Watching director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, it was impossible to keep my mind from wandering to Lelia Moore. Lelia was born a slave some time in the mid-1830s, and by 1850 she was the property of John Douglas Hancock. In 1855, while she was still in her late teens, Lelia gave birth to a son, James Nelson Hancock. Known as Nelson, Lelia’s son was also the son of her owner, making her baby both the child and the property of John Douglas Hancock. Before Nelson was five-years-old, his mother was sold off to another plantation. He never saw her again, never knew what happened to her, but my great great grandfather always remembered his mother, and he told his children and grandchildren the stories of his childhood as a slave, of losing his mother, the pain he endured, and the horrible loss he carried with him his entire life. I heard that story growing up, and that is all I could think of while watching 12 Years a Slave.
At this point, much has been written about 12 Years a Slave, the critically anointed cinematic masterpiece inspired by the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery. My delay in writing any sort of criticism comes from the fact that I had to wait until I was ready to see the film. And to be sure, it’s not that I was worried about any of the elements that seem to have bothered some critics and audiences. Yes, there is violence. And there is rape. And of the many adjectives that have been bandied about in regard to 12 Years a Slave, “brutal” and “unrelenting” seem to be among the favorites that are used. Perhaps that I found the film to be neither brutal nor unrelenting says something about me, or perhaps it merely says that I am more comfortable than some when it comes to watching a rather tame reenactment of the truth. Because, when all is said and done—after all the violence that makes some people squirm, or want to vomit, or storm out of a theater because their fragile sensibilities have been assaulted—12 Years a Slave is only 134 minutes, which compared to the centuries of forced enslavement of Africans in this country is less than the blink of an eye. No, the reason I hesitated to see 12 Years a Slave was because I knew it would not affect me the way it has affected so many others, and the reason for that is because I already know what the movie is about. It is about my family.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not related to Solomon Northup. Nor am I related to any of the other characters portrayed in the film. At the same time, I am the descendent of slaves. I know who they were, and I know bits and pieces of their lives, and all 12 Years a Slave did for me was provide a brief glimpse of the history of my own family, while at the same time doing very little to propel the narrative of the slave in America in a way that this country needs to have it propelled. This is where I will, no doubt, get into trouble, because for all the acts of violence and dehumanization found in 12 Years a Slave, it is a feel-good movie. The horrors faced by Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are indeed gut-wrenching, but in following the grand traditions of the hero’s journey and mainstream cinema, the film ends on a note of happiness. Northup is freed, reunited with his family, and as such is granted the happy ending that mainstream audiences demand in exchange for watching the horrors that Northup is made to endure. But what of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), or Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and her children, or Clemens (Chris Chalk), or even Jasper (Marcus Lyle Brown)? For these characters—and the real life people who inspired them—there likely was no happy ending. Life on the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) never got better for Patsey, because in real life women like her more often than not gave birth to the slave child of their owner. These children were then separated from their mothers. We see a glimpse of that reality in 12 Years a Slave with the character Eliza, who in all likelihood never saw her children again. My family is the byproduct of that reality.
It is easy to see the cinematic brilliance of 12 Years a Slave, though it is a problematic film, and not for the same reasons other critics may have noted. It has nothing to do with the violence, nor does it even have anything to do with the victimization of blacks that has raised the ire of some critics. No, the problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it isn’t about slavery as much as most people seem to think. It is about a free man who is enslaved, and is then set free, and as such, it is, as I have pointed out, a film with a happy ending. And whether or not people want to admit it, a film about slavery with a happy ending teeters on the brink of being disingenuous. I submit that as difficult as 12 Years a Slave may have been for some people to sit through, no one could sit through a film about Patsey. And that is the film that needs to be made, because the story of Patsey and Eliza and the nameless slave who dropped dead while picking cotton on the Epps’s plantation are the slave narratives that have yet to be truly examined and addressed. I mean think about it—people are freaking out about this film, and Solomon Northup only spent a small portion of his life as a slave, and managed to regain his freedom. What would happen if people tried to watch a film about slavery that revealed 12 Years a Slave to be the upbeat, feel-good film it actually is?
Of course, I’m not really saying 12 Years a Slave is a feel-good film in the grandest tradition of cinema. Although I am saying that if a film ever were to tackle slavery in a way that it has never been portrayed in cinema—with a true sense of unrelenting, brutal honesty—12 Years a Slave would come up looking like so much sunshine and roses. Under these circumstances, people might notice that with the exception of Chiwetel Ejiofor, there really are no well-developed black characters in 12 Years a Slave. Yes, there are some supporting characters who have moments to shine, but they exist in the already established slave archetypes of cinema past. The fact of the matter is that for a film about slaves and slavery, the only black character that exists with any sense of true dimension—at least as much dimension as film will allow—is Solomon Northup. All of the black women in the film are reduced to little more than concubines for their masters, while the black men exist as that ever-elusive abstract entity known as the slave. The most interesting of the supporting male slaves is played by Michael Kenneth Williams, and that character has already been played twice, by Ji-Tu Cumbuka, in Roots and Mandingo. By comparison, several white characters in the film are given a sense of depth and dimension that is not afforded to most of the black characters. Ultimately, 12 Years a Slave does a better job of giving its white supporting characters a semblance humanity—depraved though it may be—than it does its supporting black characters. In that regard, the film is just like history, which has reduced the slave to something less than human. And if there is any one thing that I don’t like about 12 Years a Slave, it is the fact that none of the supporting black characters have the same complexity as Fassbender, or Brad Pitt, or even Sarah Paulson.
Taken for what it is, 12 Years a Slave is a good film—though it is too problematic for me to go along with those that have proclaimed it a masterpiece. At the same time, despite the problems that are evident, 12 Years a Slave is an important film in that it opens the door to the conversation that this country still refuses to have. It is this refusal that leaves people traumatized by a film that is only the tip of the tip of the tip of an iceberg that we know as slavery. If 12 Years a Slave leads to some people taking a closer look at the horrific reality of slavery and the enduring legacy of racism that endures in its wake, then I’m all for this film and all those like it. Personally, I want all Americans to see as many films about slavery as possible—to sit in discomfort and disgust, emotionally ravaged by the centuries of dehumanization that provided the foundation upon which this nation was built—until we as a nation have reconciled our true history. We owe that much to Lelia Moore, my third great grandmother, and the millions of others like her, who were never granted a happy ending, but whose story must nonetheless be told.