Steve McQueen films ‘our peculiar institution’

Steve McQueen directs Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave" (2013). Photo by Jaap Buitendijk, Fox Searchlight.

Steve McQueen directs Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave” (2013). Photo by Jaap Buitendijk, Fox Searchlight.

In recent months, the history of slavery in America has become a major topic of interest, due to the release of Steve McQueen’s excellent film, 12 Years a Slave. The film has already made a bestseller out of the 1853 book upon which the film is based. Solomon Northup was born a free man in 1800s New York, but he spent twelve years on cotton plantations in Louisiana after being kidnapped into slavery. He eventually earned his freedom, reunited with his family, and published his story after deciding that “an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public”.

Title page for Solomon Northup's original narrative, "Twelve Years a Slave", published in 1853.

Title page for Solomon Northup’s original narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave”, published in 1853

Historians widely regard Northup’s first-person narrative as one of the most important records of slave life in the American south. The book, bearing the full title Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana provided McQueen with everything he needed to create a one-of-a-kind film. For those interested in sampling Northup’s original voice, you can find a free, full-text version of the book online at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Documenting the South digital library. From the very start, Northup endeavors to relate a truthful, non-biased account. He leaves the politics and moral judgment for his readers to decide:

I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.

Northup’s account is the truth laid bare, without pretense or political aim. This is the description of what happened to one man during one of the most infamous periods in American history.

Illustration from Solomon Northup's original narrative, "Twelve Years a Slave", published in 1853

Illustration from Solomon Northup’s original narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave”, published in 1853

Shortly after the film’s release, I read David Denby’s glowing review in the New Yorker, in which he declares McQueen’s film “easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery”. I was struck by the word “easily”. To take nothing away from McQueen’s talent as a director, I would say that the film easily tops all others because very few films have actually been made about American slavery. In an interview with NPR, McQueen himself remarked on the desire to make a film that nobody was making. Film critics have commented on the difficulty of doing justice to such a subject – much like the Holocaust, films about American slavery challenge audiences and directors on multiple levels, with their unrelenting depictions of physical violence and psychological pain.

Lupita Nyong'o plays Patsey in "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

I believe there is another reason why relatively few films tackle the subject of slavery. It has to do with the fact that it took an Englishman residing in the Netherlands like McQueen to create a superior film about American history. When a nation is too close to its history, it cannot help but politicize the past. Discussions about slavery in America today eventually feed into conversations about race, which are influenced by our own biases and cultural context.

On NPR’s Code Switch blog, Bilal Qureshi writes about one of the crucial differences between the histories of the United States and Great Britain, especially when it comes to the cultural experience of black people:

Unlike the defining chapters of African-American history — enslavement, emancipation, the great migration to the North, and the civil rights movement — the black British experience carries with it an immigrant sensibility. It’s a community with roots and intact links to Britain’s former colonies.

The British may enjoy a type of continuity, because they reach back to cultures that still exist in some form today. By contrast, the American version of the story is Northup’s on a macro-scale. It involves a breaking with the past, as people were forcibly removed from their native lands. Freedom has been hard-won by fighting for fundamental rights that had historically been denied. This echoes the way in which the United States seized its own independence as a nation during the Revolutionary War. I think it’s fair to say that the United States has always maintained a very militant view of its past. American history represents a series of sufferings, but also great triumphs of freedom and democracy over oppression.


Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

McQueen has described Northup as the American Anne Frank. 12 Years a Slave is a universal story that forms part of our world heritage. One does not have to be American, or black in order to feel the power of this story. I was reminded of Clint Eastwood, directing the moving Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006 – a film based on the letters of Japanese soldiers during WWII. Regardless of what side you’re on, history’s darkest moments have a way of speaking universal truths that transcend all barriers of language, race, and time.


You can watch the trailer for 12 Years a Slave below: