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"12 Years a Slave" and the Oscars

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There's such a subtle, wide-ranging understanding of racism in the film, it really is provocative in the way it challenges viewers on issues of personal accountability for social wrongs. The versatile Benedict Cumberbatch is Ford, Northrup's first master after the kidnapping. Ford is an intelligent and feeling man who admires the special musical and engineering skills of his slave -- but he still gives him a violin instead of freedom. Ford's complicity in the injustice against Northrup is one of the finer points made by the film; Ford sees how much suffering the slave market creates, but he makes only the merest peep and then drops his complaint. (The agony caused by separating parents from their children is an extended topic of the film.) Ford is also impressed, and takes advantage of for the benefits to his business, Northrup's exceptional levels of education. But when Northrup tries to tell him that he's a free man, Ford exclaims "I cannot hear that!"


The question of "what did they know and when did they know it?" is a strong ethical refrain of the movie -- since everyone that Northrup meets, like the cast of characters in a Dickens novel, ends up skewing either cruel or kind, trustworthy or treacherous. 12 Years a Slave answers that question, implicitly as: they all knew, everything, and they knew it early. They knew that slaves weren't really happy, that slavery was earth-shatteringly unjust, that their workers were intelligent and soulful fellow humans rather than property (Fassbender keeps repeating the word "property" as if needing to convince himself). Numerous instances speak to this knowing: characters can quite plainly see Northrup was born free, yet they go ahead and deprive him of his human rights; Patsy's master believes he has a special regard for her, but treats her brutally; a distraught enslaved mother is told she will soon get over the separation from her children, but when she doesn't, her grief -- and the powerful evidence it thrusts on the white folk that she is, actually, just like them -- makes her expendable.

Some long-standing contradictions of slavery are enumerated in the film: if slaves were naturally subservient, why would their spirits need to be broken; if blacks were so intellectually inferior, why would literacy among slaves be such a threat; if all God's children were equal, how could Christianity be applied so differently to whites and blacks; and so on. (Fassbender even formally preaches scripture to his slaves, explaining to them that he is the "Lord" referred to in the text.)

We are also frequently reminded that this whole enterprise was very much a business. This story reveals a little-known activity within the U.S. slave trade that seems particularly striking in its outrageousness: kidnapping free black northerners and selling them into slavery down south. The kidnappers are so perniciously, smoothly evil -- they win Northrup's confidence by complimenting him, deceiving him into believing that they respect his education and sophistication -- that the shamelessness of the way they make their profit is even more horrifying. They know, more than anyone else in the entire film, what they are putting Northrup and others through.

Most of the film is very naturalistic, but an early visual uses computer-generated imagery to make an ironic social comment. After Northrup has been drugged and kidnapped, he is held in a cell and beaten. When finally left alone, he cries out desperately for help. McQueen carries us outside to the rooftops of the 19 th century Washington, D.C. skyline. At the very top of the skyline is the Capitol building. Though a potent symbol of democracy, Northrup receives no protection from it.


The movie poster shows Northrup running, but this is not a movie about a fugitive slave -- he doesn't get that chance. He's always stuck on a plantation, and the movie reveals how fully white society conspired to keep slaves stuck there. Even the abolitionists or friendly whites in the film seem to be scared of that powerful system. (David Blight, a Yale expert on the history of slavery, describes that system as "a police state.") The poster's image actually comes from a revealing moment in the film when Northrup is sent on an errand alone, and it occurs to him that now he might escape. He's wrong, however; he soon comes upon some white men hanging blacks from trees, and he quickly realizes that not only is he powerless to help his brethren, but without the note from his mistress, his own life would have been of no worth.

Yet a couple of scenes later, McQueen teases us again over our Hollywood-reared naïveté . He cuts to Northrup running through the woods once more. We've just seen how deadly it would be for him to run away, how impenetrable the barriers are. Yet we still hope that he's broken free; we've been spoon-fed so many popcorn movies of heroes triumphing over gigantic obstacles. Though of course Northrup is resilient and courageous, and that's how he survived, he's only a human being. He happens to be running simply to reach the place he has been sent to faster; to summon Patsey back to their master.

That one moment encapsulates how eloquently McQueen reminds us of how much we have forgotten -- how much we have averted our gaze from so as to avoid the pain of remembering that shameful legacy. 12 Years a Slave deserves to win the Oscar for Best Picture not just because of its artistic excellence or the ground-breaking precedents it will set, but also because it preserves for posterity a crucially significant part of world history. It's a history we ignore at our own peril.


Awards Update: 


12 Years a Slave is now the winner of the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture -- Drama. (It was also nominated at the Golden Globes for three of its performances and for Directing, Screenplay, and Original Score -- tying with American Hustle for the most Golden Globe nominations this year at 7 apiece.)


12 Years a Slave has already won Best Film trophies from the American Film Institute and from numerous local critics associations around the country.

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)
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