Scott Spillman in The Point (image Kara Walker, savant, 2010):
As 12 Years a Slave repeatedly shows, the idea that black slaves were something less than human—although appealing for obvious reasons to masters— was subject to an inevitable tension, first at the abstract level of argument and then, more fatally, at the concrete level of daily life. The movie’s signal achievement is to bring out the various consequences of this tension, perhaps most powerfully in the relationship between the white master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps, who repeatedly refers to his slaves as his “property” and compares them to baboons, nevertheless warns his jealous wife that he would sooner send her away than lose Patsey. Later, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Epps is himself driven into a jealous rage by his suspicion that Patsey has escaped his control and cheated on him with a neighbor. Unable to whip Patsey himself, he compels Northup to do it. As Northup draws blood, Epps looks on with a blend of satisfaction, hatred and horror utterly belying his claim that Patsey means no more to him than a ball of yarn or a beast of prey.
For the historian David Brion Davis, this dynamic describes the basic “problem” of slavery. Ideally, as Aristotle noted long ago, a slave is like a tool or a domestic animal—something the master owns and over which he has complete control. Yet such a “natural slave” has never existed; and no system of slavery has ever successfully dehumanized its slaves to the point where they are indistinguishable from mere property. This inherent contradiction led, according to Davis, not only to complicated relationships between masters and their slaves, but to organized opposition, for which “the essential issue was how to recognize and establish the full and complete humanity of a ‘dehumanized people.’”
When and how the contradiction of treating a person as property became enough of a moral issue that people would demand an end to slavery is the question that has occupied the bulk of Davis’s career, especially in the three long works culminating with The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which he completed this year at the age of 86.