There’s been a lot of discussion in the past couple of days about the contemporary political relevance of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave in the past several days. Writing in New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait singles out a scene in which Tibeats (Paul Dano), a lower-class white man who works as an overseer for a plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), reacts with hysterical anger when Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) challenges the instructions Tibeats has given him about siding a house. Tibeats begins to lynch Northup, only to be stopped by another overseer, who leaves Northup hanging just close enough to the ground to keep from choking to death.
“Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor,” Chait writes, comparing Tibeats reaction to the behavior of contemporary conservatives who see President Obama as arrogant, suggesting that they are “enraged that a calm, dignified, educated black man has failed to prostrate himself.”
Ross Douthat, in a rebuttal, mounts what I think is a convincing argument against the idea that 12 Years A Slave will be a broadly enlightening experience for white viewers — not that I think McQueen, whose motivations as a filmmaker are much more complex than that, intended his film to serve that purpose.
“When you watch a film in which black people are kidnapped, sold as chattel, whipped and beaten, raped and starved, torn from their families, and otherwise treated as subhumans in law and custom both, the gap between that kind of structural racism and the kind of structural racism that manifests itself in differential arrest and prosecution rates, wealth and income gaps, and hiring and interviewing decisions could actually seem much, much larger than it did before you watched the worst realities of slavery depicted on screen,” Douthat writes. “A liberalism that expects conservatives to see their present-day positions and rhetoric illuminated and condemned by a cinematic portrait of the evils of slavery in 1840s Louisiana — or that declares them unreachable when they don’t — is a liberalism that’s as unready for dialogue as any insensitive right-wing talk show host.”
Both of these pieces are a good argument for focusing our attention on a different character in 12 Years A Slave if we want to talk about the connective tissue between the events of the film and our present political conversation. Both Dano’s performance as Tibeats and Michael Fassbender’s work as Edwin Epps, a sadistic man with a reputation as a slave-breaker who regularly rapes a woman he owns named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and makes her a target for vicious violence to satisfy his wife (Sarah Paulson, as a volcano about to blow) are excellent. Tibeats’ hatred for Solomon is, as I wrote in my initial review of the film, a striking portrait of how a sense of racial superiority can be tremendously valuable to people who have less class status. And Epps’ behavior is a revolting illustration of a man who violently dominates others because he can’t master himself. These are not behaviors that have vanished from Americans’ psyches and American life, though the expressions of them are different. The allegation, for example, that Paula Deen wanted to recreate a “Southern plantation-style wedding” that would feature black men in short pants and bow ties as waitstaff is an expression of that lingering modern sense that racial superiority is a desirable class marker. But I think Douthat is correct that even if the allegations against Deen are true, many people wouldn’t recognize the connective tissue between Tibeats’ belief that he has the right to kill to affirm his superiority and the idea that Deen’s belief that black subservience is a desirable commodity she can purchase.
Instead, the character who I think might be more uncomfortably recognizable in our present moment is Ford, the first man to purchase Northup after he has been drugged, kidnapped, and delivered to a slave trader (Paul Giamatti). Ford is someone who likes to think of himself as enlightened. He’s first attracted to Solomon when the slaver informs Ford that “This is a nigger of considerable talent,” and shows off Northup’s skill with his violin. When Northup proposes a new scheme to turn the palmetto groves around Ford’s plantation into a canal system, Ford tells Tibeats, who has objected to the idea that Solomon could have useful expertise, “I’ll admit to being impressed even if you won’t.” When Tibeats tries to lynch Northup, it is Ford who ultimately cuts him down.
But while Ford is willing to save Northup’s life, appreciate his talents, and enjoy his company, all recognizably modern ways for a white man to relate to a black man, Ford’s self-interest remains first in his mind in his dealings with Northup. When he gives Northup a violin, Ford tells him “I hope it brings us both much joy over the years,” simply assuming that Northup derives the same pleasure from their relationship, and that he’ll live out his life under Ford’s benevolent ownership. Ford’s moral imagination doesn’t include the idea that Northup might be happier somewhere else. And when Tibeats threatens Northup’s life, Ford is willing to save Northup, but not to take the consequences of protecting him in the long term. “You are an exceptional nigger, Platt,” Ford tells Northup, attempting to explain why he’s selling Northup to Epps to get Northup out of town. “But I fear no good can come of it.” The scenario is particular to the era in which Ford and Northup lived. But the idea that, when it came to a loss of money, or social position, or a situation that asks a white person to side with black people against other white people, white people may not be willing to risk their interests on behalf of black people is not yet past.
Epps and Tibeats are monsters, but their behavior, if not vanished from our country, is less frequent, and more likely to result in prosecution and social sanction. And while the circumstances that occasioned Ford’s specific behavior have been outlawed, his attitudes remain prevalent. Every time a white person invokes a black friend or friends as proof they couldn’t possibly be racist. Every time there’s a suggestion that African-Americans ought to be grateful for the opportunities they have instead of demanding more. Every time there’s a repulsed reaction to the idea that we should accommodate our fellow citizens in our speech, or consider discomfiting ourselves even in some minor way to make our society more just. We may goggle at the monstrosity of Edwin Epps and Tibeats, and congratulate ourselves that they have been reduced to vicious ghosts. But I wonder if we see less talk about Ford because he is the character in 12 Years A Slave we might well flinch from in recognition. His well-meaning, his obliviousness, and ultimately his abandonment of responsibility to another human being in defense of his own comfort are alive and well today.