When Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, the French scribbler Gustave Flaubert critiqued the abolitionist novel by asking, “Is it necessary to utter one’s ideas about slavery? Show it, that’s enough.”
In other words, the “peculiar institution” that America finally shook off in 1865 is so self-evidently wicked and profane in the eyes of any decent person that to actually say as much is an insult to one’s audience. To wit: Presented with a scene in which a man with a whip is standing alongside a man with lash marks across his back, do you really need to be told which one is the bad guy?
It’s the “show, don’t tell” principle at work: If you have an idea to convey and the idea is true—factually and morally—then heavy-handed commentary is not required. Provide the dots and trust that your audience is clever enough to connect them.
With Steve McQueen’s extraordinary new film 12 Years a Slave, we have a document about America’s original sin of which Flaubert would likely approve.
The movie, based on an 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, does not preach to us about why we should disapprove of the practice of one group of human beings assuming ownership over another. Nor does it drone on about how such a system ultimately destroys the whole society in which it occurs—slaves and slave masters alike.
It doesn’t need to. Its depictions of what happened to Northup and others between 1841 and 1853 on a series of Louisiana plantations tell us all we need to know.
There is the sequence, for example, in which Northup is very nearly lynched for the crime of performing a given task with far more skill and efficiency than his master is comfortable with. Although the lynch mob is called off at the last moment, Northrop is left there to hang, his toes just barely reaching the ground, until at long last a compassionate hand arrives to remove the noose from Northrop’s neck.
Or the moment when Northrop’s master, Edwin Epps, nonchalantly rapes his most prized slave, Patsey, then immediately flies into a rage and beats her for—what? Allowing herself to be raped?
Or the bookend scenes in which Patsey is spotted by her headmistress making dolls from corn stalks, for which she is later punished in the middle of a dinner party with a whiskey glass to the head.
There is nothing subtle about any of this. Indeed, 12 Years a Slave fits neatly into the class of narratives that would be dismissed as over-the-top and preposterous were they not based on real events.
But 12 Years a Slave is real. It’s based on truth, and it is truth.
Therein lies the tension: If what is depicted by McQueen is so obviously abhorrent, how do we reconcile that it was nonetheless the official policy of the United States until a grinding civil war finally brought it to an end? How do we explain how such a self-evident truth was so violently and knowingly undercut for so long?
The short answer is that we don’t explain it at all, opting instead to comfort ourselves with lies.
Lest we forget, to this day there is a significant chunk of the American public that denies that slavery was the central question of the Civil War. Particularly in many corners of the South, the conventional view is that it was all a matter of state sovereignty. That each member of the Confederacy was merely defending its right to regulate itself, rather than be regulated by the federal government in Washington, D.C.
One can easily sympathize with such a sentiment on its face—what business is it of Congress to micromanage the economy of South Carolina?—but to view a film like 12 Years a Slave is to be reminded that, in 1860, the principle of “states’ rights” meant the right of white inhabitants of certain states to own, trade, control and torture black inhabitants of those same states. Or, in the case of Northup, black inhabitants of free states who get themselves kidnapped and their freedom revoked.
To scoot all of this under the “states’ rights” umbrella, as if to suggest that federal encroachment on state matters is the moral equivalent of keeping men and women in bondage—well, you will excuse those of us who find the argument not terribly persuasive in the grand scheme of life on Earth.
Some truths are more self-evident than others.