Steve McQueen and the truth

October 19, 2013

The story of U.S. slavery: How Steve McQueen finally got it right


Hollywood’s myth machine has long treated the story of slavery as a mere byway on America’s journey of harmonious progress. With 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen delivers a searing rebuke to that history, replete with scenes of sexual predation, serial torture and brave resistance. Liam Lacey examines how he did it

The “Hollywood version” of events, everyone knows, is synonymous with fantasy and historical distortion. Tinseltown’s record on the subject of American slavery, in particular, has been woeful, while delivering some of the medium’s biggest blockbusters, from the overt racism of 1915’s The Birth of a Nation to the condescension, a quarter-century later, of Gone with the Wind. The list of reasonably accurate films – Glory, Amistad, Beloved – is short and relatively recent.

Slavery has never ceased to be controversial in American politics, profoundly challenging the myth of the United States as a beacon of human rights and freedom. The fact that most of the founding fathers and early presidents were slaveholders puts the lie to the idea of a country that has always celebrated human dignity. Yet even today, Tea Party activists in Tennessee and Texas are working hard to have slavery removed from public-school history books.

America’s foremost myth machine, Hollywood has always tended to offer an especially idealized view of the country’s problematic past. As Neal Gabler argued in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, the film moguls who had escaped Europe and then founded the studio system, presented an idyllic image of the United States as an essentially benevolent refuge from the kind of persecution they had fled. It didn’t hurt that that construct conformed to the view of American “consensus historians,” who treated the country’s slave history as a minor aberration on a journey of harmonious progress.

Now comes 12 Years a Slave, by British director Steve McQueen, the most accurate picture of Southern slavery in movie history. Compare it to a book like Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery: 1619-1877, considered the authoritative short history on the subject, and it is meticulously – and searingly – accurate. In McQueen’s film, slavery is justified by Biblical quotation and legalistic argument. Relations between white and black in the antebellum South are defined by the whip. Sexual predation is rampant.

Brave individual acts of resistance – in one scene, the film’s hero, Solomon Northrup, grabs a whip from his tormentor and beats him with it – really did occur, and really did, as McQueen takes pains to depict, put the slave’s life at risk. Based on the 1853 memoir of Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and returned to freedom a dozen years later, 12 Years a Slave is a wildly compelling film that looks – directly – at the grotesque brutality of American slavery. The primal nightmare of abduction and confinement that McQueen depicts is, as well, a microcosm of the story of African-American bondage and liberation. At once, the film combines the visceral intensity of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained with the gravity of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: It is both in your face and in your head.

How did McQueen get right what so many have gotten wrong?

The great source material didn’t hurt, of course. Unlike most slavery movies, this one is a true story, or as close to one as a non-documentary can be. But it’s also archetypical.

McQueen, whose previous features include Hunger and Shame, was relaxed and forthcoming during an interview last month at the Toronto International Film Festival as he talked about how he had been looking for a point of entry into the dark history, and the human experience, of slavery. The filmmaker, who lives in Amsterdam with his wife (cultural critic Bianca Stigter) and their daughter and son, had been wanting to tell a story of someone who had been free and was then abducted, and in doing so, to tap into a collective fear as old as the Grimms’ fairy tales of Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel. He had, in fact, already begun working on a script with American screenwriter and novelist John Ridley (U Turn, Three Kings).

“Then my wife found this book for me,” he said. A large man with a body builder’s arms and an occasional stammer, he says that 12 Years a Slave “was identical to what I was thinking about. The story was incredible – my first thought was of Pinocchio – and I loved the voice. We kept about 80 per cent of the language from the book.”

While there are some academic debates about the memoir’s authorship (involving whether the writer was actually Northrup himself or his amanuensis, David Wilson, a white lawyer and minor literary figure), the book is unusual among slave narratives. As Ridley points out, it’s a “free man’s narrative.” It’s also highly specific in chronicling names and places, as well as details of Northrup’s plantation life. Though a bestseller in the 19th century, 12 Years a Slave was more or less forgotten until the late 1960s. Its recognition is part of a larger revolution in slave historiography over the past 50 years – a revolution that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner says has engendered “arguably the finest body of literature produced by American historians since 1960.”

As the civil-rights movement gained steam, so did the the perception among professional historians (and in popular culture) that slavery was an undeniably brutal and destructive institution. Stanley Elkins’s 1959 book, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, compared American slaves to Nazi concentration-camp victims, insisting that they had become docile through subjugation – and his sweeping generalizations met a vociferous negative reaction from other historians. The result: a growing appreciation of slaves not as passive victims but as living, breathing historical agents. Contemporaneous with the Black Power movement, historians began to emphasize the autonomy and resistance of slaves, reflected in Blaxploitation movies of the late sixties and early seventies – films like The Legend of Nigger Charlie and its two sequels – that Tarantino celebrated in Django Unchained.

More recently, the narratives of slaves themselves, once ignored or dismissed, have come to be viewed as important by historians. Henry Louis Gates, the celebrity Harvard scholar of African-American studies, who worked as a consultant on 12 Years, notes that Northrup’s is only one of 202 such narratives, written before and after the Civil War – and the only one to be made into a feature film. But those stories – which Alfre Woodard, who plays a slave-owner’s mistress in the film, describes as “an untapped oil field” – are starting to make their presence felt. Another such memoir, Elizabeth Keckley’s Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, served as a background source for Lincoln.

While the popular 1977 television series Roots is probably the best-known screen depiction of slavery, it was often far from scrupulous about details and accuracy, even substituting an arid Southern California backdrop for the lush plantations of the Deep South. McQueen, by contrast, describes himself as “microscopically specific” in getting the historical details right. Among other things, his costume designer took soil samples from different plantations to get the correct colour of the dirt on the slaves’ clothing. But while part of the power of 12 Years a Slave is its shocking accuracy, McQueen doesn’t claim to be putting history onscreen: Although he views the physical reality of Solomon’s experience as a critical imaginative tool, “I’m a filmmaker, not an illustrator,” he says. “The book was, for me, a jumping-off point.”

In Toronto last month for TIFF, where 12 Years a Slave won the People’s Choice Award, Gates suggested that it may have taken an outsider like McQueen to create a forthright film about American slavery. But that’s not a view the director shares. As he notes – and as historians have increasingly recognized – American slavery is, in fact, just one small part of the larger story of the colonization of the Western Hemisphere using forced labour. What is now the United States absorbed only a small percentage of the between 10 million and 11 million Africans shipped to the New World. Most ended up in the Caribbean or Brazil.

“My folks are from the West Indies,” says McQueen. “And there’s a mix of a lot of people in the United States and Europe that have that in common. Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Sidney Poitier, Colin Powell – all have that background. It’s not a black-and-white situation, as far as nationality is concerned. It’s much more complex than that.”

And it is his film’s simplicity in representing that complexity that makes 12 Years A Slave not just good history but great art.