While there is much to praise in film, omissions from Northup’s original memoir miss opportunity to break Hollywood mould
The legendary African-American historian John Hope Franklin used to say that black resistance in stories of enslavement tended to be erased in favour of the narratives of domination and degradation. Yet scholars tell us that while there was often acquiescence under the inhumane conditions of American slavery, there was also always resistance.
Take Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery but deliberately escaped – and went on to help many more people to freedom. “There are two things I’ve got a right to and these are death or liberty … one or the other I mean to have,” Tubman said. “No one will ever take me back alive; I shall fight for my liberty.”
But this resistence is almost entirely missing from Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years A Slave, which opens in the UK today. While the 1854 memoir by Solomon Northup, on which the film is based, describes several stories of attempted escapes and fighting back on the part of the enslaved, none of these appear in the film. It does show Northup’s emotional resistance to his enslavement and there is one scene where he fights back against the man to whom he was mortgaged, but nobody else in the film seems to be allowed that.
The film remains true to Northup’s decision to stay on the plantation until he was “legally” able to free himself, but ignores the many people who consistently did whatever it took to escape enslavement: “Notwithstanding the certainty of being captured, the woods and swamps are, nevertheless, continually filled with runaways,” the memoir tells us (Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave, 1854).
It seems that once the first attempt to construct a shipboard insurrection by three enslaved men does not succeed, the film is not able to present any other real forms of escape. Once Northup is on the plantation, the possibility of escaping is absent.
Because Northup had lived as a freeman – though in a New York state where freedom was layered – he had a conception of freedom that many enslaved often had to imagine. He knew what was available and constantly remembered his wife and children and a life beyond enslavement. But it is a sad conundrum of the film that it is his individual memories of “freedom” (in a context in which slavery had not yet been abolished) which drives the narrative.
Perhaps the most directly significant resistance text which, again, does not find its way into the film is one in which Northup himself describes the “Great Pine woods” as a place of respite from slavery and as a site of possible more extended escape. His description (in the book) of how he ended up revealing the hiding place of some of these runaways is telling, for he describes a scene one night on the way home after a shopping errand when he was accosted by a few runaways who simply wanted food: “no evil design upon me, except to frighten me out of my pig”. In the end they were caught because of his report.
Northup indicates that not a day passed without him contemplating escape. References to the Great Pine woods are a constant symbolic evocation of the possibilities for living elsewhere than on the plantation. The journey between that “free” space and the plantation marks the boundaries between being free and being enslaved. Northup chooses the plantation, and in the end attempts to secure his freedom the “legal” way in a context where the illegality of slavery itself was in question.
But in focusing so much on the plantation, the film misses the Great Pine woods, as free space symbolically and literally. Thus in the end we see Northup getting his freedom ostensibly through the beneficence of a few white people who supported him, and then actually attempting to go through the courts when black people still were not able to testify against whites.
Another critically important resistance story which is in the memoir but not in the film is conveyed through the black woman slave named Celeste, who lives for months in the woods. According to Northup’s memoir, “it was not unusual for slave women as well as slave men to endeavour to escape”. Perhaps it provides more dramatic cinematography to present instead, the slave woman Patsy’s request that he kill her to liberate her from slavery.
Instead of the stories of Celeste, or Nelly, who escaped, we have Patsy as the victim of horrendous abuse. Patsy is seen with her back flayed and her skin lacerated in a horrible scene depicting the degradation of the black female body. Northup may leave the plantation in the end, but there is no chance of any positive outcome for her. Rather the gratuitous display of the black woman’s raped and flayed body is chosen to represent the horror of slavery. The film’s overwhelming graphic presentation of these scenes – minus the other resistance stories – presents largely complicit black women, singing and picking cotton or cowering in fear.
Also, the nuances of racialisation which the memoir captures in Eliza and her daughter are not presented. Eliza is shown as largely a moaning woman, even though she is the one who confronts Northup about his own complicity in the system. Importantly, in the book Elliza’s daughter could pass for white and Eliza is obviously bi-racial. In the movie the entire family is dark skinned, though the daughter is a bit lighter. This removes another layer of meaning – that some enslaved peoples seemed close in appearance physically to whites. These nuances of racialisation seem to totally escape the film. Thus the seller’s decision to keep the young girl is significant as she was the young “near white” type put into sexual slavery in the famous balls of New Orleans.
That some slaves looked as “white” as their masters is a critical feature of this narrative, and remains critical in contemporary American race relations with its “one-drop” rule that assigns minority status to mixed-race individuals. Including this subtlety would have made the film much more educational, which McQueen says was one of his intentions.
Of course there is no requirement for absolute fidelity between a written text and the film version, but the informed viewer still has the responsibility to at least critique any notable textual absences. So while there is much to applaud in McQueen’s work, it fails to challenge the standard trope in films about slavery: a cathartic display of the intense violence and degradation of enslavement of the black body – and once again ignores the resistance text of black histories.
Carole Boyce Davies is professor of Africana Studies and English at Cornell University and the author of Caribbean Spaces. Escapes from Twilight Zones (2013)
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/35bc5e5d/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cworld0C20A140Cjan0C10A0C120Eyears0Ea0Eslave0Efails0Eto0Eshow0Eresistence/story01.htm