Faith & Film: 12 Years a Slave

No doubt many have already heard of this powerful film. Everything you’ve heard is true. It is intense, brutal, and, at times, extremely hard to watch. Two scenes are as difficult to watch as anything I’ve seen. The violence of the beatings may be hard to bear, but they must be acknowledged as part of our nation’s history.

“12 Years a Slave” is the incredible, true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejifor), a free man of color, living in Saratoga, New York, in the 1840s. Solomon is a married man with two children. He is a well-educated man and also an accomplished violinist. While his wife and children are away, Solomon is invited to accompany two men to Washington to earn money playing for a circus. Once in Washington, Solomon is drugged, chained, and beaten unmercifully. He tries to reason with his captors that there must be some mistake; he is a free man. The more he calls out, the more he is beaten.

In an incredible scene, Solomon is taken to a slave auction to be sold. The auction is in a beautiful home with guests looking at the men and women to be sold, many of them standing naked, as one would browse at a charity event, with music playing. Solomon is sold to a man along with a woman who begs that her children be allowed to accompany her. The children are taken away. The mother weeps for her children. Like Rachel in Scripture, she refuses to be consoled.

Solomon is sold to a Louisiana plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch.) Ford is not a cruel man. He has high regard for Solomon’s intellectual and musical gifts. Ford’s treatment of Solomon causes resentment and jealousy among his hired hands. One of them lynches Solomon, almost to the point of death. Ford returns just in time to save Solomon’s life. After this incident, Ford decides that for Solomon’s own safety, he must sell him. His new owner will be Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) another plantation owner. Ford warns Solomon that Epps is a “hard” man, but that he has no choice.

Epps is a cruel, even pathological, tyrant. For his pleasure, Epps wakes the slaves in the middle of the night and brings them to the plantation house to play music and dance for himself and his wife. Epps is attracted to Patsey, a young slave woman (Lupita Nyong’o) and repeatedly rapes her. He makes no secret of his attraction to Patsey, resulting in his wife (Sarah Paulson, in an ice-cold performance) also mistreating Patsey. In the film’s most horrifying moment, Epps forces Solomon to whip Patsey almost to the point of death.

Much of the horror in the film is that such barbaric cruelty and violence occurred right in front of the other Black slaves. The others had to go on with their work, as if nothing was happening, lest they become the next target of the master’s rage. Even worse, they were at times forced to participate in the violence themselves. In this regard, I was reminded of “Schindler’s List,” in which the Jews were randomly and cruelly tortured in full view of others.

Furthermore, as a preacher I was sickened to hear slave owners use the Bible to proclaim to men, women, and children that it was God’s will that they submit to their masters. As disturbing as this was, I know that the Word of God has been interpreted in such a way so as to make it sound like the enslavement of human beings was the will of God.

Throughout his 12 years in slavery, Solomon retains his dignity and perseveres, desperately holding on to the hope that he might found to be a free man and returned to his family. When Patsey begs him to kill her, Solomon refuses to do so. Even in the midst of such evil, Solomon urges Patsey to live.

As “Schindler’s List” was to the Holocaust, so “12 Years a Slave” is to slavery in America. I’m sure many will choose not to see this film, calling it too depressing or disturbing. Disturbing it certainly is, but I believe it is necessary to see the terrible sin that is part of our nation’s history. Particularly for me, as a native Southerner, it was important for me to see the film. Last year’s “Lincoln” told the story of the president’s courageous and politically astute fight to free the slaves. “12 Years a Slave” shows us why Lincoln’s sacrifice was terrible, yet necessary.

All the aspects of the movie are first-rate. Director Steve McQueen does not flinch from telling Solomon’s story in a straightforward manner. As Solomon, Ejiofor never loses his dignity, despite everything. Fassbender is chilling as the brutal master. Even though an argument could be made that the behavior of his character is over the top, Fassbender keeps him real, and never reduces Epps to a sneering caricature. Young Lupita Nyong’o is heartbreaking as the cruelly abused Patsey. Among the technical credits, I want to highlight the excellent cinematography of Sean Bobbitt, juxtaposing the beauty of the Southern plantations and Spanish moss with the horrific state of the slave. The music of Hans Zimmer is plaintive, while making good use of the power of the Negro spiritual in the life of the slave, giving them hope. Expect to see many Oscar nominations for this film.

The Gospel for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, proclaimed the weekend of Nov. 17, seems particularly relevant to “12 Years a Slave.” The passage concludes: “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” (Luke 21:19) Such is the message of Solomon Northrup.

Tom Condon, OP