12 Years a Slave has arrived in theatres already barnacled with expectations. In its festival appearances, it met with critical acclaim, and Oscar odds-makers had already slated it for various awards. Viewers buy their tickets, sit down in their seats, wait for the lights to dim, and expect great things. But viewers also have other, deeper expectations. The dominant cinematic story of slavery has been the story of white redemption and white heroism against an unfortunate institution perpetuated only by the most sadistic of bad white men. Even today, it is exceedingly rare to find a story about slavery that doesn't emphasize how good-hearted white people can be and how inherently just, good, and equal America is. In American movies, black suffering redeems white characters and affirms white nobility.
12 Years a Slave tells a different story, but because the familiar narrative has conditioned us to view “slave movies” as a genre, we — especially white viewers — may find our expectations unsettled. This unsettling is one of the great virtues of the film.
This is a movie about slavery in the United States from 1841 to 1853. We watch such a movie anticipating not entertainment but enrichment, enlightenment even, though only after emotional hardship. We expect to see terrible deeds committed by white men with Southern accents and whips, we expect to see downtrodden, suffering black people. We expect feelings. This affective and narrative pattern dates back at least to Uncle Tom's Cabin, published a year before Solomon Northup, the movie’s protagonist, was returned to freedom. The pattern was reiterated through various slave narratives, where it usually served the specific and necessary purposes of abolitionist propaganda: to educate white people, to help them see and feel the horror of slavery, to teach them that slaves and escaped slaves have emotions and thoughts, that such people can and should be empathized with, that laws should be changed and slavery ended.
Solomon Northup contributed to this literature with his own memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, one which was especially detailed and forthright because, unlike many other ex-slaves (relatively few of whom were able to escape from the deep south, as he did), Northup's status as a free man was well-established in court, so he had little to fear from his former owners.
The average contemporary American viewer — and particularly, like me, a white viewer — likely has a head full of ideas and images of slavery not so much from primary sources, but elsewhere: various novels, educational documentaries, television movies. Even Northup's story, which waned in popularity after the Civil War, was adapted for PBS's American Playhouse in 1984 by director Gordon Parks as Solomon Northup's Odyssey, a staid, conventional, lugubrious adaptation. (Parks might have made a great movie from the material, having directed not just Shaft but also an occasionally powerful biopic of Leadbelly. He was not, though, able to break out of the standard formula for TV movies about historical characters, and the performances often seem forced and amateur.)
Despite the images in our heads, though, there have been few feature films that have sought to depict the everyday realities and brutalities of slave life in any extended way, and most have been, at best, problematic. The most viscerally affecting slavery films have both in some manner been based in a tradition of gothicism and spectacle: Mandingo (1975) and Django Unchained (2012). These films dig deep into the sordidness and violence of the milieu, highlighting the sadistic psychopathy bred by the system and, in the case of Mandingo especially, the flows of psychosexual power. More than representations of any actual history, both are in dialogue with the history of slavery's representation on screen, and they draw their effect not only from what they show but how they evoke, parody, critique, and enact the cinematic past.
Too often, Hollywood has been unable to escape the patterns established with The Birth of a Nation (the first movie to be shown in the White House) and Gone with the Wind, those two great gravitational forces that warped the depiction of race and slavery in cinema for decades. "For many years," Robin Wood wrote in Sexual Politics and Narrative Cinema, "Gone with the Wind, with its overwhelming prestige and popularity (reinforced and perpetuated by its various revivals), had offered general audiences a sentimental travesty of white/black relations and the 'realities' of slavery in the Deep South: the proposition that some Southern families were kind to 'their' blacks (the truth of which one doesn't have to doubt) not only distracted attention from the many that weren't but obliterated the fundamental humiliation, the fact of slavery itself."