Here’s Penguin’s Mari Yamazaki on the unique experiences provided by Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, and the film adaptation crowned last night at the 2014 Academy Awards as this year’s Best Picture.
So, the gaudy ship Oscar has sailed away for another year. A blur of shiny dresses, blinding teeth and the soul-destroying ‘mani-cam’, nevertheless it is the flashy pinnacle of the film entertainment industry. Amongst all the glitter is, of course, the films; namely, the best film: 12 Years A Slave has been lauded by critics and audiences as one of the most powerful, moving, visceral – important – films to have ever been made.
I have to admit to some trepidation though when reserving my tickets to one of the many booked-out screenings. Reports of the stomach-churning violence, abject misery, insufferable injustice makes for a queasy Saturday night out; hell, we even know the basic plot, what with the ending being given away in the title. This begs the question: is 12 Years a Slave actually entertaining?
It brings to mind a claim from David Mamet that the purpose of art is to delight. In the most obvious sense of the word, I didn’t find the film delightful. It was stunningly shot, beautiful at times, and powerfully acted and I knew whilst I was watching that this was An Important Film, one on a subject that had long been shamefully overdue. But, as with the films you watch and the books you read, you have different motivations for dedicating your time to them.
Certainly, the writer, Solomon Northup, had specific motivations for putting pen to paper. It is an account of purpose, his book in print within two years of his return to his life as a free man. It is also a truthful account, loaded with specifics and verified both at that the time and by later historians; this is a book of significance, to tell of the dreadful injustice he suffered, having been kidnapped and sold as a slave in the American South, before his nail-biting rescue to his family in the North. I don’t think I breathed until the final page.
Writers, though, are read not just for what they write about, but for how they write. In the past, I could with a smug face (and let’s be honest: a smug face is the worst face) reel off the books I’ve read of the Black experience in America: Harriet Jacobs, James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Nella Larsen, to name a few, but I’d never come across, let alone heard of 12 Years a Slave. And, unlike the slave narratives which I have (whisper it) struggled to read in the past, 12 Years was a revelation; clearly written, artfully set up vignettes, with a tense narrative driven on by the powerful, individual voice of Solomon. There are vividly wrought descriptions of place, from the jarring, lush beauty of the plantation to the creepiness of a dreary, lonely bayou, stuffed with the dangers of the unseen alligator or snake.
And the characters, painted in more shades of grey in what you might expect to be a starkly monochrome story of good vs bad. Solomon’s first master, William Ford, was in his opinion the most “kind, noble, candid, Christian man”, reflecting the wider hypocrisies of the time when a man could be both “good” and a slave-owner, when black men and women were so oppressed that Solomon himself seemingly recounts without humiliation trotting uncomplainingly alongside his Master Ford on the only saddled horse.
The film portrays this complexity too and arguably provokes a more physical repulsion, with scenes of utter brutality burning themselves into one’s brain. But the book, the book, it immerses you completely into the story, being very firmly set in the context of antebellum America, with the rhythms of the annual sugar and cotton crop and the industry behind the trade of human beings and pursuit of money, imbued with moral complexity and filled with the extremes of feeling, from the joy of dancing and a table laden with food at Christmas time, to the chilling realisation that brutal slave owner Epps has taught his young son his same cruelty.
Mostly, the previously unheard voices of the slaves hum throughout the pages. Some are brave, taking their destiny into their own hands, some are even treacherous, such as the despised Lew Cheney, who whipped up a rebellion, only to betray his fellow slaves at the end for his own reward. All have their own particular sets of fears, joys and breaking points, their own pasts but you can’t help but suspect, facing the same grim future. And still, life marches on regardless, the sun rising and birds chirping, an unsettling background to the daily horrors endured. And Solomon captures the immediacy of all this, lamenting that as he recounts this, slaves like Patsey, queen of the cotton field, kind-hearted Uncle Abram, the talkative Aunt Phebe are still stuck in bondage. It makes the book feel contemporary, immediate, and not distant history.
Is 12 Years A Slave entertaining? The film is certainly artful, with stunningly shot scenes and tremendous, soul-searching acting. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, except, when I couldn’t bear to watch. And the book, well; like I said, I don’t think I breathed throughout. As a piece of weekend downtime, you might find something more ‘enjoyable’ to do, but don’t deny yourself the experience of either.