Richard Wright described problems of violence and inequity in the U.S. along these lines: "There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem." Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is a narrative of this "white problem." Beyond debates of whether the film is historically accurate, overly sensational, too brutal, or tame, an expanded reading of 12 Years reveals a historical phenomenon rarely portrayed so explicitly on the silver screen: the pathology of white racism.
The film establishes Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as an intelligent, respectable freeman of color, living with means and a beautiful family in Saratoga Springs until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Slavery is something that happens to Northrup. He must learn to adapt. His character arcs when he sings a spiritual with other slaves, marking a kind of acceptance of his enslavement. The audience can sympathize with Northrup's situation with the benefit of knowing that it will end. The title affirms it. Twelve years for Northrup, 133 minutes for the viewer.
But this is all too safe a viewing experience for a film that is meant to disturb. Slavery is not a universal experience and does not transcend race. Slavery did not just happen to white people.
The praise of the film as the "ultimate testimony to slavery" strikes me not only as disingenuous, but also dangerous. Other, at least more honest, reactions have been disappointment, disconnection, even, boredom. With the spectacle of violence (especially on the bodies of people of color) so well-worn on screen, this disengagement is because viewers are not able to empathize with the characters.
To elicit empathy, a character's fears, joy, flaws, and strengths must be felt, deeply, by the viewer. Northrup's situation is certainly compelling; it's devastating, horrifying. But in terms of his character's development, there is little indication of how Northrup humanly endures his enslavement. Instead, Northrup's character - as written in the film - serves a cipher through which the violence of slavery is visualized on screen. The female slave characters, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye), are further symbols - of suffering, desperation, and grief. (Nyong'o and Ejiofor's performances are all the more remarkable because they inhabit their roles with gravitas by sheer force of talent, despite the thin development of their characters.)
Black British director McQueen's filmic interpretation of an American slave narrative pulls focus away from the characters of the slaves, to foreground instead the pathological racism of the white slavers, most notably in Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson), who are significantly more developed, nuanced, and complex characters.
So, let's reframe 12 Years for what it is: a portrait of pathological white racism.
Racism is not about right or wrong. It is not something that can be turned on and off. Pathology seizes the entire body - not just of the individual, but the collective body of society. Pathology infects the way we see, and bleeds into the ways we experience the world.
In 12 Years, this pathology manifests through desire - not just sexual, but also social and cultural - to occupy, control, and consume everything until the myth of white manifest destiny is concretized in law, laid in the foundation of an entire economy, and preserved by culture. Religion, music, and dance masquerade this pathological racism as truth, beauty, love, and art. This pathological white racism did not stop with the individual slaver; it was the life force of slavery as an institution, and its legacy.
Slavery was not inevitable. Slavery was made possible by a pathological affirmation of white life over all other life. In an early scene, Northrup sits in chains confused about who sold him into slavery. The men he had traveled with were good men, they were artists. Pathology exceeds morality, and rationality.
12 Years must be read in the context of McQueen's work as a director. His forte is keenly observing pathology without letting viewers distance themselves with easy moral judgments, as evidenced by Shame (2011). Feeling bad about the suffering of others is not enough - particularly when this suffering is depicted in an aesthetically pleasing film set against a lush landscape.
How do we contend with the legacies of slavery in our daily life? Where do we locate ourselves in relation to images of racial injustice and violence? Is the pathology of white racism invisible to those infected?
These questions have troubled me since I saw 12 Years at the opening night of the 24th New Orleans Film Festival. The historic theater housed an audience that was more racially diverse than at most festivals, but still primarily composed of white people. I was there as a juror for the feature film competition. On the special occasion of the film's premier in the city it was both set and filmed in, the festival director quieted the audience for a surprise performance. Eight members of the OperaCréole, dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos, took the stage. They began to sing compositions written by Edmond Dédé, a freeman of color violin prodigy creating music in the mid-1800s. A few minutes into the performance, the audience began to chatter, quietly at first, and then progressively louder with each number. I could see the intensity and emotion of the singers, but I could not hear their song. There was just too much noise. The following night, three days after his release from nearly 42 years of solitary confinement, Angola 3 member and political prisoner Herman Wallace passed away.
Guilt is not an appropriate response to a film when white racism endures.
"Movies are an empathy machine," Rogert Ebert said. "Good films enlarge us, and are a civilizing medium." To be earnestly enlarged - and civilized - by 12 Years would mean to recognize the slavers' pathological racism as tied to one's own, even as it repels, and hold that difficult, internal confrontation long enough to cause a crisis within one's sense of self and place in the world. Empathy compels us to see ourselves reflected in the very things we judge as evil in others, to implicate ourselves in society's ills, and to rearrange our desires towards the building of a better life, for all of us.
In Toni Cade Bambara's ground-breaking novel, The Salt Eaters, a healer character asks the protagonist: "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?... Just so's you're sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well."
None of us are safe from the pathology of white racism. The most intimate corners of our lives and eyes have been infected. But are we ready to see it, and be well?