By Daniel Jose’ Older
In December of 1836, black abolitionist David Ruggles boarded a Portuguese slave ship in the New York harbor, freed its captives and had the white captain arrested. Tensions still ran high in the city from two years earlier, when whites had launched coordinated attacks against black businesses and neighborhoods in lower Manhattan. As the trial of the captain proceeded (he was never convicted), Ruggles barely escaped a kidnap attempt by a gang of slave traders in retaliation for his activism.
The story of Solomon Northup, which “12 Years A Slave” chronicles in heartbreaking detail, comes from a similar moment of American tumultuousness: White slave traders kidnapped Northup, a husband and father of two, and sold him to a southern plantation. Northup languished for twelve years before secreting a letter to his people in Saratoga with a benevolent white man and securing his freedom.
“12 Years A Slave” is a stunning cinematic achievement. Director Steve McQueen attacks the brutality of slavery with an unflinching eye, spares us no detail of the degradation that white America inflicted on the people it considered its property. The performances, particularly of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita N’yongo, are breathtaking; we feel the depth of each character with a few simple cinematic strokes.
About three quarters through the movie, Brad Pitt suddenly shows up and, essentially, saves the day. Never mind that Pitt is also one of the film’s producers (an interesting contrast to Quentin Tarantino, who cast himself as an Australian slave trader in “Django Unchained.” But that’s a whole other essay). In this otherwise monumental and groundbreaking film, written and directed in the age of Stop and Frisk and Stand Your Ground, of Trayvon and Aiyanna and Marissa and Renisha, did we really need yet another white savior narrative?
We absolutely did not.