"12 Years a Slave"
National newspaper columnists have taken “12 Years a Slave” as an accurate depiction of life under slavery, and so a reference point for this nation’s continuing debate about race. But the movie is not to be taken at face value but with the radical eye provided by literary criticism which suggests that this story is told in one of the ways stories are told and so takes on the characteristics of that mode of story telling and so should not be regarded as the unvarnished truth. The same annoyance or anger that crops up when pointing to a conventionalized account of slavery also arises when you inform people that biblical stories are told in one or another way stories are told. The Book of Ruth is an exemplary tale; the story of Noah a legend; the story of Jesus larded with the sentimentality of its period. After all, these are just stories and so can be treated as stories. The decline of this hypercritical eye is why the demise of the humanities is so to be lamented. It isn’t because people will not have the patina of culture that comes from having taken a great books course. It is that people can have difficulty understanding the real world if they do not know their way into and out of texts.
"12 Years a Slave" is a case in point of the discrepancy between a lay and professional reading of a movie. This is a pretty good movie which recounts the brutality of slavery. Its characters are vivid and all the standard types are drawn out: the not so terrible slave owner; the greedy and unctuous slave trader; the psychotic slave owner. The movie is very effective at visualizing some of the less savory aspects of slavery: the beatings, the sexual exploitation, the back breaking work, the overall cruelty. It also did a good job on the complexity of slavery: the (possible) jealousy of white women concerning the black concubines of their husbands; the fact that poor slave owners worked beside their slaves; the fact that individual slave women could rise to a position of considerable comfort. The movie cuts close enough to the bone so that audiences are “required” to treat the movie as if it were an accurate historical portrait of slavery, a kind of docudrama that reveals the dark side of slavery, “Required” is here used as Roland Wulbert does. It is a term for what seems inevitable in human thought even though that is not so because people are not required to think any one thing or another. One is required not to think of the movie as a stylized version of reality. To say such is the case is to risk being thought callous, even though reviewers did point to the way the subject matter had been conventionalized. People are identifying with the well founded anger that can still be felt about the ravages of slavery when they see the movie as primarily about that and who is to say this is not a legitimate response to the material and its treatment.
But put aside the stereotypes, which speak true of the social structural relations of the parties, or of the visual facts of how slave societies operated, and proceed to the meanings made apparent by both the rhetoric used in the movie and the arc of the plot of the movie. The rhetoric was very much part of the convention of the slave narrative. The talk was too stiff and lofty to be accurate. The moral superiority of the slaves to their condition and to their white masters was made more than adequately clear, never allowing the possibility that a slave had been morally diminished by the experience of slavery, however many the humiliations, whereas most depictions of a slave experience, whether among the Hebrews in Egypt or the Jews during the Holocaust, or as American slavery was rendered by historians during the Sixties and Seventies, who created a fabric out of the horror of the institution, all attest to how a soul can become wrenched out of shape. The movie does not highlight it but there is a role for religious salvation in that the hero of the movie becomes caught up in gospel singing even as he and his fellow slaves resist the perverted gospel preached to them by the slave owner. There is a set speech in which a carpenter from Canada (Brad Pitt) tells a white slave overseer that slavery is a moral affront. It is implausible that even a free white man would be so outspoken, but the speech does provide the moral underlining which this way of telling the tale requires.
All of these moments showed that the source book for the movie was a slave narrative, which means it was probably written by a white Methodist who had adapted what was essentially a true story to his own needs. That this was the way with slave narratives is well attested by literary scholarship, and it is this contextualization that is flouted by reading the movie straight. It is, however, to the credit of the movie that it does not try to contextualize. It treats its material straight, as if it were an historical account, and that is what the movie makers wanted and what, I dare say, contemporary audiences want, and the movie does very well at not being ironic, at making its account legendary rather than accurate.
Not that the movie denied it was based on a slave narrative; it just did not spell out the characteristics of the form, as also happens when note is not taken of the fact that some letters attributed to St. Paul may have been written by someone else. That doesn’t mean they are not religiously valid or even mostly in his style. It means only that the people writing the letters included in the New Testament were writers each in their own right and so with their own point of view on the matters of concern rather than just announcers of God’s word. In a similar way, there is nothing wrong with treating a slave narrative as an historically valid account of its times except that to mention its literary type is to break a convention of our own time which is that unless something is a deliberate falsification, such as a Quinton Tarantino film, films are to be taken as true if they are about serious historical subjects. Well, that is largely true of Spielberg, who invented the Frederick Douglass figure for Amistad, but got John Quincy Adams right as a passionate and premature critic of slavery. It is also true of 42, the film about Jackie Robinson, which some people thought must be exaggerating the extent of the abuse that Robinson received, though I can remember back to the contemporaneous New York Post accounts of the same events that were depicted in 42 and reported the same thing.
But the accuracy of "12 Years a Slave" is not to be trusted. I do not know if many of the plot devices are true descriptions of the time. Were there significant numbers of kidnappings of free blacks who were sent to the South? I don't have any source on that. A member of the audience might think that the legal order freeing the hero from slavery was nothing but a ruse so that the Northerners could get out of town with their freed slave before they were come after by a mob. Southern courts, presumably, would never enforce such an order. According to Eugene Genovese, however, who is one of the subtlest historians of slavery and what came afterwards, Southerners did keep up some pretense of judicial review of the slave system.
Slave narratives provide a much less satisfying a read about slavery than does Charles Waddell Chetnutt, a black late nineteenth century author who tells in “The Goophered Grapevine” an Uncle Remus like story that sounds more reliable if for no other reason that he makes slavery a more manageable fate than it is in "12 Years”. Put aside, if you don’t like it, the rendering of Negro dialect, though that is a considerable artistic achievement, just as it was for Paul Laurence Dunbar, who turned it into poetry at about the same time. Consider, rather, the complexity of the relationships. The subservient ex-slave manages to weave stories that serve his interests. He is able to manipulate the white folks including those who realize there is manipulation going on. Everyone is living in the shadow of the late war: plantations and stores in ruins, entrepreneurs coming in to vie with the home folk at rebuilding a society. (The home folk would win and so came about a Jim Crow society.) There is no great amount of violence or personal disrespect, only the clear cut development and operation of a caste society that would last into the middle of the Twentieth Century. Chesnutt makes clear in his novels that miscegenation as the symbol of all that is taboo in that society was coming into place, whatever it was that had occurred between slaves and masters before the South was defeated in battle but not in spirit.
But, after all, Chesnutt is also just another storyteller and so subject to the restraints implicit in his own way of telling a story, which is to make life apparently manageable, which is the way, I suppose, I prefer stories to be told, because that lets free will rather than moral rectitude guide a story. I can only plead that the historians and the social theorists seem to be on Chesnutt’s side. Literature is so complicated and its issues so difficult to settle unless one shifts over to talking history and social theory rather than literature, and there you quickly find the bed in which you lie, which is to say, that you identify a work of literature as of the kind you immediately take it to be and then go along with that through all the twists and turns of the plot. Moreover, to whatever accuracy of detail a literary work may provide, there is added, in the case of this movie, a moral tone which seems unrealistic however much the film is successful in allowing the viewer to believe, for the length of the movie, that the tone is not forced. People who do literary criticism, and there are not that many of us, are wise to keep our swords sheathed. It is too powerful a weapon to be unsheathed without expecting to mightily unsettle people. "12 Years" will get the awards because it is so politically correct that audiences will overlook the stilted and preachy dialogue—and getting people to do so is, after all, objectively considered, a kind of literary success in itself.