By Nikolai Brown
[Spoiler warning] 12 Years a Slave is an acclaimed film about the real-life story of Solomon Northup, a freeman living in upstate New York with his family, who in 1841 was abducted, sold into slavery, and put to work on a plantation in Louisiana.
Aesthetically the film is well made. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup, does an excellent job of portraying the mental anguish and transformation inflicted through bondage. Scenes and shots are carried on slightly longer than in typical films, imparting to the audience a tension felt by the protagonist. The story proceeds in a slow measured pace representing the drawn-out bleakness of slave life.
Though not the typical Hollywood blockbuster, 12 Years a Slave has been hailed by critics for the ‘horror’ it depicts. After seeing the film, a reviewer for Time magazine proudly proclaimed she “will never look at this country again.”
With popular films on controversial topics, it is worth examining why they are popular to begin with. Popular culture is part of the super-structure and functions to obscure and reinforce extant class relations. What is commonly called ‘history’ is merely a narrative regarding the past which advances specific collective interests in the present. Underlying its appropriately nerve-wracking aesthetics, 12 Years a Slave is fundamentally political in the broad sense. And in this sense, it is fundamentally counter-revolutionary.
The broad message of 12 Years a Slave is one against resisting oppression or violently rising up. Instead, perseverance and patience is better. According to the narrative, freedom and liberation can be attained by benevolent saviors from among oppressors.
The subject of the film is important for the film’s popularity. There could be a major film depicting in a positive light the ‘true story’ of Nat Turner or Denmark Vesey. Would such a film be as popular as 12 Years a Slave? Probably not.
The notion of violent resistance comes up in the beginning of the film. Yet the lead plotter is quickly killed by a white rapist working aboard a slave ship [one of those rugged white ‘proletariat’ types]. Never again does the film’s protagonist attempt to violently resist. Instead, Northup takes the advice of another slave and conceals his identity and hides the fact he is educated.
Eventually Northup is ‘saved’ after he meets a sympathetic bearded white carpenter from Canada (played by Brad Pitt) who is briefly hired by the plantation patriarch. Injustice, the film’s narrative explains, is resolved not by mass resistance and class warfare but instead by the select graces of those among the oppressor classes (especially those whom we are accustomed to playing ‘good guy’ staring roles).
Related to the overall message of the movie, another problematic aspect of 12 Years a Slave is the voyeuristic violence meted out against Northup and the other black slaves. Like the oddly vivid rape scene in ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ 12 Years a Slave contains intense depictions of brutality against the oppressed. When it comes time for the oppressed to get revenge however, the audience must use its imagination or be narrated to about the futility of violence. In one scene Northup is forced to abuse another slave. Unfortunately, any analogy to the present is likely lost on the modern audience.
What is more interesting, 12 Years a Slave represents the best of mainstream US culture – high culture – but not mass culture at large. Whereas this counter-revolutionary narrative is widely extolled by what is commonly called the left, another segment of the population is infatuated with vapid ‘reality’ TV shows like as ‘Duck Dynasty,’ which features millionaires who play racist, homophobic rednecks. For Third Worldists, this is further evidence that majority sections of imperialist nation populations lend their agency to reaction.
There is no wondering why 12 Years a Slave is popular, despite its controversial topic. The film’s overall message, the function of its narrative in modern society, is one which protects existing class structures by ideologically polemicizing against liberatory violence. While perpetuating the acceptability of viewing the ‘bad’ violence against the oppressed, it falsely renders it safely in the past. This gives ‘enlightened’ liberal audiences the ability to be grateful for their new-found understanding of the United States – without actually changing their understanding of the United States or the broader development of the modern system. More fundamental to the film’s counterrevolutionary politics is the lack of sympathy for the violence of the oppressed, whether then or now, and faith in the miraculous intervention by philanthropic members of oppressor classes.