By Jonathan Chait
This last weekend, I finally saw 12 Years a Slave. It was the most powerful movie I’ve ever seen in my life, an event so gripping and terrifying that, when I went to bed ten hours later — it was a morning matinee — I lay awake for five hours turning it over in my mind before I could fall asleep. I understand it not merely as the greatest film about slavery ever made, as it has been widely hailed, but a film more broadly about race. Its sublimated themes, as I understand them, identify the core social and political fissures that define the American racial divide to this day. To identify 12 Years a Slave as merely a story about slavery is to miss what makes race the furious and often pathological subtext of American politics in the Obama era.
While its depiction of physical torture has commanded the most attention, I found the psychological torture more disturbing. To make a person a slave requires making them complicit in their own subservience, through rituals of degradation, such as forcing them to clap their hands to mocking songs, dancing for their masters, or being stripped, or compared to animals. The one time Northup tries to escape, he wanders immediately onto a lynch party, which underscores the threat of violence lurking invisibly everywhere. (And the threat of the noose survived in the South a century past the threat of the lash.)
Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.