Sunday, January 26, 2014

Slavery, Identity, Faith, and Redemption

I hadn't planned on seeing 12 Years a Slave, simply because I knew it would be tough to watch. However, since I had just finished reading Uncle Tom's Cabin, I wanted to see how the same subject matter was handled.

[NOTE: Spoilers within.]

Before I go any farther, let me defend the character of Uncle Tom. The name is now commonly used as a racial epithet, but upon reading the book I couldn't understand why. Tom was good, almost too good, and he did defy Simon Legree. He wasn't servile; he survived the situation he was in without compromising his principles. It was apparently after the original Uncle Tom's Cabin was published that subsequent depictions layered demeaning stereotypes onto the character.

Uncle Tom and Simon Legree, in c1885 illustration - via Wikipedia
Critics have said that Uncle Tom was too good, even "foolishly good," while other characters--notably women in the story, like Cassy--believed that being forced to sin would not count against them in the eyes of God.

Back to 12 Years: There were plenty of similarities to Uncle Tom's Cabin in construction and character. Free black man Solomon Northup, reassigned the identity of Platt after his kidnapping into slavery, is the parallel to Uncle Tom. The young girl Patsey is a combination of Emmeline and Cassy on the Legree plantation (with Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw playing another side of the "sin to survive" Cassy role), and the two principal slaveholders--merciful Ford and merciless Epps--correlate to Augustine St. Clare and Simon Legree respectively. The wife of Epps is a cross between St. Clare's self-centered wife Marie and Lady Macbeth.

12 Years a Slave movie poster via IMDb.
As it turns out, Stowe was indeed influenced by Northup's story, as told in the newspaper accounts preceding the publication of his book. Her last chapter, "Concluding Remarks," is full of nonspecific references to personal experiences and reliable accounts that authenticate her story and characters, even though they are fictional.

What I wanted to see in the movie was whether Northup made the same choice that Tom did when faced with the same dilemma: whether to abandon their goodness for the sake of survival. And if he did not, if he defied the "Legree" character, what was his motive?

The character of Little Eva does not exist in 12 Years, perhaps because she was an impossible fiction, useful for Stowe's moral message to her audience. Eva, the daughter of merciful slaveholder St. Clare, befriends not only Uncle Tom, but also the untouchable Topsy. Eva was the morsel of Christian perfection that helped to feed Tom's soul.

In his defiance of Legree, refusing to whip another slave, Tom drew on his religious faith that forbade him from doing this evil thing. I guess we can argue that this didn't really save him, since he is ultimately beaten to death. But in a sense, he was saved because of his faith in the glory that his soul was being delivered to. His goodness was uncompromised.

There was little in the way of a Christian redemption for Northup, but he was a good and honorable man. His situation was different from Tom's because he had been kidnapped from freedom and denied his true identity. Northup would remain good and moral as much as he could as long as he could keep hold of his identity and the hope that it would be restored to him.

As Northup is continually betrayed, he loses sight of this true identity: He unthinkingly joins other slaves singing the empty promises of the spiritual "Roll, Jordan, Roll." He breaks apart his violin, in which he had inscribed the names of his family. In a climactic scene, when he is lost in his slave identity, he does the unthinkably evil thing that Tom would not: When so ordered, he whips the slave Patsey. He just doesn't do it with enough gusto to satisfy Epps, and so is relieved from the immoral duty.

What little reference there is to Christianity in this film (and I can't speak to Northup's book, only this adaptation) is ironic and hollow. We hear the Sunday sermons that the more merciful slaveholder Ford delivers to his audience of slaves, but they are underscored first by the taunts of one of his overseers and then by the heartbroken wails of a woman forever separated from her children.

If I posit that, though lacking Tom's Christian faith, Northup was equally noble, what was his salvation? Alike in dignity but dissimilar in education and background, Northup held onto the truth of his identity and was, to his own self, true.

No comments: