“All men are not free if one is oppressed.”– Anonymous
The best film of the year. A brutal, unflinching look at slavery, racism, abuse, and humanity. An absolutely emotional punch in the gut. A film I couldn’t watch a second time. All of these are true descriptors of 12 Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), produced by Brad Pitt, and hailed as the best film of 2013 (frankly, it is, hands down). It will force you to consider the history of slavery in the United States in a new way, and to ask what “slavery” still exists in our world today.
The film focuses on the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Redbelt) as real-life freedman-turned-slave Solomon Northrup, whose 1853 memoir gives the film its historical background. Northrup is lured south from his New York home under the guise of putting his musical talents to good use, and kidnapped by slave traders from Washington, D.C. His humanity is systematically stripped as he descends south to New Orleans, where he is first purchased by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Sherlock, The Fifth Estate, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug).
Ford is the first of two slave owners who will own Northrup; the second is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Both men quote the Scripture to their slaves, but the use of Scripture is strikingly different. Ford uses the Scripture to attempt to soften the weight of the situation, as he is almost an apologetic slaveowner, while Epps is an abusive sadist who takes joy in controlling the men and women under him, manipulating the Scripture to justify his own yearnings. Ford sells Northrup to Epps in an attempt to keep Northrup alive when one of Ford’s workmen threatens Northrup’s life (but the sale also makes Ford’s life significantly easier). [As an aside, it is truly amazing just how many films Cumberbatch is in throughout 2013, but even more amazing is how he excels at the variety of roles! But Cumberbatch and Fassbender are superb in their despicable roles.)
McQueen is unflinching in his portrayal of slavery, and in the brutality of the situations that Northrup finds himself in, but this is not the tasteless ‘art’ of Quentin Tarantino. Sure, there is National Geographic nudity, several scenes of blood-spattered violence, and a smattering of vulgar vocabulary, but it flows ‘naturally’ from the story, rather than bludgeoning us the way that Django Unchained did. I’m still not convinced I could watch the film again, as I made myself continue to watch at times, but this is a film that attempts to stare backward into the void of our national consciousness, finding a realistic meet between the saccharine 42 and Unchained.
What we see is that slavery is a complicated mess of epic proportions. Ford and his wife don’t see slavery the same way (she tells a female slave stripped of her children that “before long, you’ll forget them,” and later has her ‘removed’). Epps’ wife thinks it’s the white slaveowner’s job to keep the wicked slaves under their heel, while he takes everything he wants from the slaves, as his interest is more carnal in every form. Regardless of their motivation, or beliefs outside of the effort of their farming, all of them prove to be corrupted by the evil of owning another human being to the point where they can’t escape the impact of their own sin.
But McQueen’s portrayal of the Northrup story doesn’t leave Northrup as a developing hero without scars. Sure, we expect that he’ll bear the scars of his masters’ whips, but did we expect that he would have to compromise his own moral standards to survive? And surviving is the key here, isn’t it? Did we expect the degree to which he would have to change himself, sublimated on one side and aggressive on the other, to make it? A man broken by the system who attempts to move forward, growls early on that he doesn’t “want to survive, but live.” But by the end, is it really living? Does he return to life, ever?
Northrup shares this ethical conundrum with Mistress Harriet Shaw (the always excellent Alfre Woodard), who finds herself elevated to lady of the plantation by her white owner-turned-husband. She too has had to compromise, but as she puts it, she’s not out picking cotton or being beaten, so what’s the harm? It’s a different sort of story, where yes, there is black and white (on so many levels), but the subcategories, the various levels of tragedy and brokenness, is so much more nuanced than simply cheering one man’s quest for freedom. None of us are left without questions about our motivations.
This is an exploration of history, but it’s also an examination of our present. In a world where children and women are sold into slavery around the world, kidnapped and transported, or forced into inbred situations of twisted proportions, we are not free of this evil. If we can see that the ills of apartheid, the scourge of Nazi Germany, the violence of the civil wars in Rwanda and the Czech countries, are all dangerous to our survival as a human race, to our very souls, then why can’t we learn?
I found myself praying, “God forgive us,” as the credits rolled. Not just because of the great crimes against blacks perpetrated from the founding of America through the 1970s (…and through the present), but because we have not learned. Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah when he said he’d come to set the captives free, proclaim good news to the poor, and give sight to the blind in Luke 4:18-19. But can we really see? Can this film aid in our freedom, in our experiencing the good news? We must repent of seeing others as less based on class, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, creed, and country, and focus on the imageo dei, the central thread of truth that we are all made in God’s image.
Without that core belief, we’re left as slaves to ourselves, and the fragile, faulty ways we excuse our own sin and manipulations with self-justification and arrogance. And while one of us is a slave, none of us is free.
For several other films that may stir your soul, consider these: The Power of One, The New World, To End All Wars.