There are few sights more pleasant to the eye,” wrote Solomon Northup, “than a wide cotton field when it is in bloom. It presents an appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, newly-fallen snow.” For Quentin Tarantino, such a beguiling simulation of chastity, of endless untroubled whiteness, could merit only one response: blood must be spilt on it. Practically the only scene in which cotton figures in 2012’s Django Unchained comes when an overseer, galloping across a blooming field, receives a rifle shot to the torso. The newly fallen snow of cotton gleams pink with fresh blood.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, based closely on Solomon Northup’s 1853 narrative of his kidnapping in Washington, DC, and enslavement in Louisiana, paints a different picture of the southern agricultural system at work. Make no mistake: McQueen’s camera is not immune to the power of natural splendor and human gore, or their centrality to the visual world of antebellum slavery. But as its opening scene makes clear, 12 Years a Slave puts both beauty and blood in a wholly different context. A group of roughly attired black slaves stand in the foreground, dwarfed by the lush green sugarcane around them. An overseer barks out a few crude instructions, and the cutting gang proceeds to hack the tall cane into stalks of suitable size for grinding in the sugar-house. Agricultural plenty serves commercial profit; coerced labor transforms organic material into moveable capital.
Django Unchained, with its grand-manor staircases and gilded plantation parlors, reminded viewers in its flamboyant way that antebellum slavery was a system of terror and deprivation that flourished amid a world of abundance. McQueen does Tarantino one better in showing how slavery was above all a system of exploitation — not primarily sexual or sadistic, but economic — and that it was this exploitation that created that abundance in the first place.
Cotton appears in McQueen’s film not as a blank canvas to stage symbolic violence, but a seed to be sown, a planted row to be hoed, and a boll to be picked. Northup’s own narrative is especially keen on this point — his account of cotton-growing is, or should be, a staple assignment in history courses — and screenwriter John Ridley’s fidelity to the original text means the film produces a vivid dramatization of the way that planters sweated their labor:
When a new hand, one unaccustomed to the business, is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night it is weighed, so that his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same weight each night following. If it falls short, it is considered evidence that he has been laggard, and a greater or less number of lashes is the penalty.
So Solomon Northup falls under the empire of his master’s will, and so Steve McQueen’s film, with its insistent focus on the raw materiality, the violent discipline, and the capital rewards of slave labor, is bound to remind viewers of the work of Walter Johnson.
Northup has always been central to Johnson’s interpretation of slavery. His woeful tale of kidnapping in Washington, DC, and sale at market in New Orleans figured heavily in Soul by Soul, Johnson’s account of the antebellum slave trade. In McQueen’s film, a bespectacled Paul Giamatti lends his sharp, fussy energy to the role of New Orleans slave trader, breaking up families and collecting profits with aphoristic aplomb. “My sentiments extend the length of a coin,” he tells one buyer, dramatizing perhaps a bit too patly the ascendance of market rationality over paternalistic obligation.
On Edwin Epps’ cotton plantation, Solomon’s sufferings evoke nearly all the key concepts of Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams — the “symbiosis of labor and torture,” as work tools readily become weapons of punishment; the constant surveillance of white eyes, whether from mounted overseers or porch-bound plantation mistresses; and the “carceral landscape” of the Louisiana bayou, where food is scarce and slave patrols lurk in every corner of the forest.
If River of Dark Dreams, as Gabriel Winant has recently argued, is the definitive treatment of slavery in the age of neoliberal capitalism, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, far more even than Django Unchained, provides its cinematic analogue. Perhaps the best film about slavery in the late twentieth century, Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s The Last Supper (1976), took as its starting point Eugene Genovese’s fundamental concern about the nature of planter hegemony—how did masters achieve ideological as well as brute physical dominance over their slaves? Genovese’s answer, compellingly realized in Alea’s film, was the complex system of paternalistic rule, which combined violence and arbitrary power with a sense of patriarchal responsibility toward dependents. Paternalism could not annihilate all forms of resistance — The Last Supper climaxes with a brutally suppressed slave mutiny — but, Genovese argued, it generally contained and appropriated that resistance before it could build into a collective insurrection.
The question of armed revolt, even the conceptual possibility of armed revolt, couldn’t be more alien to either Johnson or McQueen’s rendering of slave life. Solomon and the rest of his slave brethren, as Winant puts it, are simply “the policed, starved, terrorized underclass of global capitalist enterprise.” Revolt is unimaginable; resistance self-defeating. Solomon’s reward for standing up to the imbecilic white carpenter played by Paul Dano, in a very slight exaggeration of the narrative’s account, is a day of torture by near-lynching, followed by sale to a vicious master.
Unlike Tarantino’s zombified victims of bondage, McQueen’s slaves retain their full humanity, but all it permits them is a more exquisite experience of suffering. As Brenda Stevenson has noted, the agony of the film’s prominent slave women — Eliza, separated from her daughter in New Orleans, and Patsey, raped and brutalized by her master — serves as a powerful counterpoint to Solomon’s own struggle. In a rare scene entirely absent from the original narrative, Solomon urges Eliza to control her grief in order to survive. Eliza rebuffs him, asking how well his own survival compromises have served him so far: has the violin he received from Master brought his wife and children back? Solomon does not answer immediately, but it is significant that his violin — the key tool and most potent symbol of his endurance through accommodation — ends the film in pieces, shattered by Solomon himself after witnessing a particularly savage assault against Patsey. Neither resistance nor accommodation is an answer — sorrow is the only solution.
While fragments of what Johnson calls slave “solidarity” (not “agency”!) recur through 12 Years a Slave — the most poignant of them has Patsey requesting that Solomon, rather than Epps, manage her whipping — the film has few delusions about the severity of its limits. 12 Years a Slave concludes with Solomon gaining his freedom while Patsey, excruciatingly, remains trapped in bondage. If Django Unchained, for all its provocative inversions, failed as a revolutionary document, it’s conceivable to read 12 Years a Slave as an even more profoundly pessimistic commentary on the bounds of the politically possible.
Of course, many of the limits McQueen’s film must acknowledge derive from the text of Solomon Northup’s story itself. All slave narratives are peculiar in their own way, as Annette Gordon-Reed has recently pointed out, but Northup’s text is peculiarly peculiar. As a thirty-two-year-old free man before his capture, Northup’s knowledge and skills stood out not only among southern slaves but also his fellow ex-slave memoirists; his direct experience of the dehumanizing transformation from person to property is unique among the canonical slave narratives.
Above all, the conclusion of Northup’s tale is distinctive: unlike Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Ball, James Pennington, and many others, Solomon gained his freedom not through courageous defiance and heroic escape, but the normal workings of antebellum American law. McQueen understandably skips over this section of the narrative, but Northup’s text presents a detailed account of the amicable negotiations between the white New Yorker sent to retrieve Solomon and the cooperative Southern authorities. Twelve Years a Slave is, surely, the only narrative of its genre to put in a kind word for Louisiana senator Pierre Soulé — a man who helped secure Solomon’s release amid frantic efforts to build a proslavery empire across the Caribbean basin.
In this sense, it’s probably no coincidence that Northup’s memoir was the favorite of the white supremacist historian U.B. Phillips, a scholar who remained congenitally hostile to the slave narratives in general. To be sure, it is possible to draw radical as well as conservative conclusions from the structure of Northup’s story. “What is this Union to Solomon Northup?” asked The Liberator in 1855. “Literally a confederacy of kidnappers.” McQueen’s film tells the story in decidedly the same spirit, as an indictment of fundamental American institutions — social, political, economic — as much as certain American individuals.
What’s most striking about Twelve Years a Slave is the fundamental role it has played in so many vividly contrasting interpretations of slavery. Walter Johnson has put Northup at the center of his two major books, but so did Eugene Genovese, who cited Twelve Years a Slave no fewer than twenty-eight times in Roll, Jordan, Roll, far more than any other slave narrative. Steve McQueen’s film, in serving up a powerful interpretation of Northup’s narrative to suit the present political and historiographical moment — a haunting commentary on the trauma of exploitation, alongside a deep uncertainty about how that exploitation can be opposed — has made a considerable achievement. If and when another contrasting analysis emerges, we can be sure of only one thing: it will have to take the measure of Twelve Years a Slave — and 12 Years a Slave.