This weekend, a friend and I went to see 12 Years a Slave-- the film version of Solomon Northrup's 1853 memoir and one of the first Hollywood films about slavery to actually tell its story through the eyes of a black protagonist. (Brad Pitt's mooning face, mercifully, only gets about two minutes of airtime.)
Sitting through the film is a grueling, unremitting experience, but not one you will regret-- or forget easily. The filmmakers have gone some ways toward exorcising the magnolia-scented nostalgia that still hovers over the popular recollection of plantation society. The associations this film is likely to evoke are not with Gone With the Wind or other idyllic feudalities-- but with twentieth century horrors, with death camps. It has the narrative structure of the survivor accounts of Auschwitz. Like them, it portrays not only the physical, but the moral violence wrought on the victims of organized brutality. The slavering overseers and wolfish masters it portrays are not content solely to inflict pain-- they insist on inflicting moral compromises as well-- compelling Solomon to beat a fellow slave nearly to death on one occasion. Those slaves who try to resist in the film are thoughtlessly dispatched and ignominiously buried. Those who try to follow the rules usually survive and are even rewarded with privileges-- but they too are sometimes killed or assaulted simply for making eye contact. These were methods of control in the death camps too. The promise of survival, as well as a chance to vent his misdirected rage on fellow victims (the notorious Kapo system, e.g.), was held out to the inmate so long as he abided by a set of arbitrary, illogical, and brutal "rules." But these rules and promises were then salted with truly random violence, the purpose of which was to remind the inmates that no matter how devoutly they followed orders, they were never really safe.
Is this portrayal of the slaves as spiritually maimed by slavery dehumanizing in its own way? Does it do insufficient credit to the phenomenon of "everyday resistance"-- which many anthropologists and historians now find at work in every oppressive human scenario? Perhaps so. But for people who have found themselves cowed and compromised at times by infinitely less than slavery, it is not hard to imagine that there do exist in the world degrees of violence and insidious techniques of control that genuinely break one's spirit.
You might wonder how a Hollywood movie can make violence seem shocking in this day and age to us walleyed members of the audience, gorged and sated as we are on HBO's routine bloodletting. Haven't we all become "de-sensitized," as the jargon goes? The answer-- happily-- is no. Hollywood and TV portrayals of violence are tolerable to us because, for all their gore, they are still shot with quick and merciful cuts. The scene always ends before you have to see the consequences of the violence.
12 Years a Slave refuses to grant us those mercies. There is a scene early on when a freshly-kidnapped Solomon is trussed up in a dungeon and beaten with a cat-o'-nine-tails, or something like it. In most movies, there would be a cut to an outdoor scene after two or three blows. With Solomon's cries ringing in our ears, we would feel righteously horrified, but even this relatively comfortable feeling would soon pass. The director of 12 Years a Slave doesn't let us off that easy. We watch every blow land until the beating is done.
Similarly, there is a scene in which Solomon is saved by the overseer from an attempted lynching-- but apparently deciding that Solomon deserves some punishment, if not death, he leaves Solomon hanging by his neck, with only his outstretched toes planted on the ground to keep him from strangling. This is the sort of thing most films would recount in retrospect. But the director of this film keeps shooting as you watch Solomon twist back and forth in terror of losing his footing and gurgle hoarsely through his constricted throat-- all while slaves and overseers and preening plantation ladies briefly pause, and look, and refuse to grant him the mercy of cutting him down. In so doing, they are refusing mercy to those of us in the audience too. That's just the point. We find it scarcely tolerable to contemplate such things for five minutes in a comfortable theater. We long for the mercy of that knife slicing through the rope. But the director refuses to grant it, just as no one granted mercy to the strung-up slaves.
Given how much we long for this mercy, how much we have this protective instinct toward life and automatic horror at humans crying or screaming or gurgling in pain-- then the question we find ourselves asking as we watch this film is: why didn't someone do something? For the entire scene in which Solomon twists by his neck, any one present could have cut him down. But every person there, from the slave to the master, felt himself constrained to stand and watch-- powerless and incapacitated, whether because of debts, other obligations, employment, or social pressure. There really is no freedom in another's slavery.
It's easy to ask this question-- why didn't someone do something?-- and conclude that people must have been somehow less human in the 19th century. The horror we feel at seeing a woman raped or a man under a lash or hanging by his neck is, we suppose, something they simply did not feel in the bad old days-- something we in the enlightened present have wrung from history. We marvel at how different things were back then. As Nietzsche once put it, "perhaps in those days pain did not hurt as much as it does today." (Douglas Smith trans.) That's one possibility. Or maybe cruelty is easy to identify as such when it happened a long time ago or in a distant country-- impossible to locate when it is happening under our noses.
There are modern-day Solomon Northrups among us, after all, whom we do not see. There is Maher Arar, for instance: a Canadian citizen, who, according to a recent report by the Open Society Foundation, was detained by U.S. authorities and then shipped by the CIA to Jordan, and thence to Syria. We was"blindfolded and beaten" in Jordan, the report states, before being "detained for more than ten months in a tiny, grave-like cell seven feet high, six feet long, and three feet wide, beaten with cables, and threatened with electric shocks." (p. 32).
There is Ahmed Agiza, who was applying for political asylum in Sweden in 2001 when he was abducted by Swedish officials working with the CIA and sent to Egypt, where he too was tortured with electric shocks and spent the next decade of his life in an Egyptian prison. These are only two of the hundreds of victims of America's "extraordinary rendition" program under Bush and-- the report makes clear-- probably continuing under Obama too.
Like Solomon Northrup, Arar and Agiza were free men once: abducted, imprisoned, and tortured. As was the case with Northrup, someone could have done something at any stage to save them. There was an infinity of chances for people to do the right thing. Arar was visited by Canadian diplomats while in his pit. Apparently they asked him if he had been tortured and were content with his answer, not questioning whether he was in a position to speak honestly about his captors. Agiza's detention was "monitored" in a similarly vague way by the Swedish government, but this did not save him from being tortured. It is exactly these forms of "monitoring," for all the good they apparently do, which, according to the report, the Obama administration claims will make "extraordinary rendition" a torture-free program!
Abducted without charge, detained without trial, and tortured. What makes these cases different from the case of Solomon Northrup? Surely very little-- except, I suppose, that his kidnapping was recognized as illegal even in his own benighted era, whereas our modern-day abductions are draped in spurious legality and tangled in a skein of moral casuistry. Shall we remind ourselves that terrorism poses such a unique "existential threat"? Shall we dust off our Augustine and Niebuhr and remind ourselves that compromises must be made with injustice in our fallen condition? Or maybe we should cut down the body writhing in pain.
There is a scene at the very beginning of 12 Years a Slave right after Solomon is kidnapped and thrown into a dungeon under the street. He finds his way to a tiny grate and cries "Help me!" over and over again, while the camera pans up to the sunny streets of 19th-century Washington D.C. One thinks that surely someone, somewhere on those streets -- in this most civilized capital of this most civilized country-- will hear that cry and do something. We are aghast that they don't-- that they didn't throughout all of slavery's long and miserable existence in human society. But what are the cries that we today don't hear? What films will be made and books written about our own moral blindnesses? What future generations will be writing essays on their own weekend movie-- Twelve Years at Guantanamo Bay?