Saturday, November 9, 2013

Worse than Wage or Debt Slavery

"12 Years a Slave,” film directed by Steve McQueen, 2013. 

This European film has been reviewed as the ‘anti-Django’ – a straight-forward look at slavery without the revenge fantasy part.  It comes off more like a PBS production lacking in emotional depth, which even in this version seems to prettify slavery.  For one thing, people sure don’t work much in this film.  Yet that was the whole point of the system.  Nor does anyone sweat while working, yet this is hot and humid Louisiana bayou country.  The other drawback is that Solomon Northrup, the focal character, is a middle-class black, and his fate is individualized in the film.  It is as if we can only feel sympathy for individuals, not groups.  This is a conservative tactic by film makers.  The film obviously resonates with the fears of even today's middle-class Afican-Americans who know they are one step away from a police killing, a layoff or a scandal that loses them their livelihoods. 

This is the 1841-1853 true story of a free black man, Solomon Northrup, living in Saratoga, New York.  He is lured to Washington, D.C. on the promise of work playing his violin by two overly-friendly white men, then drugged, chained and sold into slavery.  He moves as property between slave owners, from what seems like Charleston, but is supposedly New Orleans.  The plantations used as sets are 4 real ones in the New Orleans area, one a few miles from where the real Solomon Northrup spent most of his 12 years.  Northrup starts with a ‘liberal’ slave owner Ford, who partially protects him.  Ford orates from the Bible while a slave woman cries about her stolen children; and eventually sells Northrup to another slaver after Northrup defends himself against a punk racist ‘cracker,’ Tibeats, who had tried to beat him.  Northrup ends up with the brutal ‘Epps,” a red-bearded religious type who drinks too much, is capricious and sexually abuses one of his slaves, Patsey.  But since slaves are property, evidently none of this is immoral or a crime. 

The film covers many of the familiar totems of the slave narrative – the whipping post; blacks who assist the slave masters through fear; the white wife who resents her husband having sex with ‘animals;’ the (overly black) mixed progeny; the outlawing of reading and writing by slaves; families torn apart on the selling block; random violence and perversion; religion in the service of crime; and more uses of the n-word than even Tarantino.  It does add some details.  It shows how even the ‘liberal’ massa was part of the same system, no matter his personal feelings.  It also doesn’t hide the fact that the so-called wonderful character of females was of no avail, as Epps’ wife is perhaps even more brutal than he.  It even has one black woman who has successfully escaped the whip or labor through the affections of her plantation owner – sort of the ultimate ‘house negro.’  In a somewhat confusing soliloquy, she declares herself content, while all around her slavery continues.  The film’s most obvious point is that slavery corrupted the white people more than the blacks – but it didn’t stop there.

The most powerful scene is when Northrup is almost hung by Tibeats, and is left partially hanging on his tiptoes for hours while slave children play and slave women do their laundry.  There is little solidarity except for one woman who brings him water.  Ford eventually cuts him down.

Every southern white is of no help to Northrup.  One key event is when a poor white man arrives to work for Epps for wages, picking cotton, and picks the least.  He lives in the slave quarters with the others, tends to Northrups whipped back, and seems sympathetic.  So Northrup trusts him, giving him some money to mail a letter north and, after agreeing to mail the letter, the man betrays Northrup to Epps. 

Northrup’s only help is a Canadian carpenter – Brad Pitt - that comes to build a gazebo on Epps’ plantation, and is overheard lecturing Epps on the evils of slavery.  Northrup again trusts the carpenter, and this time, his trust is not misplaced.   Northrup is eventually rescued by his white northern friends, who bring his legal papers.  In a key scene, he looks back at Patsey and all the rest of the remaining slaves as the carriage moves off the plantation.  To my mind, this is the view of the ‘talented tenth’ who are able to escape some economic bonds, while the other 90% of the black population continue to suffer.  These films about slavery seem to be stand-ins for the present condition of the U.S. black population.  Right now, the black middle class as exemplified by Obama has abandoned their ethnic compatriots. The real Northrup became an anti-slavery activist at least. 

This film punctures the ideas that liberal whites, women, house negroes, even your fellow slaves are of much help in an oppressive situation like this.  One thing I find amazing is that the film says Northrup's only friendships were with two women, when you’d think all the male slaves would be very, very tight too.  The only violent resistance is at the outset, when one black man clumsily tries to attack one of their captors, and is stabbed to death.  A true story, a prelude to the coming storm, but a film that is more like ‘Roots II' than anything else.

Red Frog
October 9, 2013

P.S. - Presently the estimates of the number of virtual slaves in the world now is between 2.4 (ILO/U.N.) to 27 million people (Kevin Bale).  The jargon is 'human trafficking' which includes forced labor or prostitution, debt bondage, forced marriage, child imprisonment for some kind of exploitation, and plain slavery.  It is estimated that there are 60,000 people living in the U.S. who fit into these categories. Recently a case of a domestic servant from Kenya came to light, who was imprisoned in her home by a rich Saudi woman in Irvine, California along with 4 other people from the Philippines.  This kind of slavery is a reflection and natural outgrowth of the capitalist labor system worldwide, in which workers have few or no rights, and many governments do little to actually end the practice, as it is very profitable. 

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