Northup's wife in Gordon Park's Solomon Northup’s Odyssey
Solomon Northup in Park’s Odyssey
Paul Dano as a sadistic overseer in 12 Years
Close to lynching in 12 Years
Michael Fassbender as Epps in McQueen’s 12 Years
Patsey as noble suffering slave woman
Solomon and Jenny in Gordon Park's Odyssey
Epps in Park’s Odyssey
Brad Pitt as the anti-slavery worker Bass in 12 Years
Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s The Last Supper (1976) depicts collective slave revolt.
Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad
Hence, while Solomon Northup opens his 1853 narrative with a detailed genealogy of the history of his family and how he became a free black man and then married, had a family, and moved from a farm where the family had worked for some years to the town where he hoped to advance himself as a carpenter and fiddler, McQueen chooses fragmentary resonant images organized in a modernist collage to depict Northup’s fall from freedom into the bondage of slavery.
Gordon Parks, by contrast, in Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, opens with a moon shining in a dark night and cuts to an interior with couples happily dancing to Northup’s exuberant fiddling. Departing from the narrative of the book, Parks unfolds in realist detail a home scene where Northup argues with his wife about money, first forbidding her to go accept a job as a cook that would force her temporarily to leave the house, and then attempting to justify their move from farm to city and his inability to gain steady work as a carpenter, a conflict not presented in Northup’s book, which has but a few idealized remembrances of his wife and family. Parks, by contrast, uses many flashbacks to Northup’s happy life with his family and to his wife making efforts to find him and procure his freedom. The need for family income motivates Northup in Parks’ story into accepting the two strangers’ offer to leave his New York home and travel to Washington D.C. on a promise of employment as a violinist with a show. Hence, Parks deploys a more conventional narrative form to tell Northup’s story, providing motivation for his actions, depicting in a conventional realist narrative Solomon’s relation to his wife and his previous life, and deploys more conventional narrative pacing and continuity than the Avant-Garde modernist McQueen.
Both Parks and McQueen depict Northup waking up in a prison in Washington, D.C., with Northup protesting his bondage and then being beaten into submission, a thrashing especially dramatized in McQueen’s powerful rendition. In a long take with darkness and shadows, McQueen renders the sound of Northup being beaten with a wooden paddle after waking up in chains. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit noted in an interview:
Indeed, throughout the film, McQueen deploys modernist strategies of excess to demonstrate the horrors of pummeling slaves into submission, with repeated images of whips loudly lashing black bodies, close-ups of bloodied scars, and beaten and humiliated humans, and the sounds of whips lacerating the flesh and of the humans subjected to such brutal violence. Further, McQueen constructs an unsettling sound montage with Hans Zimmer’s music interlaced by unnatural natural sounds of insects, birds, and ambient nature pierced by bodies being brutalized and individuals screaming in pain.
Parks, by contrast, frames Northup’s sudden enslavement more ironically, cutting from a close-up of the ivory white building of Congress, just minutes from the slave-pit where Northup finds himself imprisoned. This follows Northup’s text where he describes how
The noxious trader Theophilus Freeman, played by Paul Giamatti in McQueen’s film, beats Northup repeatedly when he refuses to utter his slave name and accept his status, declaring: "My sentimentality extends the length of a coin"—capturing the nexus of greed and pathological viciousness at the bottom of the slave trade. Indeed, the ironically named Theophilus Freeman, described as “very amiable, pious-hearted” by Northup (1853: 28), is played as quite repellent by Giamatti encouraging potential customers to check the auctioned slaves’ teeth, body, and reactions to detect the value of the merchandise, and thus serving as a vile capitalist merchant of human beings.
In both films, Solomon Northup learns of the extremity of his changed condition as he is taken from a slave pen to go to the auction, learning that his new name is “Platt.” Solomon is forced to accept the name for much of the rest of the story, dramatizing how slavery stole name and identity from their rightful owners. Another trope of the utter inhumanity of slavery occurs at the auction block in both films when the children of a slave woman Eliza are torn from her and sold to other owners, a story found in Northup’s narrative which McQueen intensely dramatizes, showing Eliza writhing and screaming in utter despair (1853: 31f).
Parks’ Odyssey depicts in some detail the slow workings of justice through which Northup is eventually released, while McQueen takes him from one horror to another until in the depths of degradation and despair suddenly lawmen show up to tell Northup that he is free. Relatively early in the movie when Northup discovers himself in captivity, Parks presents a long narrative scene with Northup insisting to the slave pen overseer that he was a free man, while the white man declared that he was a slave and the property of his new owner, whipping him repeatedly when he claims he was a free man and not a slave who was the property of someone else. The contrast between Northup as a free man and a slave who is the property of others informs Parks’ narrative as a leitmotif, frequently returned to and articulated.
McQueen, by contrast, tends to use images and not dialogue to delineate his themes, deploying resonant images and montage to depict Northup’s sudden descent into a slave pen and shipment south to New Orleans, where he is sold at a slave market and taken into bondage and the horrors of plantation life in Louisiana. McQueen’s narrative deploys fragmentary montage of scenes for the first thirty-three minutes, depicting Northup’s fall from freedom to slavery as a hallucinatory nightmare of horrors, while the subsequent scenes of Northup’s bondage as a slave on the Ford and Epps plantations follow the more conventional narrative continuity story-telling of Northup’s memoir.
McQueen filmed much of the location in a region where slaves once lived and worked the land and exploits the landscape, decaying Southern mansions, and sounds of the region to use the aesthetics of the site as a backdrop to the unspeakable brutality and monstrosity which his film will attempt to capture. Both Parks and McQueen follow Northup’s narrative of contrasting relatively humane with exceptionally monstrous slave owners. Following Northup’s text, Solomon, now Platt, finds himself on the plantation of a well-meaning but ineffectual owner William Ford, whom Northup says later becomes a Baptist minister. Played by Mason Adams in Parks’ rendition, Ford quickly recognizes Platt/Northup’s abilities, especially, when he supervises building a raft to ship lumber down a river, a scene replicated by McQueen’s Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Northup mentions the cruelty of a carpenter John M. Tibeats employed by Ford (p. 39), and one of the most disturbing scenes in both films involves an episode where Platt/Solomon becomes involved in an altercation with the sadistic overseer Tibeat. McQueen uses actor Paul Dano to play Tibeats over-the-top, excessively tormenting Platt, and in one scene McQueen has Dano singing a racist song “Run Nigger Run” as he lords himself over the slaves. McQueen presents Tibeats as a crazed white tormentor of blacks, revealing McQueen’s propensity for modernist shock and exaggeration techniques that go beyond Solomon Northup’s text, or Parks’ more traditional realist mode of representation.
In one telling episode, after being accused by Tibeats of not properly hammering nails on a house construction, while Platt/Northup insisted he was properly attaching the nails, Northup finally explodes with anger after Tibeats attempts to lash him and takes up the whip and fiercely beats his tormentor, a scene that McQueen draws out at length. After his outburst, Platt/Northup is seized and hung up on a tree and left dangling close to death overnight, a scene which McQueen aestheticizes with resonant images of Platt/Northup dangling from the tree, his feet barely able to touch the ground in order to keep him from hanging to death. The iconography of lynching and images of blacks hanging from trees is, of course, a powerful and disturbing one that McQueen exploits to deeply instill the inhumanity and horrors of slavery on the audience.
For both Parks and McQueen, Ford is shown as ineffectual and forced to sell his slaves to Edwin Epps, a much harsher owner who represents the cruel inhumanity and brutality of slavery for Northup. Parks’ Epps (John Saxon) is shown as harsh and uneducated and held in contempt by his higher-class wife, and while brutal, he is not the absolute monster played by Michael Fassbinder. At the Aero Q+A, McQueen insisted that he wanted to portray Epps as a human, but in my repeated viewings of Solomon Northup’s Odyssey and Twelve Years, Parks’ depiction of Epps presented a more multifaceted human being, precisely in his limitations and foibles, while McQueen/Fassbinder’s Epps is demonic in his viciousness. McQueen has a character narratively describe Epps to Platt/Northup as a "nigger breaker," and his Epps reaks with sadism, psychotic violence, and demonic evil beyond the human.
The excess in Fassbinder’s Epps, in contrast to the restraint in which the malevolent Epps is portrayed in Parks’ film, comes out clearly during a night scene in which Epps is shown genuinely enjoying dancing with the black slaves as Solomon plays the fiddle, while Epps in the McQueen version dances maniacally, like a man possessed. McQueen shows Epps sexually obsessed by a comely slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), who is portrayed by McQueen as the best worker, outpicking the male slaves repeatedly in the cotton field. The theme of sexual obsession was the topic of McQueen’s previous film Shame (2012), and it is played out to the extreme with Fassbinder’s Epps portrayed as a vicious man in the throes of sexual passion and violence.
Patsey also attracts the hatred of Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson), who McQueen initially plays as sympathetic, but who becomes increasingly monstrous herself as the plot evolves and her jealousy explodes, driving her to demand that Patsey be whipped to death, in a violent scene that is almost unbearable in its intensity. Interestingly, Parks’ representation of Epps’ wife is much softer and for the disruptive character Patsey, Parks substitutes a gentler character Jenny (Rhetta Greene), who is shown turning to Platt/Northup for affection and love when they find themselves newly enslaved on the plantation, but who turns to Epps out of convenience and a desire to elevate herself.
In Parks’ rendition, Platt is ordered by Epps to whip Jenny to placate Epps’ wife, and Platt takes her into a barn where he pretends to beat her, while in McQueen’s version Platt is forced to whip Patsey repeatedly in an almost unbearable scene. The long takes which show Patsey’s brutal beating, as well as other long takes that feature whippings, beatings, and rape, point to a pornography of violence evident throughout McQueen’s major films. As noted, Hunger features long takes of Bobby Sands being brutally beaten, focusing on the effects and aftermath of his torture. The hunger strike scenes of Sands feature interminably long takes of his emaciated body, sores, and sunken hollow eyes. Strangely, the sex scenes and nude bodies of Shame, also fetishistically shot in long takes, are not really pornographic in the sense of evoking arousal, while the images of violence in Hunger and 12 Years are pornographic in their explicitness, overtness, and extreme violence.
Yet the quasi-pornographic violence is interspersed in McQueen’s 12 Years, with moments of aestheticism bursting out in extended lyrical shots of plantation beauty and Louisiana landscape, and a rich sound montage of natural sounds of a teeming southern Nature, interspersed with Hans Zimmers’ haunting score. In scene that depicts the incongruities of slavery, Solomon goes to a neighboring plantation to fetch Patsey, who is having tea with an African American plantation Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard). Mistress Shaw has gained freedom of a sort by marrying a wealthy white plantation owner, highlighting the bizarreness of plantation life in an almost surreal tableau.
To the criticism that his 12 Years aestheticizes violence, McQueen has answered in reviews:
Like Spielberg in Amistad, McQueen uses Goya-esque contrasts of darkness and light, captivity and freedom, and powerful images of suffering and degradation, deploying aesthetics to convey messages about domination and liberation, good and evil.
One might contrast the motifs of religion in Northup, Parks, and McQueen’s telling of 12 Years. In his memoir, Northup has conventional remarks toward God and religion, while both Parks and McQueen illustrate how slave-owners use the Bible to legitimate slavery and to attempt to get slaves to submit to their inhumane living and working conditions. While Ford is presented in all the three texts as a relatively humane slave-owner, his use of scriptures to attempt to help his slaves come to accept their condition is presented by McQueen as hypocritical and mendacious, and there are few if any hints of religious redemption in McQueen’s bleak cinemascape.
McQueen’s 12 Years portrays Platt/Northup driven to the depths of despair, finally thinking that it was impossible for him to escape, while Parks’ narrative, by contrast, pictures Northup’s wife continually making efforts to rescue him and the narrative movement depicts in detail the steps taken to finally rescue Northup. Parks’ film, for instance, shows a letter sent relatively early in the film reaching his wife and encouraging her to keep up the search for her missing husband. Later, in both Parks’ and McQueen’s narrative, a sympathetic carpenter Sam Bass is taken into Northup’s confidence and he tells him who he really is and implores him to send a letter telling his wife where he is currently enslaved. In McQueen’s version, Bass (played by a very sympathetic Brad Pitt who also served as one of the film’s producers) is the one white person in the film who connects to Northup on a personal level and promises to deliver his letter and take up his case. He responds sympathetically to Northup’s plight and tells him: "Your story is amazing, and in no way good.” Moreover, Bass is the one character allowed by McQueen to articulate a critique of slavery, telling Epps that “If you don’t treat them as humans, then you will have to answer for it,” an argument Epps is incapable of understanding.
In McQueen’s version, Bass leaves the plantation to seek work and adventures elsewhere, and Northup falls into deep despair, believing that Bass too has failed to come to his aide. A burning letter denotes the depths of Northup’s despair and hopelessness, just before authorities arrive at the plantation to tell Northup he is free and to take him back north, while Epps and his wife look on in amazement and anger at seeing their idyll of ownership undermined.
Parks and McQueen both end their versions of 12 Years with Northup being happily reunited with his wife and children, and both end with graphic titles noting that Northup attempted to bring criminal charges against the kidnappers. The graphics in both films indicate that Northup, as a black man, could not testify in court, pointing to the continued ills of slavery, segregation, and racism after Northup’s liberation, a condition that would lead to the Civil War and decades of still ungoing and intense civil rights struggles.
Yet for a film that deals with such a politically explosive topic like slavery, McQueen’s 12 Years is curiously conventional in its explicit liberal ideology which focuses on the individual male hero and his fate. Although McQueen breaks with many conventional Hollywood narrative and aesthetic codes, like Spielberg, he follows the individualism of the classical Hollywood cinema with intense focus on the narrative of Solomon Northup and reverential close-ups of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor with a centering of the central character in almost every scene. This epic of individual survival also features the typical Hollywood happy ending, signaled in advance by those who know that the title “12 Years a Slave” signifies a period of captivity that Northup survives and is liberated from.
In McQueen’s film, Northup embodies a largely conservative individualism concerned above all with his liberty and family. When aboard a slave ship en route to the slave market in New Orleans, a fellow black tells Solomon that if he wants to survive: “Tell no one who you are. Tell no one you can read and write.” Responding, Northup insists: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Yet once he discovers the nature of his condition, Northup is basically a survivor who throughout the film often acts in an aristocratic manner with cultured dictation and superior skills in many arenas, positioning himself as a highly superior individual human being. At the end of the narrative, once he is told that he is now free, in McQueen’s version Northup absorbs the dejected looks of the other slaves, who will continue in their miserable condition, wordlessly hugs Patsey, and leaves alone to freedom and a happy reunion with his family.
In Parks’ film version, Northup turns and tells an old slave that “I won’t forget you,” and indeed Northup does write his stunning narrative account of his captivity that described in detail the inhuman system of oppression that inspired abolitionists and would be challenged in the Civil War. McQueen, however, renders the dynamics of his liberation as a surprising stroke of good luck, unlike Parks’ Solomon Northup’s Odyssey which signals the eventual freeing of Northup and the process through which his wife and white patron’s search for him are successful. Hence, despite the rigorous modernist aesthetics and brutal depiction of the horrors of slavery, McQueen’s 12 Years provides a rather conventional story of survival and endurance, followed by a Happy Ending, a genre very popular in contemporary Hollywood cinema, embodied in 2013 films like Gravity, All Is Lost, and Captain Phillips.
The most radical political films depicting slavery in the Americas like Gilles Pontecorvo’s Burn! (1969), or Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s The Last Supper (1976), feature slave rebellion and portray collective revolt, although they may have a leader like Cinque in Amistad, or José Dolores in Burn!. A 1994 Canadian film Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad, directed by Don McBrearty, also features collective struggle, showing white abolitionists and slaves working together to smuggle slaves out of the South and into freedom, despite great dangers.
12 Years, by contrast, is a narrative of survival and endurance where with one narrative exception, Solomon Northup/Platt accommodates himself to the system in order to survive. McQueen deploys Hollywood frames of individualism to depict one heroic survivor of slavery, whereas the film mentioned above depict collective struggle and focus on an array of characters, all involved in the great abolitionist movement to eliminate slavery that prepared the way for the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet in a deeper existential/political register, McQueen’s film, like the works of Kafka and Beckett in Adorno’s analyses, expresses the horror and monstrosity of slavery in ways that capture its pathology and obscenity and provide no redemptive moments except for Northup’s survival. McQueen’s modernist aesthetic produces images that burn into the deepest layers of the spectators’ mind and provide an experience of a horrific history that has profoundly shaped U.S. culture and society to this day.