Yet the film flinches here, I think. Patsey tells Northup that she'd rather he whip her than let Epps do it; remaining the perfect martyr, she absolves him. (Though the film is apparently very loyal to the real Northup's text, it's telling that this line is Ridley's, not Northup's.) He does indeed whip her, but Epps soon takes over, leaving Northup free to chastise him defiantly from the sidelines. So 12 Years a Slave allows Northup and Patsey's relationship to end with a tender embrace, as he regains his freedom. It plays as tragic, because we know how horrible Patsey's life will continue to be. But it's pure. The film limits the emotional and moral complexity here because it can't afford to risk our identification with Northup.
Here in the United States, we tend to identify with success, even if it’s eluding us at the moment. I think it stunts our compassion. Consider John Steinbeck’s great observation: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Polls suggest that large percentages of Americans think they’ll soon be in the top 1 percent of wealth.
Not surprisingly, these tendencies manifest themselves in our media. David Simon—who created one of the few mass entertainments I can think of that’s honest about individuals’ odds against oppressive systems—has spoken sharply about this:
The thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution. ... That’s the story we want to be told over and over again. And you know why? Because in our heart of hearts what we know about the 21st century is that every day we’re going to be worth less and less, not more and more.
We're so acclimatized to individual catharsis in entertainment that we barely even notice it; we are hard-pressed to imagine other narratives.
So perhaps it’d be fairer to say the limitation is not with 12 Years a Slave but with us as an audience. 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.
The story of Solomon Northup is a powerful one, and this is an important film. But I can’t help thinking of what Stanley Kubrick is said to have remarked about Schindler’s List. Kubrick was friends with Steven Spielberg and admired the film, but with a crucial reservation: "Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't.”
Throughout 12 Years a Slave, sadistic slavers try over and over to take away Northup’s humanity. But they do not succeed. That, more than anything else, marks 12 Years a Slave as an American film. It may move through despair, but it’s on the way to another destination. In our entertainment, there is only so much we can take. Is it even possible to make a movie that tells the absolute truth about slavery? That, Northup or no Northup, for two awful centuries of American history, the individual was not bigger than the institution? We can handle 12 Years a Slave. But don’t expect 60 Years a Slave any time soon. And 200 Years, Millions of Slaves? Forget about it.
Correction, Oct. 21, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the character Patsey.