12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch. It is a beautiful and highly important film, whose portrayal of slavery is unparalleled. At its end, though, the theater did not erupt in applause; the ending credits were met instead with horrified, introspective silence.
The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living a comfortable life in New York, who is lured by job prospects to Washington, D.C. One night, he is drugged and wakes the next morning in chains, to be sold into slavery. The rest of the film depicts the brutal and hopeless lives of those who lived as the property of others; Solomon is first owned by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then by the cruel, psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon is abused, threatened, degraded, and nearly killed.
Solomon’s incredible story of survival serves as a powerful framework for the film, but it is ultimately a lens for director Steve McQueen’s unflinching representation of American slavery; the film’s power comes from its striking, unforgettable imagery. One of the most powerful images appears when Solomon, unable to tolerate an overseer’s abuse, retaliates with violence and is almost hanged for his impudence, left to dangle from the rope. For three agonizing minutes, we watch the choking, writhing slave, contrasted with the lush greenery and the blossoming tree from which he hangs; behind him, other slaves emerge, going about their everyday work with hardly a glance upward, helpless to save him. With just a tenuous connection to the ground—his foot barely touches—Solomon hangs between life and death, finally falling to firm earth when the white owner cuts him down.
In this scene and countless others like it—which depict the rape, beating, and abuse the slaves endure on a daily basis—we are forced to experience each scream, lash, and moan in horrifying detail, long after we have reached the limits of our tolerance. We start wishing that McQueen would move on and end the scene, but we cannot be granted such comforts.
Our discomfort brings light to the flaws in how we, as a society, tend to address slavery. On film, slavery’s horrors tend to be either portrayed briefly, or are only symbolically alluded to. Directors present us with the images we are used to and are comfortable with—black bodies bent over in a field, the face of a slave, shouting out as she is whipped, a rope hanging from a tree—as if we can fill in the details from these symbols and suggestions and, from there, comprehend slavery’s horrors.
The problem—as our reaction to McQueen’s film makes quite clear—is that we have become comfortable with our purely intellectual recognition of slavery’s evils, protected from a painful emotional understanding. So when McQueen shows us not just the slave’s face as she is whipped, but the flesh on her back torn apart, and not just the screams but the wordless moans of pain, it is the first time that we are seeing the realities of that which we “knew” happened.
The coverage of slavery in educational environments tends to have the same “intellectualizing” effect. At PHS, we certainly spend an adequate amount of time on slavery in our history classes, studying its causes, duration, end, and effects. However, there is still an enormous difference between knowing what happened—being able to list threats and whippings and hangings as trials of slavery—and understanding, emotionally, what it meant to be that slave who was threatened and whipped and hanged.
It’s the same difference that, in English II, PHS addresses with its Holocaust unit. By the time we’re sophomores, we’ve learned about the ghettos and gas chambers and think we know what happened. But we don’t understand its effect on the human spirit until we read Night and witness the young Elie Wiesel lose his family and renounce his faith because of what he has seen, or until we struggle with Art Spiegelman, in his Maus II, to understand the terrible memories of the Holocaust’s survivors.
The sophomore year Holocaust unit is so powerful because only art—the portrayal of an entire experience, conveying its emotion and impact—allows us to deeply empathize with the victims of humanity’s worst atrocities. 12 Years a Slave’s brutal, unforgiving images impart this profound emotional understanding of slavery, providing us with a rare insight that leaves us unable to forget.