The somber close of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave eloquently unsettles one of the most vexing aspects of U.S. race relations: a uniquely American desire for a happy ending. This desire surfaces in a variety of places to do with national mythmaking and storytelling. And why not? What's so wrong with a dose of optimism, with ending a story on a note of hope? For one thing, this craving forecloses more challenging, more complicated, and often more accurate renderings of our country's history. By the same token, it bespeaks Americans' interest -- particularly, it must be said, white Americans' interest -- in being finished with difficult conversations about slavery and its enduring racial legacies. 12 Years a Slave, a phenomenal achievement of artistry and historical fidelity, is perhaps most compelling in the various ways in which it actively thwarts this desire.
Hollywood treatments of racial history routinely provide the emotional satisfaction of the "happy ending" in one of a few ways. Some of these are literal, whereby heroes who have fought the good, antiracist fight triumph at the end of their travails. In the spectacularly combustible ending of Quentin Tarantino's 2012 movie Django Unchained, Django (Jamie Foxx) dramatically vanquishes all of his foes and rescues his damsel in distress Brunhilda (Kerry Washington). Just before he blows up Candieland, the film's symbol of slavery's depredations, the camera zooms to Brunhilda's face wearing an expression of childish glee, her fingers stuck into her ears. Its spectacles of cartoonish wish fulfillment root Django deeply within the realm of fantasy; however, satisfying for black audiences who long to see a black conquering hero, its simplicity also invokes a particularly American appetite for false or easy answers to the legacies of racism.
Many movies that forsake overtly happy endings compensate with another form of wish fulfillment by installing morally upright white characters at their narrative center. Think, for example, of 2011's The Help, in which a progressive-minded white woman galvanizes the resistant spirits of black domestics in her southern hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, by collecting and publishing their stories of life in domestic service. These characters give white audiences someone to "root" for (since rooting for black people cannot possibly furnish ample pleasure), stoking a comfortable sense that things are now different, or would already have been different "back then" if someone like them had been around.
12 Years a Slave sharply rejects both of these conventions. Its white characters are complicit with slavery; some even revel in their unchecked power. Yes, as the Canadian carpenter Bass, executive producer Brad Pitt assists the illegally enslaved Solomon Northrup toward the film's end. But he appears too briefly to constitute a heroic center, like Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) in Glory, or Jake Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) in A Time To Kill. It is Northrup, who has no reason to trust any white person by this time, whose bravery is underscored by his continued seeking for freedom at great personal risk.
Yet even after underscoring Northrup's courage, the film's ending avoids the happy, tearjerking close of a movie like The Color Purple, which joyously reunites sisters who have been separated for a lifetime. There is more bitter than sweet when Solomon returns home to his family, whom he barely recognizes. He offers them a halting apology, of all things, for his appearance. "I have had a difficult time these past few years," he says, in what must be the biggest cinematic understatement of all time. Even less triumphant is the written epilogue explaining that Northup's kidnapers were never punished, and that the date and place of his death were never recorded. These devices halt any temptation to imagine Northrup in the glorious tradition of American exceptionalism. Even Northrup's relatively privileged status as a free person of color proves illusory and insignificant; being "exceptional" does not protect him from enslavement, nor does it keep him from dying in anonymity, having never received justice for the grievous crimes committed against him.
This less than happy ending captures an even larger truth: that the legal abolition of slavery did not set American race relations right. On the contrary, it merely revealed the depth of the injury suffered by this country's African-American populace, and the profound struggles they faced in the light of Emancipation. This suggestion reverberates outward with disturbing clarity; if slavery's ending was not happy, perhaps neither were the "ends" of American lynching, or of Jim Crow segregation, or of the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe most unsettling for some Americans, though wholly unsurprising to many Americans of color, is the idea that these may not have been "endings" at all.
Hollywood movies are notoriously good at reducing complex problems to isolated, emotional experiences. Personal choices, not structural or systemic forces, make the difference between winning or losing in these films. Yet in 12 Years a Slave, Northrup's "triumph" over slavery is set against the permanent context of an oppressed community in which we see him operate. The film refuses to imply that his individual emancipation is a victory for all African-Americans, especially when it is barely a victory for Northrup himself.
The happy endings of films on racial themes reflect Americans' collective investment in concluding a conversation that has barely begun. Ironically, some viewers may even see in 12 Years a Slave the potential for "closure," especially as it accumulates box-office dollars and major awards. Just as many still hope or even presume that the election and reelection of Barack Obama has ushered in a long-awaited "post-racial" phase of American life, an acclaimed film from a major U.S. studio that makes so little pretense about white oppression and black trauma must mean that we can at last "move on" from slavery and its long and varied shadows. Not so. By refusing the happy ending, 12 Years a Slave proclaims that its story is only the beginning.