November 13, 2013

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Chiwetel Ejiofor

Northup’s hometown newspaper, the Saratoga Press, surmised that Northup had been an accomplice in a scam gone awry:

…it is more than suspected that Sol Northup was an accomplice in the sale, calculating to slip away and share the spoils, but that the purchaser was too sharp for him, and instead of getting the cash, he got something else.

Indeed, at least one of the con men who sold Northup had previously engaged in the skin game with another black as bait.

But Northup denied at length in his memoir that he would lend himself to such a dangerous swindle.

Still, this theory that Northup was a man of raffish character rather than the tediously upright one depicted in 12 Years a Slave might explain another puzzling aspect of his tale: how little help he got from his fellow slaves.

For instance, the movie explains that it took nine years for this talented man to get his hands on a single piece of paper to write his letter home. That implies that in all those years he had no help from the house slaves in pilfering a sheet of paper. In general, the movie depicts the other slaves as displaying remarkably little human warmth toward Northup. They mostly act like zombies whenever he is around. Perhaps they perceived him as untrustworthy?

When Northup finally arrived home, an abolitionist politician hired David Wilson, a white lawyer and part-time author, to be his ghostwriter. Wilson wrote Northup’s story in his own style, and they hit it big in the slave-narrative craze that followed the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An illustrated edition sold 30,000 copies”€”not as many as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, but more than enough to launch Northup on the abolitionist lecture circuit.

Sadly, he disappeared from history four years later. Some say he was re-kidnapped by the Slave Power to shut him up. But those who knew Northup best seem to have assumed that he had become a “worthless vagabond,” as his longsuffering wife’s obituary indelicately phrased it.

Almost all of this is left out of the movie as being far too interesting for Oscar Bait.

The book worked up by Northup and Wilson is a decent read. Like 1851’s Moby-Dick, it’s padded out with journalistic reporting on a then booming business: whaling in Melville’s case, cotton-growing in Northup-Wilson’s.

Unfortunately, adapting 1850s writing into a modern movie script is a difficult task.

Even first-rate Victorian literature such as the novels of Charles Dickens can be a challenge for modern readers due to the Victorians’ tendencies toward verbosity, sentimentality, and moralizing.

Although second-rate Victorian writing such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin has come in for more praise with the rise of feminism in college English departments, it’s best filtered through a more astringent, less credulous sensibility. For example, the finest 20th-century staging of Stowe’s bestseller is the wild “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I, in which the Burmese slave girl Tuptim restages Eliza’s escape from Simon Legree to call for her own manumission.

Third-rate Victorian literature such as Wilson’s as-told-to version of Northup’s memoir is tolerable today if the author understands his limitations. Wilson, for example, likely grasped that he didn’t have a knack for dialogue, so it makes up only a tiny part of their book. And most of the first-person narration is thankfully utilitarian. Only occasionally does Wilson have Northup reminisce in the grand Victorian manner:

Now had I approached within the shadow of the cloud, into the thick darkness whereof I was soon to disappear, thenceforward to be hidden from the eyes of all my kindred, and shut out from the sweet light of liberty, for many a weary year.

Readers in 1853 understood that nobody besides preachers and politicians actually talked like that. That was just fancy book-writing. Indeed, on the rare occasions when Wilson quotes Northup’s utterances, the slave speaks in a more plausible fashion, such as, “There is nobody I want to write to, ‘cause I haint got no friends living as I know of.”
Unfortunately, Ridley’s adaptation takes its inspiration for its made-up dialogue from the worst prose in the book. Since it would be racist for Ridley to show slaves, say, ending their sentences with prepositions, they instead orate pompous speeches toward each other, like Prime Minister Gladstone addressing Queen Victoria. (Not coincidentally, this is one of the very few movies that is rated R for violence and sex but not for obscene language.) As the hero, Ejiofor labors to bring life to these lines, with indifferent success.

It’s hard to make African-Americans boring, but 12 Years a Slave manages.


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