12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation:
two moments in representing race

a visual essay by Julia Lesage

In this essay I offer a close analysis of two films, 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation, made a century apart, about slavery and its aftermath in the United States. In one sense, 12 Years a Slave is today’s counter-narrative to Griffiths’ historically important work.[1] [open endnotes in new window]. I am hoping here that discussing these two films together lets us re-think cinematic historical representation in relation to the very different aesthetic and political choices that shape each film. Especially important, re-viewing The Birth of a Nation alongside 12 Years a Slave puts into clearer view U.S. racial history, and the history of racial representation, as the films provide insight into hegemonic social structures still troubling us today, such as the dangers that black men and women face in public space.

12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of a memoir by Solomon Northup, who was a free man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY. The film uses a realist mode of narration. Solomon was tricked into taking a job in Washington, DC, drugged, sold to slavers, and shipped South into capitivity.
Finally, almost miraculously, white friends from the North find out about him and effect a rescue, so that he is returned to his family.
The Birth of a Nation depicts the Civil War and Reconstruction through the eyes of two families, one from the North and one from the South. It draws from a virulantly racist novel, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon Jr. Above: an imagined idyllic past with happy slaves picking cotton in the background, while an incipient romance between a northern young man and a southern young woman advances.
The film opposes the anarchy that it posits comes from giving freed slaves the franchise. In this town, that political move was executed by a U.S. Congressman, a "mulatto" villain, and carpetbaggers, outside agitators from the North. The film uses melodrama and a metaphoric mode of expression to imagine the origin of the Ku Klux Klan as the birth of a nation, that is, the birth of a renewed South which seemingly restores public order after its defeat in the Civil War. The narrative ties together its imagined social disorder to a melodramatic plotline about "protecting white womanhood." One of the ways it does this is by demonizing interracial relations or "miscegenation." Such an ideology of racial purity was even more grotesquely developed in Dixon's novel. The result in the film script of centering the villainy on one self-deceived, liberal Northern Senator and a grotesque mixed race man was a commercially successful tactic and resulted in a widely seen "high art" film.

In considering the filmmakers’ political intention, I have no evidence that 12 Years a Slave’s director Steve McQueen or script writer John Ridley thought of The Birth of a Nation when developing their film, only that McQueen wanted to make a film about slavery since the details of that history are so rarely brought up in contemporary popular culture or acknowledged in popular memory. McQueen said in interviews that he long had the idea to make a film about slavery with the protagonist being a freeman kidnapped and sold into bondage. Such a character, as an “outsider,” would learn the rules of survival along with the viewer. McQueen and black screenwriter John Ridley read about U.S. slavery and discussed this project but did not settle on a specific approach until the director’s wife, Bianca Stigter, showed them Northup’s 1863 autobiography, 12 Years a Slave, filled with many concrete details about slave labor and the daily life of slaves.[2]

The Birth of a Nation, in contrast, was based on a racist sentimental novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, tracing at length the romance between two couples who bridge North and South, a Southern version of Reconstruction, philosophical discussions about whites and blacks as two species, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It is highly melodramatic, a kind of anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[3] To a certain degree, the older and newer films’ contrasting literary origins suggest the appropriateness of a very different visual style for each, although the style differences also can equally be attributed to new audience expectations across the large span of years. In this essay, I analyze 12 Years a Slave first, since it takes up the antebellum slave era in the United States. In turn The Birth of a Nation treats the antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. However, my organization is also conceptually motivated. 12 Years a Slave uses a realist narrative script and visual style, presenting many details of slave life; in contrast, The Birth of a Nation has a much more melodramatic script and suppresses references to the mores and economy of the antebellum South in favor of developing a new plotline about Southern white women under sexual threat from black men (the Southern “rape complex”)[4] and white men regaining public space, all of which is not depicted realistically but metaphorically (as the film’s title announces). Deriving from his left-liberal politics and his greater distance years-wise, McQueen’s contemporary film traces the story of what Griffiths’ conservative film, closer to the slave era, cannot face.

Metonymy and metaphor

Briefly put, 12 Years a Slave relies on a rhetoric of metonymy to draw meaning from its fictional world, while The Birth of a Nation delineates its fictional world in the service of a raced and gendered national metaphor. That is, 12 Years a Slave draws upon the conventions of “realist” cinematic narrative, as delineated by Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson in The Classical Hollywood Cinema.[5] The aesthetic tropes of that cinema have achieved a dominance in commercial fictional film and television worldwide, and in 12 Years a Slave, director McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley largely adhere to its conventions, breaking from them only occasionally for some specific reason related to the theme—one man’s experience under slavery.

In realist fictional cinema, audience expectations about cohesive and “readable” characters and spaces are adhered to, as well as audience expectations that costume, camera work (for example, long shot, close up, tracking, shot duration, continuity editing, and mise-en-scene) will be used in a predictable way to express meaning. In this perspective, “realist” meaning usually comes from metonymy, a rhetorical device in which the part—in cinema, a small visual detail or a camera move, such as a close up—can express the meaning of the whole. In fact, it is the way the narrative accumulates density by building upon and emphasizing one small embedded detail after another that makes it realistic.[6] The aesthetic “moves” of fiction filmmaking are well known by screenwriters, sound designers, costumers, actors, and directors but are often not noticed by audiences at all; the very word “continuity” means invisibility of process is the makers’ goal.

Metonomy: In cinematic realism, costume, body language, environment, foreground-background relations, shot compositiion, detail shots, camera angle and movement—all these contribute to the plot, usually in a redundant or mutually reinforcing way. Here Solomon conveys his status as a respected citizen and free man through his body posture, clothes, and relation to other businessmen. The scene conveys in an unspoken manner the labor of slave women on a Sunday at the plantation. They do their household tasks, their clothes are worn and drab, the big house is in sight in the background. The plantation "household," masters and slaves, were always in relatively close contact with each other. The slave women have an unspoken community among themselves.

The entire film, 12 Years a Slave, uses composition within the frame to connote Solomon's mental and physical state, and on a larger scale the differences between free and slave life. This medium shot which functions as a tableau shows the physical and social condition of Solomon (frame right) after he is taken into slavery and that of his his fellow slaves. They are at a slave market in New Orleans waiting to be sold. He is shackled. The two slaves in the center bear scars and also wear muzzle shackles. The slavers stand above them and wear suits. None of the slaves' faces are shown, a comment on the loss of individuality. The bodies and body language also invite viewer reflection on the human figures' social position and personal history.

In contrast, and coming at the inception of Hollywood fiction film and shaping it, The Birth of a Nation uses a much more overtly melodramatic structure, a dramatic genre which audiences at the time knew and loved. It pays very little attention to the kinds of structures that later films might delineate: versions of popular knowledge, especially about science, work processes, or psychological states; the war between the sexes (except for raced rape threat), the lives of the working class.

Rather, it takes for granted what Deborah Barker has described as the Southern rape complex, in which black-on-white rape becomes a metaphor for the defeated South, and indeed this film probably was one of the main vehicles for re-generating that complex over many years. Since the film excises the structures of slavery and the antebellum mindset of slaveholding class from its narrative, the film narrative projects onto blacks that class’s deepest fears—loss of civic control and white male impotency masked by this new emphasis on sexually aggressive black men.

Metaphor works by not representing something directly, here not developing reference to details of antebellum slave economy and daily life, both for masters and slaves. Rather the metaphor works by analogy (the rape of the South) and substitution of a comparator of a different order. Furthermore, not only did the rape metaphor shape a film narrative, it also became what George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would call a “conceptual metaphor,” a common ideological mindset that people in a given culture might use to organize their experience. Here the metaphor is about controlling public life and racial purity, including that of white women.[7]

Elsie Stoneman has been captured by Silas Lynch, who is determined to have her. He wants a white wife and would force her into marriage, the cinematic version of rape. The film's whole plot revolves around the threat to white women. Elsie is saved by Ben Cameron, who has ridden to her rescue with the KKK. He reveals his identity. This shot merges two of the film's two main themes, the birth of the Klan and the saving of white womanhood.

To say that the recent film, like many other theatrical successes, relies on a realism based in metonymy and that the older film relies on a popular melodramatic structure to develop a politically expedient metaphor is not to isolate these aesthetic strategies as unique to either film. 12 Years a Slave has many melodramatic moments of heightened emotion; and it, too, can be seen as delivering a “message” or metaphor for people; in fact, historical fictions often deliver messages for contemporary times. The Birth of a Nation, in turn, was hailed as milestone of realist historical fiction, especially in its depiction of the Civil War. It uses metonymy to establish what Roland Barthes calls “the reality effect.” In practice, theatrical melodrama was long known for taking up current problems and staging them with realistic sets and costumes; the plot structures however remained very similar—beleaguered innocents, suffering victims, heroes, villains, and evil vs. good.[9]

I turn now to a close analysis of selected moments from these two films to indicate how they tell their stories, reference history, and address an audience—or potentially have different effects on viewers depending on the viewers’ own situations. Since I have a background in both production and criticism, I have a particular interest in how cinematic/script tactics influence meaning and this will be reflected in what I see in the films and thus what I write.

Racial purity metaphors are most clearly developed in the film by depicting "race mixers" as self-deceived, criminal, or out of control, or all of these at once. U.S Representative Austin Stoneman is a thinly veiled version of real-life U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical wing of the Republican Party and one of the major authors of Reconstruction legislation. He was reputed to have a lifelong love relation with his housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith, here represented by the "mulatto" character, Lydia Brown. In Washington DC, Stoneman presents his protege, Silas Lynch, to the other Congressmen in a meeting at his home after Lincoln's death. The original novel, The Clansman, had long passages about the evils of race mixing, too extreme to be put in a nationally distributed film. Rather, such a philosophy is embodied metaphorically in the characterization.
Lydia Brown listens to Stoneman's elevation of Lynch with glee. She acts deranged in her expressions and movements. Later she collaborates with Silas Lynch to hold Elsie Stoneman captive while Lynch forces the young woman into marriage. Thus, not explicitly stated, but worked out in the narrative and characterization, the film locates "miscegenation" as evil and something that must be contained. Lydia Brown and Silas Lynch are thus metaphors for the consequences of race mixing.
12 Years a Slave: Solomon Northup as a free man in the North

12 Years a Slave introduces protagonist Solomon Northup as a free black man in 1841 living in Saratoga NY. Both he and his wife, Anne, work, he as a musician and his wife as a caterer who travels throughout the Northeast to work at hotels for special events. Solomon takes pride in his family and has a lively social presence in the town. At one point early in the film, in a flashback, we see him walking with his family on a commercial street, tipping his hat and chatting to another black family and then crossing the street, the whole family well dressed and freely enjoying access to urban public space.

The family enters Parker’s store, where the children run in first and the younger takes a piece of candy. Anne Northup is shopping for a carryall bag for a trip away from home; she picks out a bag that Solomon thinks is a little expensive. Then a simply dressed black man, whom we had seen earlier following behind a well-dressed white man on the street, enters the store, stands in the doorway, and wonderingly looks around. His unfamiliarity with such a store and its goods seems to mark him as a slave. As Parker excuses himself from Solomon and Anne and goes to greet this man as a potential new customer, the man’s master comes in and pardons himself for the intrusion. Solomon looks the master in the eye and responds cordially, “No intrusion,” as an equal. The man says, “Good day, sir,” addressing himself only to Parker, and deliberately so.

This brief sequence and our earlier view of Solomon’s family’s large two-story frame house present a somewhat utopian view of what a cook and a fiddler might afford at the time, but in fact it is a common kind of middle class mise-en-scene that film viewers are used to seeing as a protagonist’s “home.” In this narrative, these domestic fantasies of home preoccupy Solomon after he has been kidnapped and beaten and is held in a basement cell by slavers, about to be shipped South. The memories make clear to the viewer the kind of identity Solomon has relied upon as a freeman in the North and is now losing. Small aspects of the visual track, such as costumes or the acts of shopping, walking around the city, taking a carriage, freely talking with whites establish as a concrete reality Solomon’s way of life, which he will lose.

Just a walk in a park, with broad expansive spaces and freedom to move through them remains a memory for Solomon and the viewer in the latter two-thirds of the film.

Solomon and his wife both have careers and partake of the ideology of bourgeois individualism. As that ideology is enacted legally in the North, Solomon and Anne can enter into contract labor as free agents, use their money for clothing and a home, have full legal rights over their family, and live in a thriving urban space with many stores to shop in and places to visit or work. They have the freedom to move through all public space, including traveling out of state.

Following a freeman into slavery means that the narrative will focus on his loss of identity. Thus these origin-flashbacks of “home” are somewhat utopian since they are based on a memory of what Solomon has lost. They set up a contrast between the capitalist North and the agrarian slaveholding South as they indicate differences in economy, law, geography, public and private space, gender relations, and personal and social psychology. In terms of the narrative message, the script was based on research but in this historical fiction, such concepts which the viewer may or may not tease out, are expressed metonymically, through contrastive detail.

Solomon’s native concept of self is that of the bourgeois individual as it developed in the industrial North, along with ideas of entrepreneurship and the self-made, self-reliant man.[10] When Solomon takes a job that requires him to travel, for example, he looks forward to seeing more of the country. In particular, he is proud of his craft as a violinist/fiddler, his family and his role as pater familias, his companionate marriage, his house, his family’s personal appearance, and his ability to craft for himself and them “a good life.” Such moral autonomy means that he is free to grow, develop both material and inner resources, act, plan, create values, choose many aspects of his daily routines, and forge short and long term goals. In particular, to think of oneself as an individual means assuming certain things about time: the reliability of cause and effect and the efficacy of planning forward to one’s own advantage. And because this vision of selfhood, a kind of possessive individualism, has become a dominant if often uncommented on ideology under capitalism, filmmakers most commonly invest a protagonist with such traits.

What is unique about 12 Years a Slave, and I will elaborate on this at length later, is that the way of filming social space says something about the power relations depicted, and thus about gender and race as well as about class. As the film progresses, uncommented upon visual details have much to communicate about how the industrial North and the slave South defined basic values and took for granted different versions of society. In watching the above scene, for example, first-time viewers of 12 Years may not attend to the slaveowner’s facial expression after Solomon addresses him directly, but they cannot miss how that man hustles his slave out of the store. I draw attention to this kind of play between small gestures and emphatic acts, because such an aesthetic strategy delineates social space throughout the film.

Solomon travels to Washington DC for a job as a musician, while his wife travels to a job of her own out of town as a caterer. Here he is with the con men before his drugging and betrayal. At this moment, he is still able to plan his life as a family man, artist, and businessman.

Narrative disjunctures

With a structure similar to a captivity narrative, 12 Years’ storyline has a double reversal, the capture and the rescue. In this film there are also two major “punctuation” scenes, each shot as a cinematic tour de force and each summarizing Solomon’s experience as a slave at two different plantations, that of Ford and of Epps. Narratively, each succeeding section of the film has a different style and tone:

  • New England, also seen in flashback in section 2.
  • Capture in Washington DC, boat passage to New Orleans, the slave market.
  • Ford’s plantation, establishing the plantation household’s mise-en-scene and themes. “The hanged man” scene.
  • Epp’s plantation, introducing as major characters slave owner Master Epps and slave Patsey. Long, emotionally charged melodrama. Brutal beating of Patsey as film’s climax.
  • Denouement and falling action. Rescue and return home.

The film has a disjunctive narrative structure. There is not much dramatic tension carried over from one episode to another. Following its protagonist in almost every scene, the script uses numerous incidents to develop Solomon’s frustration that he has lost his identity and depict his efforts to communicate with loved ones in the North. But his release is not the climax of the film; when it does come, it is a surprise to both him and those around him. Furthermore, when he leaves the Epps plantation, all the characters he has known there drop from the film, abruptly.

In fact, for an author to treat the very theme of the slave experience entails disrupting ordinary narrative causality. Sam Worley, discussing Solomon Northup’s autobiography, makes this point:

“Any hope of rational narrative form is shattered by his [Solomon’s] kidnapping. His descent into slavery brings with it a vision of the world as a place of contingency, illusion, and disorder, neither inherently rational nor irrational.”[12]

From the moment he is kidnapped, Solomon and the other slaves cannot predict or make plans for anything. They can hardly rely on cause and effect. They know the basic rules of the game—obeying orders, speaking little, and effacing self—and these sometimes work. The slaves expect punishment for their lapses but also unpredictable beatings at the master’s caprice. Solomon learns this hard lesson when he is kidnapped and thrown into captivity.

In Washington DC, after spending an evening drinking with his new employers, Solomon awakens in a darkened room. With the camera shooting down from the ceiling, he lies as a small white-clothed figure in a black space, a fetus emerging into a new life as a slave. Step by step, we see Solomon learn what of his identity has vanished. First is his freedom to move about; he tests his shackles in anger and disbelief. Then, his legal rights, his bourgeois identity, his freedom. The slaver Burch beats it into him, “You’re no free man. And you ain’t from Saratoga. … You’re a runaway nigger from Georgia.” In the morning Burch exchanges Solomon’s shredded and blood soaked shirt, which Anne had made for him, for the slave’s coarse homespun. Finally, from outside that room, a tilt shot up a brick wall ironically ends on an overview of the nation’s capitol in DC.

Time and his experience of time changes forever for Solomon as he is sold into slavery. The paddle wheel indicates the unknown distance and place he is traveling to as a boat carries him and other captives down the Mississippi to a New Orleans slave market. He experiences a new, enforced identity, and he learns he must hide the fact that he can read and write. Cause and effect are forever beyond slaves' control, and they cannot plan for the future. At the slave market, the slave Eliza loses her children, and Solomon must play the violin in a lively way to cover up her screams.
One of the principle aesthetic strategies McQueen uses in 12 Years a Slave is just this, to use a noticeable, spectacular cinematic move to carry the narrative forward or to draw some social or emotional conclusion. On the one hand, such a visual style is what makes the film an “art film,” adding dignity to the subject matter and perhaps guaranteeing both the work’s longevity and critical success. On the other hand, it also allows the director to address himself in different ways to different audiences, especially to black and white viewers. Since he uses images without exposition to carry much of the narrative, the viewers will fill in much of the “story” with what they already know about slavery, what they assume about people and social life.[13] Many critics have commented on how the film’s cinematography characteristically sets up tableaux, similar to painting. As a director, McQueen also has a reputation for incorporating nudity and images of privation and brutality in a way that might make the audience feel uncomfortable.[14] But the beauty of the visuals, the use of strikingly composed wide shots, long takes that seem to take even extra time, close ups that convey many emotions all at once, and thoughtful ways of placing the characters in social space—all these are not only metonymically appropriate to the narrative moment but are also ways of giving the viewer (and perhaps the director) a sense of control over, a moment for reflecting on, the terrifying historical moment and personal situations that the narrative represents. The film as a whole invites reflection on what might be an appropriate way to represent life under slavery, if it can be represented at all.

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