12 Years a Slave and the Problem of Depicting Human Atrocities

The problem of portraying extreme violence is part of scholarly and public debates since the end of the Second World War. After the Holocaust, whereas some scholars considered fiction an adequate means to represent atrocities, other scholars and Holocaust survivors were opposed to these fictional representations, by underscoring the ethical problems posed by it. Theodor Adorno, for example, sustained that eyewitness accounts were the most powerful instruments to accurately convey the horrors of concentrationary and genocidary experiences. But Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi and historians like Christopher R. Browning, have underscored the problems related to the use of testimonies, because the emotional desire of the witnesses could blur the necessary critical approach that historians allegedly employ when examining primary sources.

Despite these concerns, tragedies like slavery and the Holocaust have been extensively represented in novels and plays. Over the last few years several Hollywood movies, like Beloved, Amistad, Schindler’s List, Inglorious Bestards, and Django Unchained have portrayed the tragedy of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Holocaust. The new film 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is the latest, and probably the most successful, attempt to represent what for many scholars and artists is part of the sphere of the irrepresentable. Based on the narrative 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup published in 1853, very probably the reason for this success is related to Adorno’s recommendation regarding the power of eyewitnesses’ accounts.

12 Years a Slave loyally portrays the ordeals of Salomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). The son of a former slave, Northup was born free in the state of New York in 1808, the exact year of the abolition of the slave trade to the United States. In 1829, he married Anne Hampton, who Northup describes as a colored woman who carried in her veins the blood of the three races. Together they had three children. In 1834, Northup and his family were living in Saratoga, New York. An educated man, he worked performing different activities. He obtained contracts to transport timber from Lake Champlain to Troy, and during these trips, he visited Montreal and Kingston, in Canada. He also made some earnings as a violin player. In 1841, he met two men who invited him to follow them to New York, to play violin. Northup accepted the invitation and ended up in Washington DC, the US national capital, where he was kidnapped and sold as a slave.

Northup is kept in the Williams slave pen in Washington DC, located at 800 Independence Avenue SW, the present-day headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration. As one scene of the movie shows, the slave pen had a privilege view to the US Capitol. The film features a number of elements contrasting Northup’s life as a free respectable man (in the film African Americans do not seem to suffer any kind discrimination in the state of New York) and his life as an enslaved man. Dehumanization is represented by the slaves’ lost of control on their own bodies. This is visible in the repeated physical punishments with whips, chains, shackles, and other instruments of torture. The film also emphasizes the promiscuity imposed on enslaved men, women, and children. Northup and the other enslaved men and women kept with him, slept together and took bath together. They shared their nakedness and wounds. The scenes portraying these atrocities are powerful because the camera occupies a particular position. In one of the first scenes in the Washington DC slave pen, when Northup is whipped, the camera is placed near the floor. This strategy of placing the camera in the victim’s position is employed in other scenes of floggings, making the spectator a witness of the horrors that take place during the film.

During the rest of the movie, the spectator continues occupying the very uncomfortable position of eyewitness and accomplices of the extreme violence imposed on Northup (now renamed Platt) and other slaves. In this matter, the film is successful in showing the complexities of the slave system. Slave owners and slave dealers are certainly the perpetrators in this narrative. However, in the film, it is clear both in Northup’s words and in the words of other slaves and former slaves that the ethics that allow enslaved men and women to survive these experiences of extreme violence differs greatly from the ethics of the everyday life in freedom. In one scene, Northup is hanged from a tree with a rope around his neck by an overseer, and remains there for several minutes. The camera does not move. As in a horror tableau, the hanging man occupies the foreground, whereas in the background the other enslaved men, women, and children continue to (a)normally perform their daily activities. The spectator witnesses the scene of torture without being able to take any action, until Northup’s master eventually cuts the rope, rescuing him.

Another important and complex problem presented in a masterful way in the film is the violence imposed on enslaved women. Most of these scenes are related to the remaining years Northup spent in a cotton plantation owned by a man called Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who drank heavily. The enslaved woman Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) plays the role of the exemplary victim of violence and sexual exploitation. As Northup explains in his original account, Patsey was 23 years old and was the daughter of an African man, brought to Cuba in a slave ship. In Northup’s words, Patsey was the “queen of the field.” She was famous as the best cotton picker in the region and could make 500 pounds a day. As Northup’s narrative and the film shows Patsey suffered more than any other slave in the plantation, not because she did not perform her work or resisted in any ways but because of the sexual violence imposed by her master and the jalousie of her mistress (Sarah Paulson). As in other slave societies like Brazil, the film shows the pervasive role of white mistresses. In response to the behavior of Epps who constantly raped the young and beautiful Patsey, the mistress constantly terrorized the young enslaved woman. Moreover, Epps would whip Patsey only to please his wife. In one occasion, after Patsey left the plantation without warning, upon her return she was severely whipped. Stripped from her clothes, the young woman was attached to a whipping post. Northup was then forced by the master to whip her. What the film does not explain is that by this time, Northup was a slave driver, who dominated the art of whipping other slaves. During this long scene, the most violent in the whole movie, the camera is sometimes positioned in the place of the driver and sometimes in the position of the victim. After inflicting some dozens of lashes, Northup attempted to give up the horrible task. Eventually, Epps continued whipping Patsey until she lost consciousness.

Although underscoring the complex dynamics of terror established by a system in which slaves were forced to punish other fellow slaves, the film emphasizes victimization by alternating action and slow scenes. The filmmaker uses and abuses of close-ups to make the spectator an accomplice of the horrors of slavery. Sometimes the violence against enslaved men and women seems to be gratuitous, especially in the case of Patsey. The film portrays slavery as torture and terror, but also makes clear that from the point of view of the master an enslaved woman like Patsey was precious property. Not only she was beautiful and smart, but she had tremendous abilities to pick cotton that generated great profits to her master. The film does a good job in loyally giving life to Northup’s written narrative. However, as spectators and scholars, we have to take into account the fact that 12 Years a Slave was published in the context of the abolitionist movement. Northup’s slave narrative was not only intended to provide an accurate portrait of slave life, but also to promote the abolitionist campaign. Even though the huge focus on physical punishments presented in the movie is enlightening to understand slavery and the racial violence against African Americans that persisted in the post-emancipation period, this focus places enslaved men and women in a helpless position, where they are denied all agency and means to resist slavery. This is particularly visible by the end of the film when Northup is eventually rescued by his Northern white friends. But it is important to have in mind that those who were born in slavery and did not have the chance of being freed, also found numerous ways to resist and negotiate their existences under that horrible system. They were also fighters and active survivors, and not only passive victims as sometimes they are portrayed in the film.

* Ana Lucia Araujo is historian and author. Currently she is Professor of History in the Department of History at Howard University.

About Ana Lucia Araujo

I am a cultural historian of Latin America and the Atlantic World. I am Full Professor in the Department of History at Howard University. My work explores the history and the memory of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery and their social and cultural legacies. I am particularly interested in the public memory, heritage, and visual culture of slavery. To know more about my research and publications, visit my personal website or my webpage at Howard University.