by Matt Brennan
Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and unto God the things that are God’s.
Standing before a rose-strewn trellis, looking out over the rows of men and women bound to labor in his Red River lumber mill, Baptist preacher and Louisiana slaveholder William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) recites from the Book of Matthew. Though director Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave depicts but an excerpt, the chapter from which Ford draws his sermon registers as troubling, even alien, to modern ears. In the parable of the marriage feast, Jesus relates the tale of a prince’s wedding to the doubtful Pharisees—of rejected invitations and destructions waged, of an underdressed guest the groom’s father demands his servants to “Bind hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” To Jesus the nuptials resemble the kingdom of Heaven. “For many are called,” he remarks, “but few are chosen.” The epigraph that begins this essay is the passage’s most famous phrase, but it is a few verses hence that the camera captures Ford’s stern, sonorous oration and the enslaved staring back at him, unmoved: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” he says.
Against the thousand variations of violence to which 12 Years a Slave bears essential witness—the image of kidnapped Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging from the long arm of an ancient tree as the routinized horrors of the “peculiar institution” carry on behind him, or of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) after a whipping, her back’s patchwork of bleeding wounds weaving a narrative of torture that surpasses the power of the word “evil” to describe it—Ford’s sun-dappled sermon at first appears unworthy of note: the emblem of a planter whom Northup himself described, in his memoir of the ordeal, as a “kind, noble, candid, Christian man.” Upon further reflection, however, the sequence seems to rest at the heart of McQueen’s rather radical project, which is to show history as it was rather than as we wish it had been—to resurrect Northup’s voice from the maelstrom of misconceptions, omissions, and outright lies that has defined the American cinema’s treatment of slavery almost since the moment of its invention, when The Birth of a Nation inscribed a new grammar for the seventh art by erasing—indeed, by desecrating—the past.
Historians have long noted that the slave’s narrative, of which Northup is one of the foremost authors in English, functions less as a transcription of enslavement than as a tacit negotiation with the white, abolitionist interlocutors who often facilitated publication. This is not to suggest that Northup’s account is not “true,” nor to deny that by comparison with the virulent Edwin Epps, played in the film by Michael Fassbender, Ford should seem humane, even gentle. It is only to propose that Northup’s narrative proves more generous than even his most generous owner, and that 12 Years a Slave, adapted by John Ridley, subtly implies Ford’s “benevolence” to be at best misapprehended, at worst feigned. In the final estimation, the preacher William Ford fails to understand Scripture as malleable, multifarious, and open to interpretation. He glosses over the chasms in his exegesis, for he is the ruler of a kingdom that murders and mauls those unwilling to pass through its gates; that binds them hand and foot and tosses them into the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing; that neglects the hubris inherent in seeing ownership of people as the mark of Caesar and of God. Historians have long noted that the God of the enslaved was in fact the God of Moses, who levied his faith in a land of milk and honey against the immediate experience of Hell on Earth, but to talk about 12 Years a Slave is to talk about how much history has failed us, and we it.
Spend enough time poring over chicken-scratch plantation ledgers, crumbling wills, stained congregational registers, taped-together press reports, and miserly court dockets, and it becomes possible to glimpse the profound gulf that opens between the slaveholders’ God and the slaves’—between Caesar’s tribute and Canaan land, master’s Heaven and bondsman’s Hell. In the archive, cold and church-quiet, musty with the scent of volumes opened for the first time in centuries, one confronts the abyss of the past more directly than in any historic house tour or costume epic. Something about the fragility of the paper, the bleed of the ink: here is the hard evidence of former lives, the faintest reflection of a desk-bound clerk or cotton king worrying over his subsequent sentence. 12 Years a Slave, sketching at once the raw intimacies of slavery and its irrevocable distances, is for me the movies’ closest kin to the bleed of the ink.
The documentary record of American slavery, and particularly of the slaves’ experiences, offers little in the way of firm conclusions, forcing the historian to suture together maddeningly elusive scraps of the past into something resembling a narrative. It’s this notion of history as an unfinished puzzle that most appeals to my sense of nonfiction writing as a craft, less like painting than sculpture or collage, a matter of refashioning the materials to reflect at once the order of a story and the chaos of life. As a graduate student in the colonial and antebellum history of the U.S. South, this is what I do: I pin slaves’ ghost stories to the wall in thematic clusters, arrange index cards inscribed with census data on the floor, treat the spindles of yarn I discover in the archive as sweaters waiting to be knit, unraveled, and knit again until I understand what happened, or at least understand that understanding what happened is not these labors’ inevitable outcome.
This is, as you might expect, a frustrating endeavor—history is a horizon line, omnipresent but always out of reach. In moments when the ghosts resist description, when the sweater emerges full of holes, it is impossible to stave off the onrush of doubt, impossible to ignore the niggling feeling that I’d do better by the subjects of my scholarship if I admitted defeat in the face of their bold and endlessly complex humanity. By comparison, historical films—especially those that play fastest and loosest with the facts—seem comfortably whole, and though I understand this to be an illusion, an evasion, I find it easy to sink into their plush assurances. Though I no longer count Gone with the Wind among Hollywood’s finest films, unable to set aside its Lost Cause mythos to focus on the drapes, I still sometimes discover it on television and awake from my reverie a few hours later, drugged by its venerable charms.
Perhaps it’s this fugue state in critical thinking that many movies strive to produce which makes historians so prickly about accuracy. We understand intuitively, because the conclusions in our own work necessarily prove so incomplete, that no peer-reviewed article or scholarly monograph stands a chance against Selznick’s romance or Spielberg’s grace. And yet I struggle, balancing a career that demands a commitment to the truth with another, film criticism, so frequently dedicated to appreciating fiction, against historians’ severity — or, to put it more charitably, their rigor. The impulse to ensure that the most widely disseminated images of the past honestly reflect its complications is surely a virtuous one, but at what point do we risk missing the forest for the trees? If filmmakers have an obligation to history, what obligation do historians have to art? Where do we draw the line between the forgivable elision and the unforgivable sin?
As it happens, 12 Years a Slave is a vastly more accomplished piece of work than either Selznick’s or Spielberg’s, both better history and better art. Certainly, McQueen’s drama has its detractors—scholar Carole Boyce Davies decried the absence of black resistance in the film, while Armond White, now somewhat infamously, described the film as “a repugnant experience,” depicting Northup without “spiritual resource or political drive,” its “mawkish” rendering of “existential victims” allowing the viewer to “feel good about feeling bad.” I wondered, reading Davies’ measured investigation and White’s rhetorical grenade, if either had in fact seen the film, or only spied it through their fingers. Davies, at least, is correct in noting that Ridley’s adaptation excises scenes of resistance that appear in the memoir, and admits that no film can be expected to mirror its source material with “absolute fidelity.” But what of those sequences that do, in fact, suggest opposition to mastery? What of Northup planning to abscond in the woods, only to come upon a group of white patrollers and (accurately) assess his chances of escape at that moment as approaching zero? What of his decision to fight resentful carpenter John Tibeats, of his betrayed plan to write home about his kidnapping, of Patsey’s bar of soap or the mutinous passengers on the ship to market or Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) relating with certainty that “in His own time, the good Lord’ll manage ’em all”?
I do not profess to know all there is to know about the entwined histories of slavery as it was and slavery as the cinema has imagined it. I do not wish to see12 Years a Slave left unquestioned by scholars and critics and ordinary viewers solely because it’s been marked with the imprimatur of praise. I do not have an answer to the question of where history ends and fiction begins, where our obligations fall when it comes to our past, or to our art, where understanding what happened becomes understanding that we will never exactly understand what happened. My vocabulary shrinks before the enormity of what was done, and of what has been done since to distort it.
When I wrote before that to talk about 12 Years a Slave is to talk about how much history has failed us, and we it, I meant to suggest that we have never done a very good job in this country of reconciling stated ideals and lived reality, current politics and foundational crimes. But sometimes a work of art approximates the bleed of the ink so closely as to bring the horizon line infinitesimally nearer, and this may be the most we can ask.
In retrospect, William Ford’s terse reading of Matthew manages to express the core conflict of slavery’s terrible regime, which is that planters, benevolent and brutal alike, believed the enslaved to be Caesar’s, while the enslaved understood they were God’s. That Armond White considers Solomon Northup to be without “spiritual resource” seems, in this vein, to reflect White’s contrarian politics more than the film itself: the moment in 12 Years a Slave that cuts the deepest is Northup’s rumbling, sorrowed rendition of “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”
Northup—a free black musician from New York—has been tricked into joining a pair of derelicts in Washington, D.C., drugged, chained, and sold into slavery on the far reaches of the Mississippi River Valley. The scene features the enslaved assembled at the corner of a burial plot—unmarked graves fenced in by gnarled branches—a stone’s throw from the veranda of the plantation manse, responding to an elderly woman’s (Topsy Chapman) clapping, heavy-hearted call. At first Solomon keeps silent, staring dazedly into the ever-receding horizon of his unknown future and his stolen past, but as the voices of his fellows grow in strength he joins in with the faintest whisper, and then with a fierce and desperate groan:
Roll, Jordan, roll
Roll, Jordan, roll!
My soul will rise in Heaven, Lord,
For the year when Jordan rolls.
Perhaps it is only fitting that we should demand so much of 12 Years a Slave. So rare is the film that strives to represent the full complement of slavery’s complexities that we must, perhaps, hold it to account for all of the misperceptions, omissions, and outright lies that preceded it. So uncommon is our culture’s confrontation with the abyss of the past that when it arrives we demand to know what it renders pornographic and what pretty, what suffering it emphasizes and what resistance it silences, where it fails history and where it does it justice.
It is worth noting, then, that the bondspeople depicted in 12 Years a Slave respond not to the master’s sermon but to the enslaved woman’s spiritual—a song reflecting African heritage and American experience, terrible burdens and otherworldly sustenance, intimate sadness and communal strength. In this stricken chorus I see a microcosm of the film’s foremost accomplishment, which is to recognize that slavery was never just one thing, but an almost incomprehensible multitude. It encompassed slaveowners who used the lash sparingly and those who used it sadistically; those who raped and those who preached; it encompassed slaves who rebelled, who ran away, who talked back, and those who grieved, who despaired, who sought suicide; it encompassed the innumerable avenues by which the enslaved made families and found God, and thereby squared a space, against seemingly insurmountable odds, in which it was possible to envision the year that Jordan rolls. Slavery was tobacco and rice and cotton and sugar, Baltimore docks and Texas frontier; it was house and field, city and country, industry and agriculture; it was at various moments in our history North, South, East, and West. It was—is—inextricable from the nation itself, and whatever its imperfections, 12 Years a Slave honors this fact by refusing to flatten it.
I am a white man born more than a century after slavery’s end who spends his days studying the distant lives it so profoundly shaped, living in a carriage house once worked by slaves, in a city built by slaves, in a country made by slaves, in a world defined by slaves’ deaths and—more importantly—by their survival, and it remains impossible to express the enormity of it.12 Years a Slave falls short on this count, too. It succeeds where so many other artifacts of popular culture have failed not because it is “true”—the seeming wholeness of “Truth” is, after all, its most insidious lie—but because it is honest, and because this is perhaps what we must ask of history, and of art.
I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the Bible reads.
For many are called, but few are chosen, the Bible reads.
Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s, the Bible reads.
My soul will rise in Heaven, Lord / For the year when Jordan rolls, Solomon Northup sings.
Who is Caesar, and who God?
This is what 12 Years a Slave asks, which may be its way of indicating that what is in fact unforgivable is the past itself. That is the foremost mark of its permanence.
Matt Brennan is the TV critic for IndieWire's Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Deadspin, Slant Magazine, Flavorwire, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he's watching @thefilmgoer.