Agency & Ambiguity in 12 Years a Slave

I saw 12 Years a Slave on November 29, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I don’t quite know how to talk about how the film made me feel, but I can tell you that it was the opposite of a clinical, academic reaction. I went to an evening show, and I was glad that I could leave the theater in the dark and did not have to go about my business for the rest of the day. 12 Years a Slave

I went to see the film on the heels of a week-long trip to Selma to conduct interviews, and as I watched the film, pieces of those narratives flashed through my mind. The use of the n-word. The contrast between Ford and Epps, two points on a spectrum of evil, one complicit the other openly sadistic. The destructive toll on the humanity of all involved. More than anything, Northrup’s struggle against and within a system designed to strip the enslaved of all agency. As I watched, I thought about the stories my narrators had shared, and I saw Jim Crow in the attitudes and relationships on screen.

Part of why I wanted to see 12 Years so badly was that I was still angry about Django Unchained, the Tarantino revenge flick about a white man who frees an enslaved man and teaches him how to wreak vengeance on his former oppressors. Django bothered me on a lot of levels; beyond its obvious function as a statement piece so that Tarantino could prove how not racist he is by using the n-word liberally, I hated the way the movie bought into all of the stereotypes we have about the mid-19th century without challenging them. I hated the way Tarantino underdeveloped his female characters. I hated the way he played along with the made-up sport of mandingo fighting, when the true sadism of slavery, I thought, was in a thousand more mundane and horrifying moments. The excessive violence and Tarantino’s self-congratulatory smugness sickened me–and I generally like Tarantino’s work.

Django UnchainedThe problem at the core of Django, for me, is agency. Both films depict slavery as a state where agency is largely stripped from black (male) character. Django is given his agency by the protagonist of the film, the bounty hunter Dr. Schultz, and he uses it to go on the offensive and rescue his wife–after, of course, he fulfills his bargain with Schultz, who freed Django because Django could identify Schultz’s quarry, the Brittle brothers. The problem, from my perspective at least, is that Tarantino repeatedly implies that the enslaved men could be free if only they stood up to their oppressors. As others have pointed out, this entire premise implies that enslaved people did not engage in resistance and that if they had, slavery would have ended.

12 Years also engages in questions of agency, and part of what makes the film so gut-wrenching is how hard McQueen drives home that sense of powerlessness and the arbitrary nature of the justice meted out. There is a scene where Northrup stands up for himself against the plantation’s carpenter. Several members of the audience openly cheered when this moment took place, and I even laughed once because while it was as unexpected as it was welcome. At the same time, though, my chest clenched in anxiety because this act of rebellion, this moment of seizing agency, would only bring more violence on Northrup–and it did. When Northrup ultimately regains his agency, like Django, it is at the hands of white men, although the context is far more complex as we see Northrup leave behind his fellow enslaved workers who will be no doubt bear the brunt of Epps’ wrath at losing Northrup.

Unlike in Django, where white slave owners and their minions are treated as uniformly evil, 12 Years presents a much more nuanced picture. McQueen lets us see the spectrum of complicity, as well as the toll the entire system takes on those who are a part of it. The “good” plantation owner Ford remains a slave owner, and for all of his apparent compassion for Northrup, the human being he owns along with many others, it is he who sells Northrup to Epps who is known for his cruelty. Ford only seems good in the sense that he lacks Epps’ sadisim, but he is still a willing and conscious participant in the system. Epps, meanwhile, is indeed a sadist, but seems also to be tormented by a mania that disrupts his wife’s life as well.

Mistress Epps and Patsey
Mistress Epps and Patsey

The women in 12 Years are more than the two-dimensional characters presented by Django. The relationship between Mistress Epps and Patsey, and their relationships to Epps is complex (and there’s a fantastic discussion of it here). McQueen allows us to see the intersections between race and gender and how these relationships play out in the omnipresent violence of white (male) supremacy. This tension continued well beyond emancipation; the defense of white Southern womanhood prompted lynchings and rioting well into the 20th century. To me, this is the most profound contribution of 12 Years; not its depiction of slavery per se, but the way the film shows the complex racial and gender-based relationships rooted in slavery that have continued on well past emancipation.

The end of the 12 Years is ambiguous. Our protagonist Northrup has been reunited with his family, but he never receives anything approaching justice for his years in bondage, nor are the men responsible for his capture held liable. The circumstances of his death are unknown. We never learn Patsey’s fate–she is always standing in the dusty road, scarred visage fading while Northrup begins his long-awaited journey home. This ambiguity parallels much of the historical experience; emancipation did not beget equality, the desegregation of schools has not closed the achievement gap, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement have not resolved institutionalized racism, the election of President Obama did not usher in a post-racial society.

Our role as historians is not to shy away from these ambiguities, but to bring them to the fore and discuss them. The (admittedly idealistic and possibly naive) reason I decided to pursue public history was to find ways to use my interest and skills as an historian to make some sort of contribution to society. I am deeply optimistic that despite the ambiguity of our victories and distance we have left to travel, that by engaging with our past we can find solutions to the challenges of the present and even hope for a better tomorrow.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blessed:

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.


Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

*This post was originally developed for another project, and as such is cross-posted elsewhere.