I saw 12 Years a Slave the other day, and it’s a darn good movie—certainly the most visceral onscreen depiction of the peculiar institution I’ve ever seen, rivaling the harrowing slave ship scenes from Amistad.
One reason the film is so powerful is because Solomon Northup makes for an especially relatable protagonist. Anyone who’s thought about the history of American slavery has probably sympathized with the people who were victims of it, but sympathy for someone is not the same as identification with them. Identification requires you to be able to see yourself in a character, and living your whole life as someone else’s property is so foreign to the experience of most modern Americans that it’s difficult to put yourself in that place.
Northup wasn’t born into slavery; he had his freedom, a home, and a family before losing it all when he was abducted. You can see yourself in him. And in the movie, he’s thrown into this brutal new reality at the same time you are. You’re on his journey alongside him, and that lends the experience a special kind of impact.
Of course, if Northup’s exceptionalness makes him a useful surrogate in approaching the subject of slavery, it also means that we have to remind ourselves of how atypical his story is. Most slaves were born into bondage, lived their entire lives in that condition, and died without publishing their stories. Peter Malamud Smith explains the dilemma:
It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We’re more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.
In other words, this individual’s story can’t take the place of millions of other slaves’ untold stories. But it more than compensates by reminding us, as few other slave narratives can, that behind each of those untold stories was an individual.