played chillingly by Michael Fassbender, whose performance is the most striking of the film, arguably more so than Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s dignified portrayal of Solomon Northup. Fassbender’s Epps is a psychopath, making his slaves’ life a living hell, especially Patsey, who is the object of Epps’ violently possessive lust and his wife’s jealous resentment.
But what makes Michael Fassbender’s performance so impressive is not his depiction of Epps’ cruelty, which actually might seem over-the-top if he did not also manage to convey the ill-concealed fear beneath it. Transforming his portrayal from just another two-dimensional Simon Legree to a much more complicated and realistic human being, whose underlying insecurity leaks through his mask of anger and violence.
Certainly, most slaveholders were not as overtly and consistently nasty as Fassbender’s Epps, but the anxiety they also tried to hide was quite real. That is, for all their professed concern for and conceit that their slaves held them in genuine affection, slaveholders and other antebellum white Southerners were deathly afraid of the blacks in their midst, believing them to be uncivilized barbarians with a propensity for brutish violence only held in check by the discipline of slavery (which itself was based on violence, real and threatened).
I have come across this fear, again and again, in researching this blog, especially when covering the secession winter and first years of the war. For examples, please see the following editions of Civil War Emancipation: 1) February 4, 2011; 2) February 26, 2011; 3) April 14, 2011; 4) May 4, 2011; 5) May 24, 2011; 6) September 29, 2011; 7) August 10, 2012; 8) October 22, 2012. These blog entries include repeated slave revolt panics in various locations across the South during this period, sometimes resulting in horrific violence of fearful slaveholders that actually exceeded Fassbender’s Epps in its cruel ruthlessness. There also are pleas of southern citizens, begging the new Confederate government to allow militia to stay at home, because they feared slave revolts if the local troops were sent to fight the Yankee invaders.
Indeed, fear played a big role in secession. The greatest concern of white Southerners before 186o was that the end of slavery would ignite a bloody race war–Nat Turner’s revolt en masse. So they believed emancipation must be prevented at all costs, even the slightest possibility of it. Hence, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President, determined with his party to halt slavery’s spread, to many white Southerners, convinced that slavery must continue to expand to survive, it seemed Lincoln was putting slavery on the road to extinction–which could not be tolerated and prompted secession.
So, they personified Thomas Jefferson and his analogy to slavery being like holding a wolf by the ears: with slaveholders afraid to have the slaves so close, but even more afraid to let them go. Michael Fassbender captures this mentality in his performance and I greatly hope he will be nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his all too plausible interpretation of Edwin Epps.
In short, I liked 12 Years A Slave, which captured the reality of the antebellum American slavery about as well as any commercial film I have ever seen. As indicated, that puts me in good company, as academics have largely embraced the film, although some are mildly critical of certain aspects, such as Glenn David Brasher’s assertion (which I agree with) that the film depicts slaves as too passive (in McQueen’s defense so does Northup’s narrative possibly influenced by northern abolitionists). Yet my main take away from the film was Michael Fassbender’s riveting performance as Edwin Epps, portraying him as a man who unsuccessfully hid his fear and insecurity toward his slaves with monstrous abuse. While most antebellum slaveholders were not so ruthlessly psychopathic on as regular a basis as Fassbender’s Epps, the cruelty they practiced was all too real and so was the fear that underlay it, and it is indeed ironic that it was that very fear that brought about secession that started the chain of events that brought an end to the very institution it was meant to make secure.