Spielberg's Lincoln

Herbert Biberman’s Slaves

Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn!

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen's Hunger

Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen: cinematic collaborators

Solomon Northup's book, 12 Years a Slave

Gordon Parks’ PBS film Solomon Northup’s Odyssey

Solomon Northup free and happy with his family in the opening of 12 Years


Shortly thereafter, the Supreme Court renders its verdict and the Amistad slaves and their supporters nervously go to the Court, knowing that seven of the nine Justices are Southern slaveholders. Justice Story brings down the gavel and renders the verdict, first, addressing the property issue and ruling “they are not slaves, and therefore cannot be considered merchandise.” This judgment captures the courtroom’s rapt attention as the Chief Justice concludes that the Amistad Africans

“are rather free individuals with certain legal and moral rights, including the right to engage in insurrection against those who would deny them their freedom. Therefore, it is our judgment, with one dissension that the defendants are to be released from custody at once. And, if they so choose, be returned to their homes in Africa.”

Judge Story brought down the gavel, the courtroom dispersed, and Steven Spielberg has closed his argument, providing ideological legitimation of the U.S. system of justice. As Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) attempted to demonstrate that the political process in the United States works through its detailed dissection of the complicated process whereby President Lincoln and his team mobilized votes in Congress to pass the controversial and divisive 13th Amendment,[17] [open endnotes in new window] in Amistad, the narrative makes the argument that despite all the complexities and competing interests, the U.S. legal and political system is rooted in a functioning system of constitutional democracy that provides justice for all. Such an ideological conclusion was contested by historian Eric Foner who argues that:

“The film gives the distinct impression that the Supreme Court was convinced by Adams' plea to repudiate slavery in favor of the natural rights of man, thus taking a major step on the road to abolition.”
“In fact, the Amistad case revolved around the Atlantic slave trade—by 1840 outlawed by international treaty—and had nothing whatever to do with slavery as an domestic institution. Incongruous as it may seem, it was perfectly possible in the nineteenth century to condemn the importation of slaves from Africa while simultaneously defending slavery and the flourishing slave trade within the United States.”

“In October 1841, in an uncanny parallel to events on the Amistad, American slaves being transported from Virginia to Louisiana on the Creole seized control of the ship, killing some crew members and directing the mate to sail to the Bahamas. For fifteen years, American Secretaries of State unsuccessfully badgered British authorities to return the slaves as both murderers and ‘the recognized property’ of American citizens. This was far more typical of the government’s stance toward slavery than the Amistad affair.”

“Rather than being receptive to abolitionist sentiment, the courts were among the main defenders of slavery. A majority of the Amistad justices, after all, were still on the Supreme Court in 1857 when, in the Dred Scott decision, it prohibited Congress from barring slavery from the Western territories and proclaimed that blacks in the United States had ‘no rights which a white man is bound to respect.’”[19]

Not only does Amistad present an ideological whitewash and idealization of the U.S. judicial system, but Spielberg and his team have hardly any women in the film with active voice and participation. None of the major protagonists are shown engaged in conversation with women and the only women portrayed are abolitionists and black slave women who are positioned throughout as watching history unfold, mute objects passively observing the male subjects grapple with their society’s key issues, determining the fate of the nation and the Amistad rebels. Thus while it is highly salutary that Spielberg produced such a detailed and engaging historical epic about a key episode in U.S. history that had been largely forgotten, his achievement is limited by the ideological and representational limitations of Spielberg’s cinema.

Yet one can agree with the late Roger Ebert that:

“What is most valuable about ‘Amistad’ is the way it provides faces and names for its African characters, whom the movies so often make into faceless victims. The captive called Cinque emerges as a powerful individual, a once-free farmer who has lost his wife and family. We see his wife, and his village, and something of his life; we understand how cruelly he was ripped from his life and ambitions. (Since it was the policy of slavery to destroy African families, these scenes are especially poignant.)”[20]

Spielberg’s cinema, however, is highly individualistic and highlights and idealizes Great Men like Cinque, John Quincy Adams, and Roger Baldwin, who rises in the film from mediocre real estate lawyer who initially see the Amistad trial as a property issue, to one who grasps the moral and political dimension of the film and bonds as a brother with the noble Cinque.[21] While there appear representations of the abolitionist movement, the leading abolitionists are bit players to the Heroic Men who dominate the film, as is usual in Spielberg’s patriarchal male cinema.

Amistad ends with an ironic montage that presents the events that followed the trial and historical fates of the major players. Spielberg shows the British Royal Marines destroying the Lomboko Slave Fortress, and freeing Africans from its dungeons, with the British Captain Fitzgerald (Peter Firth) telegraphing U.S. Secretary of State Forsythe, who had denied the fortress’s existence, that indeed the Slave Fortress no longer exists. Graphic titles inform us that President Martin Van Buren lost his re-election campaign to William Henry Harrison, and that Queen Isabella II continued to demand the return of the slaves and the Amistad—until the fall of Atlanta during the U.S. Civil War when she gave it up. Heroic images and music reminiscent of Stalinist cinema show Cinquè and his fellow Africans returning on a ship to their home, dressed in white, the West African color of victory, accompanied by the translator James Covey. Yet a postscript says that Cinquè returned to find his country embroiled in civil war and his wife and child missing, likely sold into slavery.[22]

Amistad received mixed reviews and was ultimately one of Spielberg’s most unsuccessful movies at the box office, with a lifetime gross of only $44,229,441.[23] Although nominated for Oscars in four categories, it received no Academy Awards. Historians criticized what they found to be negative representations of evangelical abolitionists, exaggeration of the historical significance of the Amistad revolt, and misrepresentation of some of the historical figures and details of the episode.[24] Spielberg, producer Debbie Allen, and scriptwriter David Franzoni claimed in various reviews that they “consciously chose to downplay the role of the white abolitionists and to concentrate on the Africans, particularly the charismatic Cinque,”[25] wishing to avoid the narrative where the Good White Man comes to save the blacks, although Amistad is not completely innocent of that charge as I note above.

In retrospect, the virtue of Spielberg’s Amistad is rescuing a forgotten historical episode and bringing to public awareness the monstrosity of the institution of slavery, virtues that would be replicated in the rediscovery of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. Spielberg deploys the resources of the classical Hollywood cinema to make his film, although moments are more modernist and the film is more didactic than most of his Hollywood entertainment extravaganzas. These aesthetic and political strategies would be replicated by Gordon Parks and Steve McQueen in their resurrections of a forgotten moment in U.S. history in cinematic renditions of Solomon Northup’s narrative that I will engage in the next section.

Gordon Park’s and Steve McQueen’s constructions of Solomon Northup’s
12 Years a Slave

While it is admirable that Spielberg and his associates resurrected an almost forgotten incident of slave rebellion and called attention to the monstrosity of slavery in Amistad, the film did not really deal with the evils of slavery in the Americas. Blacklisted director Herbert Biberman, who had directed the highly acclaimed 1954 film portraying a New Mexican miner’s strike Salt of the Earth, created Slaves, released in 1969, about a slave rebellion in Kentucky in the 1850s, but it got poor reviews and a truncated release. The same year Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s Burn! starred Marlon Brando as a British agent fomenting a slave rebellion in the Caribbean.[27]

Other memorable global cinematic slave narratives of the era which depict slavery in the Americas include Sergio Giral’s The Other Francisco (Cuba: 1975),which brilliantly counterposes ideological takes on slavery in Cuba with its brutal everyday realities, and Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s The Last Supper (Cuba: 1976), which deploys innovative modernist techniques to portray a slave rebellion in Cuba and its violent suppression.[28] No major film, however, portrayed the oppressive conditions of slavery on a U.S. plantation, and from the actual narrative of a slave who was kidnapped and spent twelve years on a southern plantation before gaining release until, first, Gordon Parks and then Steve McQueen provided cinematic versions of Solomon Northup’s narrative 12 Years a Slave which brutally revealed the horrific conditions of slavery in the United States in the 1840s. Given the current significance of McQueen’s film, I’ll start with an introduction to McQueen’s work, will then turn to Gordon Park’s 1984 PBS movie, and then will compare the two versions of Northup’s narrative.

Steve McQueen was born on October 9, 1969 in London, England of British-Grenadian descent as Steve Rodney McQueen. First emerging in the public eye as an artist, McQueen attended Chelsea School of Art, London in 1989-1990, followed by study in Goldsmith's College, London, in 1990-1993, and the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, New York, during 1993-1994. Known for video installations and short films, McQueen won the coveted Turner Prize in 1999 for his film-installation work and exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, which I happened to attend, recalling powerful images of bodies, both in his installations and short films.[29]

McQueen was awarded the O.B.E. (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2002 Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to the Arts, and served as the Official War Artist for Iraq in association with the Imperial War Museum in 2003. In 2006, McQueen created a sheet of stamps of portraits commemorating the deaths of British soldiers in Iraq, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 for his contribution to the visual arts. In 2013, at the time of the release of 12 Years a Slave, McQueen was nominated as one of the six finalist for the prestigious Hugo Boss award.[30]

Steve McQueen became recognized as a major global movie director, first, through his highly acclaimed film Hunger (2008) that depicted a 1981 hunger strike by IRA militants, focusing on the slow death through hunger attrition of Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbinder, who would play key roles in McQueen’s next two projects. Hunger was distinguished by long takes focusing on Sands’ body, registering beatings, isolation, sores and wounds, and increasing emaciation during the hunger strike, until Sands’ life literarily departed his body by the end of the film. The beatings and emaciation scenes were intercut with sequences depicting the everyday life of a guard, with one resonant image showing a guard turning aside and crying during a brutal beating, and with scenes with Sands’ parents, where at first he tried to convince them that all was “grand.”

Hunger marked McQueen as a major cinematic talent, and his following film Shame (2011), depicting Michael Fassbinder as a man possessed by sexual obsession, also got excellent reviews and marked McQueen as a rising figure in world cinema. Shame focuses intensely on a New York corporate executive Brandon (played by Fassbinder), and the film centers on the character’s face and body, often isolating him in long shots of a barren urban environment, apparently denoting his alienation, interspersed by fragmentary and quickly edited images of his repeated sexual coupling, and relieved by expository sequences showing him interacting with fellow workers, women, and his troubled sister (Carey Mulligan), who comes to live with him. The focus on individual characters in long takes, and alternating close-ups of their faces with interactions with their environment, unfold in a modernist aesthetic space that finds beauty and resonant images in multiple locations and situations, punctuated by a highly fragmentary narrative, an aesthetic which characterizes McQueen’s cinema. 12 Years a Slave (2013), replicates this style, yet deploys a more classical narrative structure than his previous films by following the contours, if not always the letter, of Solomon Northup’s tale.

McQueen’s cinematic rendition of Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) has indeed catapulted McQueen to the highest reaches of global cinema with the film winning major awards and critical acclaim for the director and cast.[31] Reflecting on the film’s origins and gestation, McQueen has noted:[32]

“Three and a half years before finishing the production of Twelve Years a Slave I was lost.”

“I knew I wanted to tell a story about slavery, but where to start?”

“Finally, I had the idea of a free man kidnapped into bondage, but that's all I had. I was attracted to a story that had a main character any viewer could identify with, a free man who is captured and held against his will. For months I was trying to build a story around this beginning but not having great success until my partner Bianca Stigter, a historian, suggested that I take a look at true accounts of slavery. Within days of beginning our research, Bianca had unearthed Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup.”

“‘I think I've got it,’ she said. If ever there was an understatement. The book blew both our minds: the epic range, the details, the adventure, the horror, and the humanity. It read like a film script, ready to be shot. I could not believe that I had never heard of this book. It felt as important as Anne Frank's diary, only published nearly a hundred years before.’

“I was not alone in being unfamiliar with the book. Of all the people I spoke to not one person knew about Twelve Years a Slave. This was astonishing! An important tale told with so much heart and beauty needed to be more widely recognised. I hope my film can play a part in drawing attention to this important book of courage. Solomon's bravery and life deserve nothing less.”

In an American Cinematique showing of 12 Years a Slave with Steve McQueen present to do the Q&A that I attended at the Aero Cinema in Santa Monica on December 13, 2013, John Singleton introduced McQueen, claiming that this was the first time that anyone had really shown what slavery was all about. Singleton cited the white-washing of slavery in Hollywood films like Birth of the Nation, which Singleton claimed began the trajectory of modern U.S. cinema, while also referring contemptuously to Uncle Tom’s Cabin as examples of Hollywood’s inability to depict slavery in a realist fashion. During the Q&A, McQueen too claimed that Hollywood cinema had produced an idealized view of slavery in films like Gone With the Wind, Showboat, and other white-washed versions of slavery in the South, while he asserted that he wanted to present a real and true depiction of its’ horrors. McQueen marveled that he had never heard of Solomon Northrop who had been disappeared from history. He also proclaimed the burning need to go back and cinematically explore the 400 year-old history of slavery in the Americas, and noted that while the four years of World War II had generated hundreds, perhaps thousands, of films, the long history and experience of slavery in the Americas had generated few films.[33]

Neither McQueen nor Singleton mentioned Gordon Parks’ relatively unknown PBS “American Experience” movie of 1984 Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, based on Northup’s book 12 Years a Slave,[34] nor did they mention Spielberg’s Amistad or other efforts to represent slavery such as Herbert Biberman’s Slaves (1969), Gilles Pontecorvo’s Burn! (1969), Sergio Giral’s The Other Francisco (1975), and Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s The Last Supper (1976), all powerful depictions of slavery, which also portray forms of resistance. Yet McQueen has undeniably produced one of the most compelling indictments of slavery in contemporary cinema, and to highlight his achievement, I will contrast it to Gordon Parks’ more modest 1984 Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, comparing Parks’ classical realist aesthetic with McQueen’s more modernist modes of representation.

The legendary Gordon Parks began as a photographer and visual artist, turning to literature and then film to produce a well-received cinematic version of his novel of growing up black in Depression-era Kansas The Learning Tree (1969).[35] Born Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks on November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott Kansas, Parks died after an illustrious life on March 7, 2006 at the age of 93 in New York City. After hard-scrabble years during the Depression, Parks got a camera at the age of 25, won a photography fellowship with the Farm Security administration (FSA) for an exhibition of photos of a Chicago South Side black ghetto and trained with Roy Stryker on FSA projects. After the war, Parks became a freelance photographer for Vogue,and eventually became world famous for his work as a photographer and writer for Life magazine, producing stories and award-winning pictures of African American political leaders, everyday life, and the Civil Rights movement, in which he participated and became close to many of its leaders, including Malcolm X, who named Parks godfather of one of his children.

In one of his several autobiographies, A Hungry Heart, Parks recounts his early life and how he wrote and published The Learning Tree and then became the first major post-1960s African American director, as he directed the film of his autobiography and then went on to make Shaft (1971) and Shaft's Big Score (1972). The latter became landmarks in the emerging blaxploitation genre, which featured strong African American males confronting a corrupt white power structure.[36] These genre films were followed by a biopic about the famous blues singer Leadbelly (1975), which Parks considered his best film.[37] Produced on a modest budget for public television, Parks then went on to direct Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984), which deploys cinematic realism to provide a low-key but moving version of Northup’s 12 Years a Slave. In his memoir, A Hungry Heart, Parks recalls:

“I spent the next two weeks selecting my crew. It was a ticklish task. I had chosen to shoot the film in the Deep South, especially in the areas where Solomon had spent his gruesome time. I wanted a mixed crew, perhaps to show Southerners how Whites and Blacks could work peacefully together. Hiro Narita, a Japanese-American with great talent, was picked to be my cinematographer. The producer and the assistant director were Black. A good part of the technical crew was White … When we arrived in Savannah, Georgia, the Whites there goggled at the strange mix of people. For a few days they watched with furious eyes. Eventually they saw what was happening. Ink, amber, and honey were flowing together peacefully. It had never occurred to some of the Whites that these different races could enjoy eating beside one another.”[38]

Both Parks and McQueen follow fairly closely Northup’s narrative of how he was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery, working on plantations in Louisiana for 12 years before his release, although they present distinct cinematic renditions of the text. McQueen repeatedly stated at the Aero that he wished to find cinematic means of telling the story through an eyebrow, a tear, objects, a sequence of images, and juxtaposition between the beauties of nature and horrors of slavery. Shot by his recurrent cameraman Sean Bobbitt, McQueen’s version of 12 Years a Slave was written by John Ridley, and premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on August 30, 2013. The film was given a limited release in the United States on October 18, 2013, with a nationwide release on November 1, 2013. McQueen told the Aero crowd that he shot the film in 35 days with one camera, but had long thought of the story and worked with Ripley on the script, bringing in Hans Zimmer to do the music once the shooting and editing was finished with the first cut.

Signaling his modernist aesthetic, McQueen’s 12 Years opens with a montage of resonant images of slave life, including work cutting sugar cane in a plantation field, followed by the transmutation of a bowl of ripe berries into ink with which Northup will write his narrative, images that will be reprised in the unfolding of the film. McQueen’s cinema has been marked by the search for resonant images that capture the heart of a situation, alternating long takes with relatively quick cuts in a modernist aesthetic that breaks the rules of narrative continuity and conventional cinematography.

After an opening montage, McQueen cuts to an idyll of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor),[40] as a free black man living in New York State, who, accompanied by his well-dressed wife and children, enter a shop where he is respectfully recognized by the shop owner, while a slave named Jasper appears dumbstruck at the sight of a free African American family, signifying Northup’s comfort in his situation and status as a free man. The film cuts quickly to a scene of Northup bidding his wife and children farewell, as she leaves to take a temporary position as a cook. Soon after, Solomon meets two men who praise his talent as a fiddler and offer him money to join them with a temporary job in the circus, for which they tell him that he will be well paid. Soon after, Northup finds himself in chains in a prison in Washington and rages in despair.

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