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Why Did "12 Years a Slave" Get the Hollywood Treatment, Not Frederick Douglass's Autobiography?

Still from 12 Years a Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.

If a few years ago you had conducted a survey among historians and critics of American literature to predict which slave narrative would be first to get the Hollywood treatment, it’s doubtful anyone would have named Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, A Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana (1853).

Hands down, pretty much everyone would have guessed that the first to hit the silver screen would be Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.

Sure, all you have to do is look at Northup’s spoiler of a title to grasp this real-life tragedy’s cinematic appeal. But the sheer ubiquity of Douglass’ classic narrative on high school, college, and graduate school curricula should have made it a shoe-in for the big screen.

As it turns out, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave owes a lot to Douglass’ Narrative. From its title -- inscribed on a facsimile nineteenth-century envelope -- to its climax, the film dramatizes the insight familiar to any reader of Douglass: that the secret of “the white man’s power to enslave the black man” was the rigid control of black literacy. As early as 1789’s Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, slave narratives were reminding their predominantly (and influentially) Protestant readers that “Christ desired us to search the scriptures” -- and few hesitated to add that slaves were routinely denied the reading skills to do so. Douglass, who transfixed live audiences with spot-on impressions of slaveholding preachers, was particularly effective in driving this message home in his Narrative. But what, in Douglass, is a canny rhetorical appeal to well-meaning Protestant reformers will almost certainly be taken by today’s movie audiences as ironclad historical truth. (If you doubt this, just try telling those who’ve seen Django Unchained that “Mandingo fighting” was not a popular antebellum entertainment but is simply a product of Quentin Tarantino’s notorious imagination.) Viewers of McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave never lose sight of the myriad ways in which writing, as a technology, became a powerful weapon in the hands of those on both sides of the slave system. (In this, the film appears to be as influenced as much by its historical consultant, Harvard English professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as by Frederick Douglass.)

Upon finding himself shackled in a Washington D.C. slave pen, Saratoga, New York musician and family man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) protests his kidnapping only to be challenged by the unscrupulous slave-trader: “Resolve this: produce your papers.” And enslaved concubine Eliza (Adepero Oduye) is lured, with her children, into the same pen by her master’s cruel promise to make out such “free papers.” Having survived a sort of domestic Middle Passage to New Orleans, the kidnapped Northup is forcibly rechristened “Platt” by Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who clutches the ship’s bill of lading as his authority. Out on Louisiana’s cotton and sugar cane plantations, the whites who successively claim mastery over Northup wield their Bibles as righteously as they do the film’s ever-cracking whips. In one scene, Northup is tempted to flee on foot when his mistress, Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), dispatches him into town for dry goods, but the identity tag around his neck ties him to her husband’s hellish plantation just as surely as the foolscap paper he’s sent to purchase offers his only hope of freedom. As we watch his heroic struggles to obtain the paper, fashion the pen, and concoct the ink that will enable him to alert his Northern community to his plight, there is little doubt that, for McQueen’s Northup, as for the authorial Douglass, literacy will prove “the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.” Little surprise, then, that the brutal slave trader Burch (Christopher Berry) should threaten Northup at the beginning of his captivity: “Tell no one who you really are and tell no one you can read and write, unless you want to be a dead nigger.”

The warning does not appear in Northup’s book for the simple reason that it wouldn’t have made much sense. Without a doubt, slave literacy was a matter of great political sensitivity on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Defending themselves from charges of depriving slaves of the means of salvation, Southerners pointed to the nation’s bloodiest slave insurrection, led by literate Virginia preacher Nat Turner. Still, plenty of slaves could read, or write, or both. Proscribed by some state legislatures at some times (notably in the anxious period after Turner’s 1831 uprising), slave literacy was not so rare that -- as the film repeatedly implies -- the ability to read and write would have set a kidnapped freeman like Northup apart from his legitimately enslaved counterparts. Indeed, from Revolutionary-era Boston poet Phillis Wheatley onward, clerical and other tasks requiring literacy formed an important part of the labor some slaves were forced to perform.

To be sure, Northup himself recounts his strategic concealment of his free identity, as well as his nine-year struggle to send a letter to the North. Yet his Twelve Years does not join Douglass -- and those of us who teach his classic Narrative -- in emphasizing the transformative power of literacy. In high school and university classrooms the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is often taught as the representative slave narrative. Approached this way, the genre demonstrates how reading and writing became the “pathway from slavery to freedom” not just for an enslaved individual like Douglass (who used a black seaman’s papers to pass as a freeman on a northbound train), but for African Americans collectively, through the authorship and publication of these most political of personal narratives. As elaborated by Gates early in his career, this literary creation story has helped to institutionalize and popularize African American literature and history in the decades since the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Studies movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Without Douglass’ Narrative on so many reading lists, it is doubtful whether McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave would be in so many theaters today.

But if we attend to the warning the original Twelve Years a Slave actually attributes to the slave-trader Burch, we can learn a great deal about how Solomon Northup’s contemporaries, his fellow antebellum Americans, thought about slavery.

“If ever I hear you say a word about New-York, or about your freedom, I will be the death of you -- I will kill you; you may rely on that,” Northup reports Burch as threatening, adding in an aside to the reader, “I doubt not he understood then better than I did, the danger and the penalty of selling a free man into slavery. He felt the necessity of closing my mouth against the crime he knew he was committing.”

By the time Twelve Years a Slave was published, it had become commonplace for abolitionists to place “slavery ... on trial” before “the bar of public opinion” (as Douglass does in My Bondage and My Freedom [1855]). Confirming Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation about Americans’ tendency to settle their disputes in the “shadow of the law,” abolitionists encouraged the public to picture the slavery debate as occurring in a vast imaginary courtroom, with slavery as the “crime,” masters and mistresses as “the perpetrators of slaveholding villainy,” enslaved African Americans as “eye-witness[es] to the cruelty,” and their first-person narratives as “testimony” to “what Slavery really is” -- to again quote Douglass and his successor, Harriet Jacobs.

Published in this rhetorical climate, Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave is fascinating not for its resemblance to Douglass’ Narrative but for its radical difference from that and other classic works of literary abolitionism. After all, Northup’s enslavement was literally and not just figuratively a crime -- his enslavement was a case of “man-stealing” not just under higher law, and in the eyes of God, but under state statutes and in the eyes of man. Thus, Northup concludes the chapter recounting Burch’s threat by informing the reader that although, “for the present he [Burch] disappears from the scenes recorded in this narrative, ... he will appear again before its close, not in the character of a man-whipping tyrant, but as an arrested, cringing criminal in a court of law, that failed to do him justice.”

As film audiences are informed somewhat cryptically in the text that flashes on the screen just before the closing credits, en route from slavery in Louisiana to his reunion with his family in New York, Northup stopped in Washington D.C. to prosecute the slave traders who had sold him into bound servitude. The case fell apart when, according to Northup, “the court decided my evidence inadmiss[i]ble ... solely on the ground that I was a colored man -- the fact of my being a free citizen of New-York not being disputed.” It was soon after this, the case having been covered by the New York Times, that Northup collaborated with local lawyer David Wilson to write and publish Twelve Years a Slave.

“[C]orroborated by abundant evidence,” the Narrative gave Northup the hearing at the bar of public opinion he had been denied in the court of law. Addressing this more expansive tribunal, Northup goes beyond merely accusing his kidnappers. Testifying that “the institution that tolerates such wrong and inhumanity as I have witnessed, is a cruel, unjust, and barbarous one,” the restored Citizen of New-York speaks on behalf of the millions born into bondage, those “daily witnesses of human suffering” silenced by slave law.

But even as Northup found himself resorting to his fellow abolitionists’ metaphorical portrayal of slavery’s criminality, his book came nearer than any to closing the gap between literary metaphor and legal reality. When one of the purportedly thirty thousand copies of Twelve Years a Slave fell into the hands of New York judge Thaddeus St. John, the judge, realizing that he had unwittingly witnessed Northup’s abduction, provided information leading to the arrest and trial of the original kidnappers. When the protracted prosecution of this second case fizzled in legal technicalities, Northup, like more conventionally enslaved authors, ultimately found print a more reliable recourse to injustice than law.

The devastating outcomes of his two criminal cases notwithstanding, Northup was unusual in being in a legal position to prosecute his enslavers in a court of law. Rare -- and emotionally powerful -- as first-person narratives of free blacks abducted into bound servitude were, they also exposed a central contradiction in the abolitionist attempt to present the slave narrative as Exhibit A in their case before the court of public opinion. Depicting an actual “crime,” such anomalous accounts risked affirming the legitimacy of American slavery. The danger was that the reader might adopt the view of the Louisiana “legal gentleman of distinction” who facilitated Northup’s liberation. Learning of the kidnapped black man’s predicament, Judge John P. Waddill’s “emotions of indignation” were “aroused by such an instance of injustice.” Crucially, his sense of justice arose not from any principled opposition to slavery but, conversely, from an abiding respect for “the title of his fellow parishioners and clients to the property which constituted the larger proportion of their wealth,” and which in turn “depended upon the good faith in which slave sales were transacted.” By their very circulation, counterfeits threaten the value of legitimate commodities, weakening the market as a whole.

Understandably, McQueen’s version does not descend into such technicalities. In the film, as in the book, Northup tells Bass (Brad Pitt), the liberal Canadian carpenter who will help him contact his Northern rescuers, “if justice had been done, I never would have been here.” And justice seems to come, however belatedly, in the form of the sheriff (Jay Hugeley) who removes Northup from fields of the fiendish Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). But it is in this climactic identification of slaveholding law with a more abstracted justice that McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave itself seems at risk of confining itself to Southern proslavery Judge Waddill’s narrow sense of “injustice.” Law and justice blur together as, dabbing our eyes over the Northup family’s cathartic reunion, we lose sight of the fact that if justice had been done, none of Northup’s fellow African Americans would have been enslaved, legally or otherwise.