When watching Twelve Years a Slave, the question subtly presents itself, “What does it mean to be enslaved?” To be sure, the film leaves no room for ambiguity in antebellum America: slavery was the ownership of one human being (the black “slave”) by another human being (the white “master”) in a unilateral relationship of domination and instrumentalization, often to the point of death.
But Twelve Years a Slave also points to what might be seen as a deeper though less explicit form of enslavement without which the more well-recognized form of slavery would be impossible. In the narrative world of Twelve Years a Slave, we might define this more insidious captivity as the inability and/or unwillingness to see and come to the service of the other person’s suffering – a kind of moral bondage that leads to demoralized social institutions.
This complexity is central to what makes Twelve Years a Slave so deeply disturbing and challenging. To be sure, the film is clearly about how one group of (white) people enslaved another group of (black) people, with special focus on the life and struggle of the freeman Solomon Northup. But it is much more than a victimization story, showing how the seeds that make slavery possibly – looking the other way when confronted by the dehumanization of one’s neighbor – is in all of us, both “master” and “slave.”
We see this toward the beginning of the film in 1841 New York when we meet Solomon with his wife and family. They live in their home, wear beautiful clothes, and attend a high society ball. We watch Solomon shop with his wife in a fancy dress shop. While Solomon haggles over the price of a new dress with the shop owner, another black man steps into the shop, and the owner shifts his attention to him in an effort to distract Solomon from his bartering. But in a split second, we see that this second black man is a slave. His white master angrily commands him to come outside, apologizes for the nuisance, and Solomon’s shopping continues. He and his wife see but say nothing.
Only a few minutes later, Solomon himself has now been enslaved by a “master.” We see him writhing on the ground, wrestling with his chains, unwilling to accept that his freedom has been stolen. He screams, “Someone help me!” and then the camera pans upward from his cell to a panorama of Washington, D.C., with the Capitol Building in the center. It is as if the viewer is made to hear the mute cry of the other man in the beautiful dress shop but now in the desperate agony of Solomon’s voice from an animal-like cage in the shadow of the nation’s symbol of freedom and justice. The perversity – the moral captivity and enslavement – of the system is made unmistakable: the dominated one calls but no one answers. Later in the film when Solomon says, “If justice had been done, I would not have been here [in slavery],” we can’t help but remember the other man whose presence was seemingly disregarded.
Twelve Years a Slave is challenging on at least two levels. First, it looks unflinchingly at a brutal system of dehumanization that was propped up in the name of God, the Bible, and Christian piety. Multiple scenes show white “masters” reading the Bible together and propagandizing their “slaves” with manipulated teachings. But, second, the film takes a subtle but searching look at the way in which a moral “slavery” can enchain those of us who see ourselves as “freemen” but remain silent to the sufferings of those around us. In the name of “survival,” our passivity sustains a system we claim to oppose.