So, 12 Years a Slave wins best film at the Oscars. Was it the best film of the year? In fact, yes it probably was (click here for my take at the time). Not only is it an obvious and popular choice, not only does it make history in entirely and appropriate way but it’s a film that stood alone in forcing the audience to make some kind of personal and emotional stand and it’ll remain memorable for those that have seen it. While you can debate whether the film is an enjoyable experience, Director Steve McQueen deserves credit for sticking resolutely to his non-cathartic non-redemptive guns in order to make it very clear that this is a film that is supposed to make you consider the here and now, not just sit back and receive it as a history lesson.
Steve McQueen said of finding the original book that it was a revelation to him.
[My wife] found this book called 12 Years a Slave, and I read this book, and I was totally stunned. It was like a bolt coming out of the sky; at the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn’t know this book. …
It’s not surprising that he hadn’t read the book as it had essentially been lost for 150 years and only preserved due to the efforts of one historian. McQueen goes on now to champion the book as a teaching aid in US schools.
Northup’s book speaks to us because it makes understand the past as much more like the present than we care to think. It’s easy to mentally separate off the past as “different” and “primitive” without seeing the people of the day as anything like us or without recognising any direct link or parallel between them and us. Northup shocks us by dispensing with the intermediary historian and offering us a direct voice that speaks to us clearly and understandably, like our televisions do. It makes then seem now. It forces us to try to consider how we would experience the things that he experienced. We pretend that historical actors didn’t have voices, that different groups of people in history knew nothing much of each other and were ignorant of the realities of their own time. We pretend that they could not understand the issues of their day with the same perspective and clarity that we with hindsight do. Northup burns that myth to the ground. While context is all-important, there’s very little that’s new under the sun and 12 Years tells us resolutely that people who were around when bad things happened knew exactly how bad they were and could articulate that perfectly when given the chance.
Johnson’s book isn’t a lost artefact and despite it’s title, neither is it an autobiography. This is a novel first written in 1912, though it’s author (not yet a political figure) published anonymously until 1927, not wanting to draw racial controversy to himself. Though the novel is not an autobiography, it does draw heavily on the lives of people that Johnson knew as well as elements of his own life and so it’s still very much an account of the time, a writing that speaks of personal and witnessed experience. Certainly, it appears that the lynching scene in the books spoke directly to a tide of events that Johnson and his contemporaries were living through with a great deal of personal fear and despair.
The novel asks a very simple question. What does a racist society do when it cannot tell what race someone is? The “ex-coloured man” of the title is a man of mixed heritage who cannot easily be categorised by sight alone and can pass as a member of either race. Because society asks him to be one thing or another, he is forced to choose to present himself as either one race or the other. Because the society sets out archetypes, people generally treat him however he presents himself, picking up on his clothes, friends and manner of speaking as a constructed whole. The ex-coloured man is treated entirely differently dependent on this, without changing his manner or personality. The idea of hating someone who you have labelled an inferior outsider falls apart entirely as a concept when you have no way of telling who is who and can meet and befriend someone without any inkling of their racial identity. The novel is one of the shortest, most succinct arguments against racist logics and one of the best arguments for essential humanity and shared empathy that I have ever read.
However, the novel is more than this. The ex-coloured man struggles with his identity. Unable to simply be himself without labelling, he has to choose how to live and essentially what to be. After witnessing a lynching, he decides that he can no longer live as a black man, that he can no longer be…..
“identified with a people that could with impunity be treated worse than animals”
Whilst he lives as a white man he enjoys freedom to do and say what he wants, go where he wants and live without fear but he has to sacrifice his musical passion and much more,
“…….I cannot repress the thought, that after all I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”.
The ex-coloured man struggles with his guilt at suppressing a part of himself entirely and abandoning part of his heritage. He even manages to marry without discussing his identity or inner turmoil with his fiancée until much later.
Sense of self and our own construction of self-image is so utterly a contemporary idea, I think that the book has aged very well and can speak to a modern reader. In any case, in my opinion, the novel has the best and most inviting opening paragraph that I think I have ever read (yes, you heard me rightly, Fitzgerald).
“I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the greatest secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions; and it is a curious study to me to analyse the motives that which prompt me to do it. I feel that I am lead by the same impulse which forces the un-found-out criminal to take somebody into his confidence, although he knows the act is likely, even almost certain, to lead to his undoing. I know that I am playing with fire, and I feel the thrill that accompanies that most fascinating pastime; and, back of it all, I think I find a sort of savage and diabolical desire to gather up all the little tragedies of my life and turn them into a practical joke on society.”