Slavery's Harrowing Reality
Publisher: Against the Current
Date Written: 01/01/2014
Year Published: 2014
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX20347
A review of the film "12 Years as a Slave" in the context of the literary genre of slave narratives.
The film's novelty derives, not from a 21st century screen imaginary that innovates ways of seeing slavery, but in the explosive emotional potential it recovers from the 1853 illustrations -- illustrations that today appear to us as highly stylized, conventional and sentimentally iconic. McQueen's staging of these tableaux infuses life and blood into the narrative's sentimental frame, overwhelming unsuspecting film viewers with the surprising, graphic, and nauseating power of 19th century sentimentality.
Some scenes from the film reproduce the narrative's image bank almost to the last detail, for example, the narrative's frontispiece, captioned "Solomon in his plantation suit," is evoked in the film's opening scene when newly arrived slaves are standing in rows in a cane field, silent and tense as they are initiated into the brutal work of cutting cane.
One of the film's most gruesome scenes -- the vicious paddling and symbolic rape that takes place after Northup is kidnapped -- is meticulously restaged inside the stone walls of a slave pen cell, depicting the almost naked Northup cowering on the ground, a broken paddle lying beside him and the slaver's whip in mid-air. Solomon's rescue by a northern friend was filmed on a set -- the planting field outside the house and featuring the friend, Mr. Barker, and Epps, Solomon's depraved owner -- that restages the narrative's illustration in every detail.