12 Years a Slave's Reminder: Slaves Didn't Win Freedom by Being Manly

Unlike Glory or Django Unchained, Steve McQueen's film resists the notion that a slave could overcome the institution just by fully asserting his masculinity.
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Hollywood is in general uncomfortable with race, but it likes heroic masculinity. It's no surprise, then, that films about slavery often end up being about men becoming men. Django Unchained is a basic revenge story, with Django taking up the phallic gun to blast the evil forces that have held him down and captured his wife. Glory is a standard military parable, with the weak and undisciplined black troops learning to be a deadly fighting force even as their boyish white commanding officer proves himself. "We're men," Denzel Washington declares before the final battle, for all the world as if, before they joined the regiment, they were something else.

Remarkably and honorably, 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup's 1841 autobiographical narrative, has a different story to tell. When the film opens, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free musician, living in Saratoga, New York with his wife, son and daughter. He's a success and a grown-up; he doesn't need to learn to become a man. The narrative arc of the film isn't from powerlessness to power. It's the reverse.

Northup is courted by two men who promise him a touring gig, and then, after they've lured him to Washington, slip him a drug, knocking him unconscious. He wakes up in a cell, where he is viciously beaten on all fours while the slaver hits him with a stick from behind. Northup loses his former life, his dignity, even his self, as he is forced to take the name of a runaway slave, Platt. The entire sequence is a violation and unmanning—it's presented as a symbolic rape.

If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat. That's not what happens here, though. Instead, Northup tries various ways to deal with the system. At first, he uses his education and skills to help his (very) relatively humane owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), with various engineering projects. Then, when he is harassed and attacked by Ford's overseer, he fights back, in a scene reminiscent of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, whipping the man who had intended to whip him. Where Douglass triumphed, though, Northup just ends up sold to a true sadist. As another slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), tells Northup, you can compromise yourself as you will, give the slave-owners your skills or your body. It doesn't matter. You're still a slave.

Eliza's speech has no parallels in Glory or Django, because when masculinity is the story, women are pushed to the sidelines. In Django, the main romance of the film is between Django and his white buddy; the second is between Django and the evil slave Stephen—and lagging far behind in third is the relationship between Django and his wife, who functions more as a prize than as a person. For its part, Glory barely has a female speaking role; like Django, all its energy goes into inter- and intra-racial male bonding.

12 Years a Slave though, doesn't present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it's able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins. Other than Northup, in fact, the most vivid slave characters are female. There's Eliza, who is utterly devastated by the loss of her children. And there's Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a phenomenal worker in the cotton fields who Northup's second sadistic owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), takes as his mistress. Patsey is raped by Epps, loathed by his jealous wife, and systematically abused, beaten, and tortured by both. In a terrifying scene, she wakes Northup up and begs him to take her to the marsh and drown her. "Do what I ain't got the strength to do myself," she pleads. "God is merciful and forgives merciful acts."

Northup, with a desperate callousness, refuses, asking her "How can you fall into such despair?"—though there's no question that he knows exactly how. Later, he is forced at gunpoint to lash her back bloody. In Django, manly strength leads to freedom and vengeance; here, it serves only to harm those you care about.

When Northup escapes, it's not through violence, but because a white Canadian working on the plantation agreed to get word to the north. Northup's ordeal ends as abruptly as it began when an old white friend pulls up at the plantation with the sheriff. There's no hail of gunfire, only a hail of legalese. Nor is this a happy ending. No one can give him back his lost years with his wife, or missing his children grow up. Patsey, and many others, are still enslaved. The men who kidnapped him are never brought to justice. Northup has no manly triumph.

Manly triumph isn't to be sneered at in every case. The 54th Massachusetts of Glory really did fight with honor and transform Northern opinion about blacks—their courage really did matter. But seeing slavery solely as a test of masculinity not only erases women's experience; it ends up making men who don't overcome it responsible for their own oppression. If you were a man, such narratives say, you would fight back and kill them all with the music swelling, as Django does in Django Unchained. Django even explicitly refers to its title character as "exceptional"—he is better than all those others sunk in slavery. If you don't defeat your enemies like a man, the film seems to say, then you're not a man, you're a moral failure. Which is not that far from saying that victims are responsible for their victimhood.

At the end of the film, when Northup returns to his family, he starts stammering apologies—for his appearance, for crying, and, though he doesn't say it, for being captured and being unable to return to his family for so long. To which his wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott) replies, "You have absolutely nothing to apologize for." 12 Years a Slave doesn't see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices. As a result, 12 Years a Slave is that rare film about slavery in which slaves don't have to become Hollywood "men" for their stories to matter.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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