We Can Be Heroes

12 Years a Slave, Schindler’s List, and the hero problem in American movies.

Note: This article contains plot details about 12 Years a Slave.

12 Years A Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor as "Solomon Northup"
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

Photo courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight

First things first: If you haven’t already seen the new film 12 Years a Slave, you absolutely should. You should see it because its always charismatic star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is excellent and because the film is moving and harrowing. And you should see it because its very existence constitutes some kind of small miracle: It’s a film by a black director, with a black star, that’s all about slavery. How often do we see American pop culture acknowledge slavery at all? (Though director Steve McQueen is British, the film was shot in America and made primarily by American production companies.) America’s attitudes toward its greatest shame are by no means consistent. Denial is big. Our preference is to avert our eyes. A recent CNN poll showed that when asked about the Civil War, around 1 in 4 Americans sympathized more with the Confederacy than with the Union. And 42 percent believed slavery was not the main reason the Confederacy seceded.

That context gives 12 Years a Slave a moral urgency. Full of traumatic images that are routinely suppressed from national memory, it should be required viewing—especially for any politician or pundit who moans about our lost decency and the simpler values on which this country was founded. These distortions are still very much alive, and in light of the popular wish to forget, I can only imagine the struggles that went into getting this movie made. It’s a real achievement.

But there’s also a limitation built into the basic premise of 12 Years a Slave, and it stems from a limitation of American entertainment as a whole. Based on a true story, the film follows Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who, in 1841, was kidnapped by slave traders and spent 12 years in bondage in Louisiana. The trailer emphasizes Northup’s specialness: He was a well-educated man and a talented violinist. “I am not a slave,” he insists. “I am a free man!”

Northup’s narrative, published in 1853, sold 30,000 copies and helped to crystallize public sentiment against slavery. His story was necessary to tell then, and his status as a free man bound into chains makes 12 Years a Slave a vastly more compelling film. After all, the film needs Northup as an audience surrogate. But that narrative focus comes with a cost. What the film says about Solomon Northup is what so many American movies say about their protagonists: He was exceptional. (It’s the same message conveyed by last year’s awards-season slavery movie, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.) The implicit message of the narrative, paraphrased by Northup repeatedly, is: “I’m not supposed to be here!”

The primary way American entertainment understands suffering is as a prelude to catharsis. That Northup, indeed, wasn’t supposed to be there—and that his captivity ended with him reunited with his family—makes it, on one level, a familiar story: One man survives the odds, through some unbreakable psychic integrity. (“I will not give in to despair!” Northup cries—and indeed, he does not. Those who do are mostly removed from the narrative; it would be too unbearable for the film to stay inside their subjectivity.) There’s an unhappy, surely unintended counterimplication to that narrative logic, too: that everyone else, in some sense, belongs in slavery. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “If the regular slaves could play violin, maybe they wouldn’t be in this position.”

No doubt that’s not an impression anyone involved with this movie wants to give, and in fact, the filmmakers make a few moves to supplement the film’s focus on a single exceptional character. For one, a note at the end reminds us that most kidnapped slaves were never rescued. There’s also a remarkable shot in the middle of the film: After a slave dies on his feet in the cotton fields, McQueen puts us in the slave’s point of view as Northup buries him, as if to say, “This is how it could and did end for millions of people.” But though the moment is chilling, it’s not as effective as it might have been: We’ve never really met the dead man. He remains an anonymous adjunct to Northup’s story. Only for the length of one shot are we asked to look through his eyes.

The filmmakers’ richest attempt to complicate the individual focus comes from a subplot about another slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who is raped by her sociopathic owner, Edwin Epps (a frightening Michael Fassbender).* These scenes are among the hardest to watch, but they are morally straightforward: Patsey suffers, Christlike, eventually asking Northup to kill her. Remaining noble, he refuses. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley almost complicate the relationship in a terrifying scene near the end of the film, when the deranged Epps forces Northup, at gunpoint, to whip a naked and bound Patsey. This is the moment when the filmmakers are most poised to challenge Northup’s individual strength; slavery has simply put him in a position where it is impossible to stay pure.

Yet the film flinches here, I think. Patsey tells Northup that she’d rather he whip her than let Epps do it; remaining the perfect martyr, she absolves him. (Though the film is apparently very loyal to the real Northup’s text, it’s telling that this line is Ridley’s, not Northup’s.) He does indeed whip her, but Epps soon takes over, leaving Northup free to chastise him defiantly from the sidelines. So 12 Years a Slave allows Northup and Patsey’s relationship to end with a tender embrace, as he regains his freedom. It plays as tragic, because we know how horrible Patsey’s life will continue to be. But it’s pure. The film limits the emotional and moral complexity here because it can’t afford to risk our identification with Northup.

Here in the United States, we tend to identify with success, even if it’s eluding us at the moment. I think it stunts our compassion. Consider John Steinbeck’s great observation: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Polls suggest that large percentages of Americans think they’ll soon be in the top 1 percent of wealth.

Not surprisingly, these tendencies manifest themselves in our media. David Simon—who created one of the few mass entertainments I can think of that’s honest about individuals’ odds against oppressive systems—has spoken sharply about this:

The thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution. … That’s the story we want to be told over and over again. And you know why? Because in our heart of hearts what we know about the 21st century is that every day we’re going to be worth less and less, not more and more.

We’re so acclimatized to individual catharsis in entertainment that we barely even notice it; we are hard-pressed to imagine other narratives.

So perhaps it’d be fairer to say the limitation is not with 12 Years a Slave but with us as an audience. It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We’re more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.

The story of Solomon Northup is a powerful one, and this is an important film. But I can’t help thinking of what Stanley Kubrick is said to have remarked about Schindler’s List. Kubrick was friends with Steven Spielberg and admired the film, but with a crucial reservation: “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”

Throughout 12 Years a Slave, sadistic slavers try over and over to take away Northup’s humanity. But they do not succeed. That, more than anything else, marks 12 Years a Slave as an American film. It may move through despair, but it’s on the way to another destination. In our entertainment, there is only so much we can take. Is it even possible to make a movie that tells the absolute truth about slavery? That, Northup or no Northup, for two awful centuries of American history, the individual was not bigger than the institution? We can handle 12 Years a Slave. But don’t expect 60 Years a Slave any time soon. And 200 Years, Millions of Slaves? Forget about it.

Correction, Oct. 21, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the character Patsey.