John Ridley, the writer of 12 Years A Slave, had tremendous advantages and disadvantages in adapting Solomon Northup’s true story to film. Northup, a free black man in New York in the early 1840s, was kidnapped and lived though unspeakable abuse as a slave in the South.
Given that this is a powerful film, you may be surprised that embedded within this true story are some of the most severe handicaps a story can have. First,the hero is a victim, with no psychological or moral flaws of his own. Northup is a decent and intelligent, though gullible, man who is the object of the worst depravity by others. This means the main character has no complexity and is incapable of character change. So while the audience can enjoy his success in reaching his goal, they are deprived of the greater pleasure of seeing him overcome his deep weaknesses.
Second, the hero is totally passive, a slave, so he can take almost no actionsteps to reach his goal. Third, the opponents have all the choices, which means they both drive the action and are the most complex and interesting characters. Fourth, the preceding three disadvantages essentially kill the plot. It’s all the same beat: a man is hammered mercilessly until finally he is freed. And because of the title, even the outcome is obvious from the first frame.
These sorts of severe disadvantages would have doomed the script to mediocrity were it not for a couple of tremendous benefits the writer had to work with: the overall story had a naturally dramatic arc and the actual events were incredibly horrific. In crafting solutions to his immense story challenges, Ridley both played to his advantages and turned at least some of his weaknesses into strengths.
To see how Ridley solved the story challenges of this script, we have to look first at the genres, or story forms, embedded within it. This is first and foremost a memoir/true story, but memoir rarely exists on its own. So Ridley wisely teased out the horror and masterpiece/advanced elements suggested by the real events.
The desire line in any advanced fiction is to find a deeper reality, involving time, perspective (POV) and system. In 12 Years, Ridley plays with time by using a flashback structure. Instead of telling the tale chronologically, Ridley begins with his main character already buried in the horrors of slavery. This gives the story a shocking start, and creates a frame through which the hero and the audience can look back and try to understand how he got there.
Ridley also highlights the system of slavery in which Northup is caught, first by showing him kidnapped in the nation’s capital and then by using the symbol of the massive wheels of the riverboat by which Northup is sent south into slavery.This is a major step in increasing both the impact and depth of the story. 12 Years A Slave isn’t just about the enslavement of one man, horrific though that is. Every character in this story is trapped in the larger destructive system, including the white slave owners, which is why the system was only eradicated through the deaths of 625,000 men.
Ridley also uses techniques from the horror form to tell his tale. The outstanding structural element of horror is that it puts more pressure on the hero than any other genre. Horror is limited by the fact that it has the lowest possible desire line, which is simply to survive. That’s why horror stories often lack plot. But it overcomes that drawback by putting the hero under intense pressure from the beginning of the story and never letting up.
Here that pressure comes from a realistic depiction of the events of slavery. Northup awakens to find himself chained and beaten. Then he is inspected like an animal and sold to a master, during which he witnesses a mother separated from her children. Ridley sequences the events of slavery so that they become progressively more horrific, until Northup finds himself at the mercy of a psychotic monster named Epps.
This sequencing technique doesn’t overcome the lack of plot in the story, since the events are all generally the same beat. But the horror genre trades plot for experience. As the hero feels this pressure and horror, so does the audience. In fact the experience is so intense that many in the audience finally cannot look any longer.
It was at this point while watching the film that I realized I had never seen this before. Sure, I’ve seen many individual scenes of slavery in film. Quentin Tarantino showed some pretty horrific ones last year in Django Unchained. But by doing it through the lens of a comical spaghetti Western, Tarantino gave the audience an out. It became a minstrel show of sadistic violence perpetrated by gross caricatures having nothing to do with you and me.
This is the only film in American history I know of to deal directly and systematically with the great moral corruption on which the American house was built. These slave masters and slave sellers are recognizable human beings,and today’s Americans cannot escape the connection. I suppose I should not be surprised at how unique this film is, given that Hollywood is in the business of making money, but I am.
The other major story area Ridley plays with to overcome his story’s natural weaknesses is the character web, which is the set of structural oppositions among the characters. First, Ridley sets up a comparison between slaves,placing Northup in contrast to Patsey. Patsey is the psychotic master’s sexual object and the best worker on the plantation. Epps lusts after her, rapes her, and hates himself for doing so. Of course Epps’ wife hates her as well, and because she can’t stop her husband, she takes out her rage on Patsey.
So as bad off as Northup is in this world, Patsey has it even worse. She is caught in a double trap between white husband and wife, sucked into a vicious cycle of rape, torture and backbreaking labor with no chance of release.
Ridley also contrasts the two slave masters who own Northup during his captivity. The first, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, has some decency within him. But he is caught in this system too. So when he is faced with the biggest moral decision of the film, he fails.
The other slave master, Epps, is a man so drunk with the absolute power he holds over his slaves that he is both a tyrant and a man who feels morally justified in what he does. The ability of a corrupt system like slavery to twist a human mind into this degree of rational depravity is astounding.
It just so happens that I was reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson, called The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham, when I saw this movie. Jefferson was nothing less than the author of America’s moral and political justification, the writer of the creation myth of the United States.
Yet he owned over 100 slaves, he fathered 6 children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and their first child was born when Sally was only 16. Is this not doubly rape? A slave and a child?
Meacham says we must not judge Jefferson by today’s standards. But they aren’t just today’s standards. This was incendiary behavior Jefferson tried to keep silent his entire political life. And wasn’t Jefferson precisely arguing against the standards of the day when he called for a republic based on freedom and equality rather than the absolute rule of kings?
No, it doesn’t wash. Jefferson was guilty of moral compartmentalization far greater than any gangster. And we know he was fully aware of it. When Sally was first pregnant in France, she could have legally walked away free. But Jefferson made a deal with her that if she returned, still a slave, to Virginia with him, he would set their children free when they reached adulthood. This was a deal he made with a child.
Of all the people most able to rise above the trap of this system that enslavedboth aristocrats and slaves, Jefferson was that man. But he chose not to.
I doubt I will watch this movie again. It’s all medicine. No sugar. I have to see it because slavery was the original sin of this nation, which is doubly ironic because it was the first nation in history founded on the idea that people could freely govern themselves. I know America has always struggled with the difference between the ideal and the real, none more so than when the nation was almost destroyed by it. And while 12 Years A Slave gives shocking and undeniable proof of our hypocrisy, I take no pleasure in seeing it.