'12 Years A Slave' has dominated the news lately and rightly so. It is a true story exposing the brutality of a system which existed in the United States for over 200 years. The US was quite comfortable with promoting its reputation as a ‘land of liberty’ despite the fact that four million African Americans were held in bondage. It was a 'white man’s world' and blacks were expected to conform to it. Stories of resistance or revolt from the enslaved population were suppressed because they were a threat to white dominance. This emphasis on white men has led to a disappearance and a shameful cover-up of African American resistance. Since slavery began there have been countless stories of slaves seizing their own freedom – running away to the North, forming maroon communities or even (more drastically) committing suicide – all to escape slavery. These men and women did not rely on white men to help them achieve this.
I’ve been reading a lot of reviews and articles about the reception of '12 Years A Slave', and one of the most surprising posts I came across was a description of the film as yet another Hollywood story of how an African American was saved by a white man. It is certainly true that traditionally, Hollywood has focused on this type of story or aspects of history where white men were heavily involved. I would love a film to be made about Harriet Tubman, the strongest woman to have ever set foot on this earth. She escaped slavery and travelled back to the South many times, risking her life to help other slaves. A film about the black maroon communities in Florida would shatter illusions about the supposed ‘passivity’ of blacks, who took to arms to defend themselves when the US Army attempted to drive them out. Or how about the story of Charles Deslondes, one of the leaders of the 1811 Slave Revolt in Louisiana, who hacked his master’s son to death and marched with an army of slaves in an attempt to storm New Orleans?
These stories would make great films. But I am prepared to fight my corner for Soloman Northup. If people think the film is just another white man’s saviour story they do not understand the true nature of Soloman or the film itself.
For those who haven’t seen the film, perhaps a little background is required. You can read the general overview of Soloman’s life in the post below but at the end of the film Soloman is saved from slavery by a white man named Bass (played by Brad Pitt), who takes a letter Soloman has written to the post office, and sends it to New York. Bass risked his life, as helping a slave was punishable by death.
For Soloman, living in Louisiana, there were few opportunities to escape on his own. Situated in the Deep South, Soloman’s plantation was surrounded by swamps. In his narrative, Soloman tries to escape and fails – bloodhounds are sent after him and he realises he will die if he carries on. Fleeing slavery in this area of the South was more difficult because of the terrain. Where would he go? There was no one to help him and in a country dominated by white men, his presence would be questioned at every turn. If slaves left a plantation for an errand or such like, the plantation owner had to grant him or her a pass – something the film conveys very well. The pass would say something like – ‘I, [owner’s name] give permission for [slave's name] to go to [destination] and return by [date].’ Without a pass a slave would have been thrown in jail. If a slave ran away without a pass there would be limited options and he had to contend with slave-catchers and snarling bloodhounds.
Another way for Soloman to escape slavery was to somehow incite a slave revolt. However, as Soloman mentions in his narrative, this opportunity was presented to him several times and in every instance he refuses to join and even dissuades the conspirators. The 1811 Slave Revolt in Louisiana and its brutal suppression was a powerful reminder of what would happen if they were caught. The revolt would need hundreds of men to make it successful. Although blacks outnumbered whites, without weapons and a cohesive plan there was little chance of overthrowing the system.
The other option Soloman tried was writing a letter and entrusting a white man to deliver it for him. First of all, it was extremely difficult to get hold of the paper but when he did, Soloman asked a white man to take it to the post office. The man betrays him and Soloman narrowly escapes a flogging. It takes him a while before he risks this again with Bass, which ultimately proves successful.
Thus, American slavery was a system sustained by violence and suppression. Soloman could do very little without arousing suspicion or anger from his plantation owners.
Regardless of all of this, those who criticise Bass' role miss out the most important part of the story: Soloman himself. Bass appears at the very end of the story and has a small part. Yes, technically he ensured Soloman’s eventual freedom but it was Soloman’s sheer sense of will that kept him alive.
“I will survive! I will not fall into a pit of despair! I will keep myself hardy, till freedom is opportune.”
These words, uttered so powerfully by Chiwetal Ejiofor, strike at the heart of who Soloman was – a survivor. It is not a white man's story. Bass may have been the medium through which Soloman gained his freedom but as he asserts so often in his narrative, Soloman did what he could to survive. He is the driving force behind his story and a powerful figure we should all remember today.