As I said yesterday, I feel that this movie has to be seen in the context of McQueen’s previous two features, which seem to show that he’s far more interested in suffering than in struggle. Of course, in many ways, the result was exactly what we needed this movie to be, for two reasons:
- Both because every other movie featuring slavery has failed to capture the depth of that suffering, and...
- Because it’s true to the experience of the vast majority of slaves, who never got to choose between suffering and struggle, because the first was so mandatory and second seemed utterly impossible.
Despite being an avid reader of slave narratives, when I first heard about this movie, I had never encountered Northrop’s story. I was not only happy to discover this existence of this amazing story, but I was instantly impressed by what a perfect choice it was for adaptation, because the story has inherent qualities that made it so much more valuable that other slave stories.
The most obvious reason, of course, is that it has an ostensibly happy ending, making the whole thing much more bearable for an audience, but it goes much deeper than that.
It’s hard to write a slave story with irony. There’s no chagrin in being a slave, there’s no self-recrimination…What is happening to you is so totally outside your control that you can’t possible reproach yourself about any part of it, and it’s so totally evil that you can’t have any conflicted feelings about it. But strong fictional characters usually benefit from having doubt, guilt and recriminations. We want characters to be proven wrong so they can correct their false statements of philosophy and false goals….but slaves are just way too unambiguously in the right.
But as soon as I heard about this story, I thought “Ah-ha! That’s how you do a story about slavery!” For this one slave, the condition would be ironic, because he would be unable to keep from saying, “I don’t belong here, I’m not a real slave, I’m not like these others!”, but every time he thought that he would feel horribly guilty: After all, did anyone belong here? Are the others “real slaves” any more than he?
The arc of such a movie instantly presented itself to me: Finally, after eleven years or so, he comes to accept the truth that he is no better than these people and he is truly one of them, and only then is he torn away from them and told by lawyers that he is better after all, which now seems like an obscene notion to him. What a harrowing emotional journey! What brilliant irony!
Shortly after hearing about the movie, I tracked down and read Mr. Northrup’s amazing book, and I discovered that this sort of irony is not a big element there, but of course it wouldn’t be, since, like all pre-war slave narratives, it’s primarily a work of advocacy, and including a big psychological component would not serve that advocacy. I still felt that it would be perfectly logical and inevitable to include that element in any adaptation.
The other potential problem for adaptation that the book presented to me what that Northrop made so few attempts to escape, and I wondered how sympathetic that would be onscreen, but I simply assumed that the adaptation would play up the steps he did take (For one, during the original journey to New Orleans, he did successfully send a letter to his wife telling her of his situation, but she was unable to locate him, and for another, he fled into the swamps more than once, only to be brought back), and show that, in his mind, he was always in the middle of some (quixotic) long-term strategy to free himself…
- Rather than foreground his few attempt to be free, it eliminated most of them. Crucially, though it left in the second two attempts at a letter, many years later, it eliminated the first letter on which he hung his hopes for the first ten years.
- Even more baffling, most of that painful irony that seemed to be generated so naturally by this story was ignored by the filmmakers. There’s never any real sense of Solomon feeling any guilt-wracked superiority to his fellow slaves.
This is largely a movie about watching Solomon suffer in stunned silence. As I said, that’s probably the more honest choice, but it’s a frustrating choice for a moviegoer who’s hoping to bond with the internal dilemmas faced by a character. The movie denies itself some clear opportunities to connect its audience to Mr. Northrop’s ironic internal state in favor of examining his suffering in a very external way, freezing us out instead of sucking us in.
Wouldn’t we have felt that suffering more deeply and painfully if we had been aware of how it contrasted with the pitiful hopes for freedom that he cherished because of that first letter? Wouldn’t we have felt more agony if we had been made to share Northrop’s inevitable guilt-wracked feelings of superiority to the other slaves?
Of course, I’m aware of how ridiculous it is to raise these concerns: We finally have a movie about slavery made by black men, and along comes a white guy (born and raised in Georgia no less, whose grandfather’s grandfather was a confederate soldier) telling them that they did it wrong! The sheer cinematic power and historical import of this movie combine to make it a great masterpiece and exactly what we need, and the fact that guys like me didn’t get to stick our noses in for once is a wonderful thing. But I can’t help feeling a little frustrated by some of the choices.