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The Shame of Victimhood

We finally saw 12 Years a Slave last week.

And yes, it’s stunning. Both in its “sober beauty” and in the powerful wallop it packs, it’s stunning in the sense that it renders you speechless — and fills me with admiration for the professional movie reviewers who had to digest and render account of the experience on deadline. I know I couldn’t have done so, though I can urge you to see this movie if you haven’t. Even if (as we did) you’ve been putting it off because you know it’ll be painful.

It will be painful, and I’m guessing it will remain so in your memory, perhaps as it has in mine. But for me, anyway, it wasn’t painful in the way of trauma that shuts off thought and inquiry. Not only have the images lingered, but they’ve raised questions, first sending me back to Solomon Northup’s original 1853 narrative, and then forward to a gazillion movie reviews and articles, to see how other viewers took it in, and whether they understood certain scenes as I did.

Which is why I’m writing about it here — to try to think through my questions some more. And — if you have seen it — to check in with you and see what you made of, in particular, the movie’s closing scene, of Solomon Northup’s reunion with his wife and (now) grown children, that Slate’s critic Dana Stevens rightly called “soul-rending,” and “the unhappiest happy ending” she’d ever seen, “a moment that makes you weep not just for this one man who found his way back to freedom, but for all those men and women who never knew it in the first place.”

All of which is true and eloquently put, if impossible to imagine without reference to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face, emotions passing over it in agonized, complicated sequence. But which doesn’t account for what he says, which is to apologize to his family through his tears, and which I found deeply mysterious.

Apologize for what, I wondered? There’s no such apology in the memoir. And surely (as Northup’s wife hastens to say) no apology is necessary, most especially from some one so unambiguously victimized. Is it because Northrup nonetheless feels he ought to have understood this own vulnerability? That it was vain, self-regarding, simply foolish, to have let his guard down? That not only he but also his family have suffered for his hubris?

Is there something about the sight of his children, grown up without him? Is it all of the above, in some inextricable combination?

Or is it perhaps that there’s a kind of shame that adheres to suffering, even the most undeserved suffering? I’m not even exactly sure what I mean by this last, but it’s the pole to which my thoughts continue to gravitate, that seems to me to sum up all the other possibilities. The isolation of the feeling.

And does this have anything to do with director Steve McQueen’s last movie, called Shame?

I’d be grateful to hear what you think.


  1. I think the apology–apparently regarded as necessary and so inserted by Steve McQueen, since you found no apology in Northup’s book–must come from some sense, looking back, that Northup does bear some blame for what happens to him. I found his willingness to follow two unknown men away from upstate NY to below the Mason-Dixon line very difficult to believe, especially in the absence of his family, and without any word passed along to them about where he’s gone. What loving family man would do that, and particularly one who is aware, as any newspaper reader would have to be, of the risks taken by a free black man away from his own community?

    I haven’t picked up ’12 Years a Slave,’ but on the basis of this setup to the story I’m afraid it sounds like an insufficiently imagined literary hoax, written for a credulous abolitionist audience, perhaps to pique their outrage by presenting a victim “like them,” middle class, well spoken, a staunch support to his family.

    I have no doubt that there were such men in their hundreds and thousands, potentially sympathetic subjects for a sentimental white readership. But I deeply doubt that those actual men could have been so easily abducted and enslaved. After all, this was a historical moment in which Southern slaver gangs roamed the North with impunity, carrying chains and legal writs to snap up anyone they could credibly accuse of having escaped servitude.
    Everyone knew it, many people were enraged by the legality of the practice, every black person would have understood the risk.

    So is ’12 Years a Slave’ bullshit? It probably is. And it’s interesting that so many people participated in its production despite the very obvious question you have raised, and the others that follow from it. I wonder if Steve McQueen was tempted to write the script as a hoax, to dig into the motivations and deceptions, if there were such, of Solomon Northup, whoever he actually was. It would have made a far more interesting movie, a much greater acting challenge, than the stolid suffering of the one-dimensional character so heartrendingly presented onscreen.

    Maybe the apology is McQueen’s, for having told the story as Northup wrote it rather than taking up the far more interesting possibility of the con. After all, slavery was an absolute evil, even though not universally acknowledged as such; slaveholders were evil, regardless of the extent of their individual brutality; people of
    African descent were victims of the insufficient moral development of the sea of whites surrounding them. All those elements of the story are true however it is told, and the more nuanced the better, from my point of view.

    Northup could have been a fascinating hero in the deceptions and mixed motivations I’m imagining for him, a worthy subject for a Spielberg, an ambivalent character confronting history bravely, and with all the twists of a human soul intact within him. That would have been a movie!

  2. Interesting. Thanks for your thoughts, Paul.

    But where I think you’re right to imagine that Northup’s memoir was tailored for the abolitionist audience (and I do wonder about the circumstances of his kidnapping), the memoir is nonetheless brilliant and surprising: both in the Yankee savvy with which Northup describes the economy he finds himself in, and the extraordinary completeness with which he observes Epps’s poisonous love for Patsey (done in the most proper 19th century language). Check it out.

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