12 years a slave critique


So. If I were more organized, I would have sources cited. They’re not, and I apologize. But.

The discussion of Benedict Cumberbatch’s role in 12 Years a Slave, that of William Ford, needs to be addressed.

Since the movie was released last year, I’ve seen Ford described as “hapless” and “sympathetic” in reviews of the film. This is disturbing, and has led me to two conclusions.

First, that Benedict Cumberbatch has reached an apex of adoration in his career. He’s Sherlock, he’s Khan, he’s Smaug, he’s beloved. And I do think he seems like an absolute darling in real life. However. It would seem to me that he’s too distinctive as an actor - in the sense that fondness for his real world person has fogged perception of his character.

Second, William Ford is part of a nauseating array of figures partaking in dehumanizing of millions of people of color. Solomon Northup, in his twelve years, was also besieged by an overseer who tried to murder him, an explosively sadistic plantation owner, and that man’s poisonous wife.

In contrast, William Ford was not a sadist. We do not see him raping women or beating the people he enslaves. 


William Ford partakes of the same evil. He is not a good man. He is not hapless, he is not sympathetic. He is a flagrant hypocrite.

It has been observed by reviewers wiser than me, that Solomon Northup had good cause to paint Ford as a more sympathetic figure IN HIS ORIGINAL ACCOUNT. Northup’s life story was distributed among white abolitionists. It would be naive to think that because some people advocated for the end of the slave trade a century and a half ago, that they would not be considered racist by today’s standards. Ford acted as the “oh but there are such decent white people in the world” touchstone for Northup’s white readers. His book could not have served as such an effective tool if he alienated his target audience.

The historical record is up for discussion by more educated people. I want to examine the movie.

Steve McQueen made some very deliberate choices. Ford preaches to his family and the people he enslaves, all together. To lift them up. And when we are presented with a scene of his garden congregation, it isn’t peaceful. This is not a moment to say “oh, what a nice man, he just sort of fell into this human chattel stuff”.

Overlaying Ford’s sanctimonious lecture are the broken wails of Eliza, the woman Ford purchased with Solomon. Eliza, who was stolen south along with Solomon, and will never see her children again. This scene ought to break any human with a beating heart. William Ford is NOT sympathetic. The fact that he is not a violent sadist does not make him a good man. He is the face of the self-righteous South, believing he is blameless, just, in enslaving human beings because he doesn’t go out of his way to torture them. He is the face of every “good master” from a century of films. 

Eliza’s sobs for her lost children drown out his sermon. That’s the point. Maybe people think Ford is sympathetic because at times he is kind to Solomon. Ford is as “kind” as he needs to be to sleep at night. Solomon Northup was an intelligent man, a gifted man, an educated man, whose vast talents were then OWNED by Ford. Of course it was in his interest to be civil. 

Men are kind to well-trained dogs, too. 

I would only ask that as a thinking, feeling audience, we not allow any affection for Benedict Cumberbatch as a person to overshadow the putrid, rotten core of the character he depicts.