Sunday, July 19, 2015
To ensure we think correct thoughts people such as Ridley and McQueen are entitled to take such liberties as may be necessary to shield us from whatever actual moral and historical complexity may be found in the true story. Our cultural guardians safely assume that the very few among us who may take the trouble to dig deeper into a story will be safely marginal. Marginality notwithstanding, I will endeavor below to share with you a few key examples of the fabrications and distortions in the 12 Years a Slave film.
In his written memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853, 1997), Solomon Nothrup wrote:
... I came not to the conclusion, even once, that the southern slave, fed, clothed, whipped and protected by his master, is happier than the free colored citizen of the North. To that conclusion I have never since arrived. There are many, however, even in the Northern States, benevolent and well-disposed men, who will pronounce my opinion erroneous, and gravely proceed to substantiate the assertion with an argument. Alas! they have never drank, as I have, from the bitter cup of slavery. [p. 121]Yet, this same Solomon Northrup also wrote:
Our master's name was William Ford. He resided then in the "Great Pine Woods," in the parish of Avoyelles, situated on the right bank of Red River, in the heart of Louisiana. He is now a Baptist preacher. Throughout the whole parish of Avoyelles, and especially along both shores of Bayou Boeuf, where he is more intimately known, he is accounted by his fellow-citizens as a worthy minister of God. In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman, and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness. [pp. 89-90]And:
During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as his fellow-mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all. I think of him with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days. [pp. 104-105]When Northrup runs away from an abusive part-owner John M. Tibeats (his actual surname was Tibaut, according to Fiske et al., The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave (Praeger, 2013) p. 7), he flees to William Ford and describes the reunion and his recovery as follows:
... I continued my travels, and finally, about eight o'clock, reached the house of Master Ford.Needless to say, Ridley and McQueen omit all of this material from Northrup's memoir. They further contrive to paint William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a decidedly more sinister light. For example, Ridley and McQueen invent a scene (at ~36:00) where a fellow slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), and Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) dispute over Ford's morality. Northrup mounts no defense of Ford such as we find in his memoir, where the dispute does not even appear.
The slaves were all absent from the quarters, at their work. Stepping on to the piazza, I knocked at the door, which was soon opened by Mistress Ford. My appearance was so changed—I was in such a wobegone and forlorn condition, she did not know me. Inquiring if Master Ford was at home, that good man made his appearance, before the question could be answered. I told him of my flight, and all the particulars connected with it. He listened attentively, and when I had concluded, spoke to me kindly and sympathetically, and taking me to the kitchen, called John, and ordered him to prepare me food. I had; tasted nothing since daylight the previous morning.
When John had set the meal before me, the madam came out with a bowl of milk, and many little delicious dainties, such as rarely please the palate of a slave. I was hungry, and I was weary, but neither food nor rest afforded half the pleasure as did the blessed voices speaking kindness and consolation. It was the oil and the wine which the Good Samaritan in the "Great Pine Woods" was ready to pour into the wounded spirit of the slave, who came to him, stripped of his raiment and half-dead.
They left me in the cabin, that I might rest ...
AFTER a long sleep, sometime in the afternoon I awoke, refreshed, but very sore and stiff. Sally came in and talked with me, while John cooked me some dinner. Sally was in great trouble, as well as myself, one of her children being ill, and she feared it could not survive. Dinner over, after walking about the quarters for a while, visiting Sally's cabin and looking at the sick child, I strolled into the madam's garden ...
I indulged the most grateful feelings towards Master and Mistress Ford, and wishing in some manner to repay their kindness, commenced trimming the vines, and afterwards weeding out the grass from among the orange and pomegranate trees. The latter grows eight or ten feet high, and its fruit, though larger, is similar in appearance to the jelly-flower. It has the luscious flavor of the strawberry. Oranges, peaches, plums, and most other fruits are indigenous to the rich, warm soil of Avoyelles; but the apple, the most common of them all in colder latitudes, is rarely to be seen.
Mistress Ford came out presently, saying it was praise-worthy in me, but I was not in a condition to labor, and might rest myself at the quarters until master should go down to Bayou Boeuf, which would not be that day, and it might not be the next. I said to her—to be sure, I felt bad, and was stiff, and that my foot pained me, the stubs and thorns having so torn it, but thought such exercise would not hurt me, and that it was a great pleasure to work for so good a mistress. Thereupon she returned to the great house, and for three days I was diligent in the garden, cleaning the walks, weeding the flower beds, and pulling up the rank grass beneath the jessamine vines, which the gentle and generous hand of my protectress had taught to clamber along the walls.
The fourth morning, having become recruited and refreshed, Master Ford ordered me to make ready to accompany him to the bayou. There was but one saddle horse at the opening, all the others with the mules having been sent down to the plantation. I said I could walk, and bidding Sally and John good-bye, left the opening, trotting along by the horse's side. That little paradise in the Great Pine Woods was the oasis in the desert, towards which my heart turned lovingly, during many years of bondage. I went forth from it now with regret and sorrow, not so overwhelming, however, as if it had then been given me to know that I should never return to it again. [pp. 144-148]]
Ridley and McQueen also significantly alter an incident that does appear in the book. When Tibeats (Paul Dano) tries to lynch Northrup (at ~48:00), they have Ford's overseer, Chapin, defending Northrup solely as a piece of valuable property who is nevertheless left dangling from a hangman's noose for hours. Here's how Northrup described the actual event:
At length, as they were dragging me towards the tree, Chapin, who had momentarily disappeared from the piazza, came out of the house and walked towards us. He had a pistol in each hand, and as near as I can now recall to mind, spoke in a firm, determined manner, as follows:
"Gentlemen, I have a few words to say. You had better listen to them. Whoever moves that slave another foot from where he stands is a dead man. In the first place, he does not deserve this treatment. It is a shame to murder him in this manner. I never knew a more faithful boy than Platt. You, Tibeats, are in the fault yourself. You are pretty much of a scoundrel, and I know it, and you richly deserve the flogging [from Northrup] you have received. In the next place, I have been overseer on this plantation seven years, and, in the absence of William Ford, am master here. My duty is to protect his interests, and that duty I shall perform. You are not responsible-you are a worthless fellow. Ford holds a mortgage on Platt of four hundred dollars. If you hang him he loses his debt. Until that is canceled you have no right to take his life. You have no right to take it any way. There is a law for the slave as well as for the white man. You are no better than a murderer.
"As for you," addressing Cook and Ramsay, a couple of overseers from neighboring plantations, "as for you—begone! If you have any regard for your own safety, I say, begone."
Cook and Ramsay, without a further word, mounted their horses and rode away. Tibeats, in a few minutes, evidently in fear, and overawed by the decided tone of Chapin, sneaked off like a coward, as he was, and mounting his horse, followed his companions. [pp. 115-116]So, contra Ridley and McQueen, by Northrup's own account, he was never actually hung and there is rather more to Chapin's defense. However, Northrup was inexplicably left suffering in the hot sun:
As the sun approached the meridian that day it became insufferably warm. ... I would gladly have given a long year of service to have been enabled to exchange the heated oven, as it were, wherein I stood, for a seat beneath their branches. But I was yet bound, the rope still dangling from my neck, and standing in the same tracks where Tibeats and his comrades left me. I could not move an inch, so firmly had I been bound. To have been enabled to lean against the weaving house would have been a luxury indeed. But it was far beyond my reach, though distant less than twenty feet. I wanted to lie down, but knew I could not rise again. [pp. 118-119]Ridley and McQueen seem to want us to understand this as indifference to Northrup's suffering, they even concoct an appearance by Mistress Ford who, in stark contrast to Northrup's written characterization of her, gazes upon the choking Northrup and then calmly walks away. She makes no such appearance in Northrup's memoir and, concerning Chapin, Northrup writes:
All day Chapin walked back and forth upon the stoop, but not once approached me. He appeared to be in a state of great uneasiness, looking first towards me, and then up the road, as if expecting some arrival every moment. He did not go to the field, as was his custom. It was evident from his manner that he supposed Tibeats would return with more and better armed assistance, perhaps, to renew the quarrel, and it was equally evident he had prepared his mind to defend my life at whatever hazard. Why he did not relieve me—why he suffered me to remain in agony the whole weary day, I never knew. It was not for want of sympathy, I am certain. Perhaps he wished Ford to see the rope about my neck, and the brutal manner in which I had been bound; perhaps his interference with another's property in which he had no legal interest might have been a trespass, which would have subjected him to the penalty of the law. [pp. 119-120]When the incident first begins William Ford is miles away in the Great Pine Woods. Chapin sends for him as soon as Tibeats departs. When Ford arrives, Northrup, according to his memoir, literally thanks God and Ford cuts his bindings. In the film (at ~53:00), Ridley and McQueen uses the immediate aftermath to contrive to have Eliza's harsh judgment of Ford vindicated. When Northrup tries to tell him he is a not a slave, but a freeman, Ford protests: "I cannot hear that."
In fact, according to Northrup, he never disclosed his status to Ford: "Sometimes, not only then, but afterwards, I was almost on the point of disclosing fully to Ford the facts of my history. I am inclined now to the opinion it would have resulted in my benefit.This course was often considered, but through fear of its miscarriage, never put into execution ... " (p. 91). Ridley and McQueen also use this scene as an opportunity to have Ford call Northrup a "nigger," something Northrup never recorded Ford doing in his memoir.
Ford was not the only slave owner for whom Northrup had kind words. Here is how he described Mary McCoy:
... a lovely girl, some twenty years of age. She is the beauty and the glory of Bayou Bouef. She owns about a hundred working hands, besides a great many house servants, yard boys, and young children. Her brother-in-law, who resides on the adjoining estate, is her general agent. She is beloved by all her slaves, and good reason indeed have they to be thankful that they have fallen into such gentle hands ...
I dwell with delight upon the description of this fair and gentle lady, not only because she inspired me with emotions of gratitude and admiration, but because I would have the reader understand that all slave-owners on Bayou Boeuf are not like Epps, or Tibeats, or Jim Burns. Occasionally can be found, rarely it may be, indeed, a good man like William Ford, or an angel of kindness like young Mistress McCoy. [pp. 284-286]Finally, Ridley and McQueen take liberties with the historical figure of Harriet Shaw. Northrup (who refers to her once as "Charlotte" on p. 231) notes that she is the slave cum wife of Pleasant Shaw and she is a kind friend to Patsey, unwilling concubine of the cruel Edwin Epps (pp. 254-255). Beyond this, Northrup says little else.
Well, this is an opportunity Ridley and McQueen cannot pass up. So, in their film, there is no apparent love between Harriet and Pleasant Shaw. There is no allowance that Blacks could and did accommodate themselves to American slavery as slave-owners. No, instead Ridley and McQueen invent dialogue (at ~67:00) not found in Northrup's memoir where Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) coldly prophesies an apocalyptic vengeance: "In his own time, the good Lord will manage them all. The curse of the pharoahs were a poor example of what wait for the plantation class."
In fact, Black women, such as Anna Kingsley, fully assimilated into the "plantation class". So, did Black men such as Anthony Johnson, who in 1655 became the "first slaveholder" in the thirteen colonies that became the United States. And don't even think about mentioning the 5.6 million slaves in present-day sub-Saharan Africa. No, the unsettling facts of slavery must not be allowed to contaminate the slaveowner-White-evil equation because 12 Years a Slave was created in support of a modern-day racial agenda and that agenda is not to be held hostage to the truthful retelling of Solomon Northrup's story or any other inconvenient facts.
In Northrup's lifetime his memoir was hailed for, not despite, its complex honesty: "NORTHRUP will be believed, because, instead of indiscriminate accusations, he gives you the good and evil of Slavery just as he found it. All kindnesses are remembered with gratitude. Masters and Overseers who treated slaves humanely are commended; for there, as here, were good and bad men" (Salem [NY] Press, July 26, 1853, as quoted in Fiske et al., p. 115). Today, such truth is seen as inconvenient, at best, and, perhaps, a Stockholm syndrome-type expression of internalized self-deception or, at worst, an unconscionable apology for evil.
See also: Black Slaveowners
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