“12 Years a Slave”: Thoughts on America’s Darkest Chapter

An examination of some of the issues raised by director Steve McQueen’s newest film, including its historical, cultural, and spiritual implications.

I did not go to see 12 Years a Slave intending to write about it, but as much for myself as for others, I feel a need to do so now.  What I saw was not an ordinary film.  I knew before I went in that it would prompt a great deal of philosophical pondering, but perhaps even this expectation has proved to be too small.

The film tells the story of Solomon Northrup according to his 1853 autobiography.  A free black man living in New York state, he was deceived and abducted into slavery while on a trip to Washington, D.C.  For the next twelve years, he witnessed the horrors of slavery on multiple plantations in Louisiana, until finally a chance encounter allowed him to press his legal case and earn back his freedom.  It’s the kind of amazing true story that screenwriters would normally dream about, but the darkness of the subject matter is likely part of the reason that no filmmaker has attempted the feat until now.

An Institution Bathed in Blood

The closest comparison I can make to the experience of watching 12 Years a Slave would be something like Schindler’s List or The Passion of the Christ.  All of these films seek to depict injustice and violence on a colossal scale, albeit with very different subject matter.  All of them are painful to watch and are likely to cause the viewer to shed tears.  All of them are the kind of movies about which proponents might say, “Everyone should see it once, but I never want to see it again.”

What makes the depiction of slavery in 12 Years a Slave so powerful is first of all its refusal to censor out the most ugly parts.  Viewers are forced to watch a man on a slave ship stabbed to death while attempting to protect a woman from being raped, then thrown overboard by two of his fellow abductees.  They see many of the slaves stripped naked and displayed in front of buyers as if they were mere animals.  They see men being lynched or close to it, with one victim suffering for hours while those around him pay no attention.  They watch as the slaves are regularly beaten with sticks and whips for the smallest of offenses or no offense at all.  None of these are even the hardest part of the movie to watch.

A photograph of a Mississippi slave named "Peter" in 1863, who reported lying in bed for two months after receiving these wounds from his overseer.  Photograph by McPherson and Oliver, National Archives

This photo is of a Mississippi slave named “Peter” in 1863, who reported lying in bed for two months after receiving these wounds from his overseer. Photograph by McPherson and Oliver, National Archives

That honor would go to a scene in which a female slave, Patsey, the object of her master’s sexual lust and her mistress’ fierce jealousy, is whipped to within an inch of her life for the crime of obtaining a bar of soap from a neighboring plantation.  The Passion of the Christ was heavily criticized for including a graphically violent flagellation scene that some felt was over the top, and my natural instinct is to compare the two.  What makes the one in 12 Years a Slave a bit different is that it is less about the physical suffering itself than it is about the emotional tension between the main characters.

Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) chooses to spend most of the scene focusing the camera not on the main victim, but on those carrying out the crime, willingly or unwillingly.  Solomon Northrup (portrayed wonderfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forced by his master to whip the girl or risk having many of the slaves shot to death.  Though he hardly says a word, we can see the anguish on Solomon’s face as he first goes easy on her and then is forced to strike harder.  The mistress of the house, an otherwise polite Southern belle, transforms into something grotesque in this context, pushing both her husband and Solomon to “rend the flesh from her bones”.

Only toward the end of the scene, after the master (played by Michael Fassbender) has taken over and released his sadistic fury, does the camera show us what the woman’s back looks like.  Having forced us to endure the emotional torment of the episode, we are confronted with her bloody wounds, which were enough to elicit gasps from some in the audience and cause me to immediately look away.  It was then that I realized that I must not look away, because that was precisely the point McQueen was trying to make: for years, everyone looked away from the horrors of slavery, but now we must be confronted with the weight of this historic injustice.

Capturing Emotions

At this point, I have probably convinced anyone reading that this movie is nothing but blood and pain from beginning to end, but that is hardly the case.  There is much to lend hope as well as heartache.  Solomon’s ordeal is a good reminder to us all of the fragility of our freedom, and some will probably say it is about “a triumph of the human spirit”, a one man survival story in the mode of 2000’s Cast Away.  That is only partially true.

Solomon’s spirit is crushed when he is separated from his family, and they are a large part of what motivates him to survive for twelve years under deplorable conditions.  Yet, even when he is reunited with them in the film’s final scene, you can sense how much he has lost.  The children who were still young when he was abducted are now adults whom he hardly knows.  He struggles to find the words to say to them as waves of conflicting emotion hit him one by one.  He finally whispers to his wife, “Forgive me.”  She insists, “There is nothing to forgive.”

While the script for this movie is undoubtedly good, much of the actors’ performances come from facial expressions alone.  On more than one occasion, McQueen zooms the camera in on his lead actor and allows Ejiofor to convey what his character is thinking with no words at all.  Sometimes the best way to say something is through silence, and the filmmakers were keenly aware of this fact.  They make full use of the visual medium.

In the scene where Northrup first realizes he has been abducted, the picture moves upward from his cell to show us a view of the surrounding area, with the U.S. Capitol Building clearly in view (though without the familiar dome it now possesses).  It is an important reminder that our nation’s capitol was not just the headquarters of the Union during the Civil War, but also an important slave trading center for years beforehand.  The irony of great American ideals and terrible American realities is readily apparent.


Hollywood’s Uneasy Relationship with Slavery


The theatrical release poster for “The Birth of a Nation” (1915)

This is certainly not the first time that the subject of slavery has been addressed on the silver screen, and the changing depictions over the years are an indication of how much our country has changed its interpretation of history.  Film critics point to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as one of the most technically proficient works in early film history, yet its subject matter is enough to cause modern audiences to find it revolting.  It chronicles the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, casting it in a relatively favorable light.  Slaves are shown living with Southern families as a matter of course, with the main ones played by white actors in black face.  The film is now seen as less a piece of antebellum nostalgia and more a work of outright racism.

When adjusted for inflation, the box office success of Gone with the Wind is still the greatest in history.  A classic epic from Hollywood’s golden age, it paints a fairly positive picture of life on a Southern plantation both before and after the Civil War.  There are slaves in Scarlett O’Hara’s family, but they are not portrayed as abused victims.  Rather, they are seen living fairly comfortably as extended members of the family, inserted in the story mostly to provide comic relief or someone for the white characters to talk to.

Publicity photo of Hattie McDaniel, date unknown

Publicity photo of Hattie McDaniel, date unknown

Although supporting actress Hattie McDaniel did win an Oscar for her role in the film (a relatively shocking occurrence in 1940 – she was the first African-American to win any of the acting awards), many in the black community did not see her performance as a positive development for the black community.  She received criticism from the head of the NAACP, Walter Francis White, and the writer Carlton Moss said that while Birth of a Nation was a “frontal attack on American history and the Negro people”, Gone with the Wind was a “rear attack on the same”.

Fast forward to 1997 and we had Steven Spielberg directing Amistad, which was based on the true story of a slave ship which was seized by its African abductees and ended up in a legal drama in the U.S. when it was finally overtaken by an American ship.  Prior to 12 Years a Slave, I would have said this was the most painful depiction of slavery that I had seen in a film.  The abductees’ voyage in the cramped quarters of their ship from West Africa to the Caribbean is depicted, and it is enough to break your heart.  There was absolutely no concept of human dignity on board.

The theatrical release poster for "Amistad", copyright Dreamworks Pictures (1997)

The theatrical release poster for “Amistad”, copyright Dreamworks Pictures (1997)

Yet, the film ends on a fairly hopeful note as the men are declared to be free, the victims of an illegal Spanish slave trade.  It seems to be a vindication of American justice.  12 Years a Slave is exactly the opposite.  While Solomon Northrup does gain back his freedom after more than a decade, a summary at the end of the film explains that the men who kidnapped and sold him were never brought to justice because as a non-white man, Northrup was not allowed to testify against them in court.

The story ends less than a decade before the Civil War, and it is easy to see how such an unjust situation contributed to the violence of that period.  This is not a film that will make Americans feel patriotic, though thankfully we can at least say that we have come a long way from where we were in the mid-19th century.

Questions of Morality…and History

Another interesting aspect of 12 Years a Slave is the way in which moral actions, both right and wrong, are portrayed.  I grew up in the northern section of the United States, the former Union side.  Where I come from, there was never slavery of the kind depicted in the film.  Our history books taught us that slavery was an absolute evil, a stain on American history.  The Civil War was a battle to determine which direction the nation would take: would it continue to permit the enslavement of human beings, or would it extend the freedoms promised in our founding documents to all Americans?  The Union army was fighting not only to save the United States of America, but also to bring an end to the evil of slavery.

As I grew older, it was surprising to me that some people from the South would want to display the Confederate flag.  To me, it was a symbol of racism, much like the Nazi swastika.  Anyone who waved it proudly must be either hateful or really wrong headed.  Then I started hearing things like, “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery: it was about states’ rights.”  The Confederacy, some people said, was about sticking it to the big federal government.

Neither of these simplistic views is entirely correct.  I am willing to accept that since history is written by the victors, a more nuanced view of the Confederacy is necessary.  Yet, I still can’t help thinking that of all the state rights the South was defending, there was none more fundamental than the right to own slaves.  The Confederate state seceded in the months just before and after Abraham Lincoln became president, and Lincoln had run on a platform of not admitting any more slave states to the Union.  As the war dragged on, the issue of slavery seemed to become more important rather than less important.

As the history of slavery in our country has been so widely debated over the years, a movie like 12 Years a Slave must take certain risks of giving offense.  No one could blame Southerners for being uncomfortable when their ancestors are portrayed as immoral monsters.  Then again, it doesn’t do any good for us to deny the truth of what happened.  I have heard the argument that while abuses did take place, many slaves were like members of the family and were devoted to their masters – while I do not deny that this was true in some cases, I’ve never much cared for it as a way to make slavery seem “less severe”.

This question over the morality and degree of abuse within the institution of slavery is addressed in the film through two contrasting characters: Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps (Fassbender), Northrup’s two primary masters throughout the film.  In general, you could say that Ford is much “kinder” than Epps.  While he does allow his overseers to treat the slaves on his plantation harshly, he tries to prevent the worst abuses and values those slaves who perform well.  He shows particular favor to Solomon, and only sells him to Epps when he believes the situation has become dangerous.

Epps, on the other hand, is a villain’s villain.  He whips any slave that fails to meet his mostly arbitrary daily quota of picked cotton.  He unleashes constant verbal and physical abuse, treating his slaves worse than he does his animals.  One particular woman, Patsey (the one who ends up getting so severely whipped, played by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o in her film debut), becomes the subject of his sexual advances.  Eventually, his sexual passion turns into violence.

Epps wakes his slaves up in the middle of the night and makes them dance for him, among other odd requirements.  His relationship with his wife is hardly commendable, though it’s safe to say that she is an equal Lady Macbeth to her tyrant husband.  For Epps, a slave is his “property”, and he is free to treat his property however he wants.  Savage and utterly self-centered, Epps seems to clearly be more guilty than Ford.

Yet, such a moral distinction between the two characters is just as problematic as it is to split hairs between other slave owners in the antebellum South.  You see, Ford is no humanitarian and certainly not a hero.  While he may not be as quick to violence as Epps, he is brimming over in cowardice.

When we first see him at the slave auction house where he acquires Solomon Northrup, we witness his lack of resolve in the case of another slave woman and her two children.  While the mother begs to be sold to the same place as her children, the seller moves to split them up between buyers, likely separating them forever.  Though Ford obviously sees the situation as regrettable, he does not step in and offer to buy all three.  Upon arriving home, he tells his wife “there was nothing that could be done”.

Theatrical release poster for "12 Years a Slave", copright Fox Searchlight Pictures

Theatrical release poster for “12 Years a Slave”, copright Fox Searchlight Pictures

Later, Ford shows an equal lack of resolve when his white workers abuse the slaves, only moving against them when things have gone very far over the line.  When Solomon gets on the overseer’s bad side, rather than protect and stand up for him, Epps attempts to solve the situation by selling him off to a new owner (Epps) who is legendary for his cruelty.

While Ford does offer Solomon a violin, he makes no efforts to offer any of the slaves freedom.  Thus, he is as much a participant in the institution of slavery as Epps, too afraid to challenge the system which he effectively props up through his inaction.  In many ways, Ford is just as despicable of a character as Epps, because he seems to be a lot closer to the truth and yet does not allow it to seriously impact his behavior.

Thus Says the Lord

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film for me as a Christian is how scripture is used to justify slavery.  This is completely in line with the historical battle that was waged between American Christians over this issue, with some using scripture to justify the institution of slavery and others making equal use of the Word of God to support the abolitionist movement.  “That servant that don’t obey his lord shall be beaten with many stripes,” Epps tells his slaves, a Bible held tightly in his hand.  “That’s scripture.”

With a group of ladies I lead, I have recently been studying the letters of the Apostle Paul to Timothy.  Slavery is mentioned in these books, as it is in several other of Paul’s writings.  To the chagrin of many 21st century believers, it is not condemned outright.  As we went through these passages, I did a study on the issue of slavery in the Bible, comparing every section of scripture that dealt with the issue.

I found that the New Testament passages seemed to accept slavery as a fact of life (which it certainly was in the ancient Roman Empire) while calling for mutual respect between slaves and their masters and total equality in the Church of Christ.  Some of the passages in the Old Testament Law were more disturbing, though I will stress that at no point does scripture endorse the kind of abusive treatment shown in 12 Years a Slave.

As for the particular verses referenced by Epps in the movie, they are taken completely out of their original context.  Look up the passage in Luke 12:42-28, and you will find that it comes from one of Christ’s parables and refers to God’s final judgment of humanity based on whether or not they obeyed and followed Him.  There is certainly some room for interpretation, but using it as an excuse to abuse people is incredibly cynical and totally wrong.  This is not to say that such a ridiculous interpretation surprises me, or that it is out of line with the arguments made by many Southern Christians (and some Northerners) in the 19th century.

Even as Epps was motivated by his belief that God did not care what he did with his “property” and slaves ought to be put in their place, Solomon sees a completely different God who he calls by the same name.  When Patsey is being so viciously whipped he finally blurts ought (I’m paraphrasing), “God will judge you for what you have done!”  I can’t tell you how many times when I’ve come across an account of such brutality I have almost wished I could be there to shout the exact same thing: the human need for justice runs deep.  Solomon’s drive to survive and live free is strengthened by his bond with the other slaves, who sing hymns to God and pray for salvation.  Alfre Woodard, in a wonderful cameo appearance, assures Solomon, “In his own time, the good Lord’ll manage ’em all.”

Official medallion used by the British Anti-Slavery Society, designed by Josiah Wedgwood and others, circa 1795

Official medallion used by the British Anti-Slavery Society, designed by Josiah Wedgwood and others, circa 1795

It is a sad truth of history that Christians have often either tolerated or actively participated in incredible evils, often misusing scripture to support their cause.  Such a situation is particularly dangerous, because as I like to say, “Fate has never stayed a hand which acts upon divine command.”  That is to say, those who have the certainty that God is on their side feel that they are free to turn off their normal critical thinking capacity and carry out whatever actions are necessary to further their cause.  I have seen it in my studies of everything from the Spanish Inquisition to modern day Islamist suicide bombers.

Reinhold Neibuhr, a popular 20th century American theologian and political philosopher, expounded on this issue in his essay “The Christian Witness in the Social and National Order”, which is reprinted in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Essays and Addresses (Yale University Press 1986, edited by Robert McAfee Brown).  Although he was a committed Christian, he understood how faith could be twisted to make way for evils of human origin.

There is no social evil, no form of injustice whether of the feudal or the capitalist order, which has not been sanctified in some way or other by religious sentiment and thereby rendered more impervious to change.  In a sense, the word of Marx is true: “The beginning of all criticism is the criticism of religion.” For it is on this ultimate level that the pretensions of men reach their most absurd form.  The final sin is always committed in the name of religion.

My brain makes the quick jump to Germany in the Nazi era, when the official church embraced much of the disgusting ideology of Hitler and Goebbels, anti-Semitic drivel and all.  A movement known as the Confessing Church rose up in opposition of this neutering of the church’s moral authority, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer being its most famous member.  Such a split occurred within American Christianity over the issue of slavery, and much as Germany Christianity has attempted to recover its reputation after World War II, so Christians in this country must deal with the legacy that has been passed down from previous generations.  We must be very cautious not to succumb to such a warped view of scripture that permits anti-scriptural abuses of human rights.

A Nation’s Greatest Sin

Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building on March 4, 1865.  Photograph by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building on March 4, 1865. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, Library of Congress

I left the showing of 12 Years of Slave aware of the incredible weight of history.  Every country dishonors itself at some point or another by its behavior.  The United States has two massive scars on its national conscience: the enslavement of African Americans, and the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.  That is not to say that we have made no other mistakes, but these two seem to rise above all the rest as proof that even a nation founded on such lofty principles as the ones we continually celebrate can fall prey to the worst human instincts.

If there was one person who really understood how slavery tore this country apart, it was Abraham Lincoln.  I was at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. this past week.  Two of the president’s speeches are displayed on the walls: the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address.  It is in the latter speech that he provided a good analysis of the effects of this barbarity on the United States, even as the Civil War was in its closing days.

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

There is no question that the legacy of slavery remains with us to the current day.  It helped to create an unending debate over the issue of race which we are still hearing loud and clear.  The chain of events that it helped set off – secession, Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation, government-imposed desegregation – helped to create a separate regional identity for the southeast portion of this country, which remains highly sensitive toward federal government interference, holds fast to tradition, and maintains a fiercely independent spirit.  That is why a movie like 12 Years a Slave is so important, and why it is still necessary to return to that period and consider all the things for which we must atone.

One thing is clear to me after watching this film, much as I suspected it beforehand: when such an unjust and barbaric institution as slavery exists, it is never the fault of one group or type of people.  The blame much be shared by all of society, whether or not they actively participated in the most horrendous abuses.

It may have been people like Epps who instigated the worst aspects of the American slavery, but it was people like Ford who through their lack of courage and unwillingness to stand up for what was right allowed the abuses to continue.  By not applying the principles in our Declaration of Independence – that “all men are created equal” and have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – to every person, we not only permitted but actively created the situation that developed.

True, none of us were alive back then.  We cannot be expected to accept all the blame that must fall on our ancestors.  The son must not suffer for the sins of the father.  Even so, we must realize that those same impulses which existed at that time in the human heart are with us now.  If I may wax spiritual for a moment, I would say that whenever we deny the image of God (Imago Dei) in our fellow humans or elevate our own interests above those of others, we have already begun the long, sad decline that leads to the worst crimes of history.  Man is set against man, and none are set right with God.

Perhaps these thoughts are not what they should be.  They are often scattered and rely heavily on sentiment.  I thank you for indulging my desire to piece together the different ideas which have been ruminating in my head.  It is a great movie that makes someone think this much.

The movie posters used in this article are of a lower resolution than the original images and are used for commentary purposes only.  Thus, they fit under the description of “fair use”.

2 thoughts on ““12 Years a Slave”: Thoughts on America’s Darkest Chapter

  1. The list of massive scars on our national conscience must include the death of over 55,000,000 children to legalized abortion. Our society has grown so accustomed to this, to the denial that these also bear the image of God. As decades pass, an ever smaller percentage of the population remembers a time when society considered abortion to be wrong. African American enslavement, Native American ethnic cleansing and Pre-Born American abortion share the common characteristics of disregard for human value by those of greater power and disinclination of society in general to recognize and put an end to evil actions.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article Amy. I rarely go to the movie theater, but this will be on my redbox list. I read the book several years ago and it definitely captured my attention. I know watching it visually will be challenging for me, yet necessary too.

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