“12 Years A Slave”
If you’re one of those who say,
“I just go to the movies to be entertained,” this one is not for you.
It’s heart-rending, dreary, mirthless, loveless, and excruciating to
watch. And yet it might be even more
important than the classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in understanding slavery
in the 19th century,
because that account was fictional, and this one is not.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a
free black man from upstate
, a fiddle player in a local band, who lived in a nice home, had a beautiful
wife and a young son and daughter, and enjoyed a local society that
intermingled with seemingly no problem. This
was the 1840’s, when the slavery debate had not yet reached a fever pitch in
American society, because the “frontier territories” had not yet applied
The slavery laws applied on a
State-by-State basis, and in the State of
, Solomon Northup could live like a free man.
But when Solomon’s wife and children
went to visit relatives, Solomon decided to take a musician’s job with a
traveling show, to earn some extra money, and signed on with a couple of nice
recruiters who took him to Washington, D.C., supposedly to meet up with the
rest of the band. But instead, they
sold him to an unscrupulous entrepreneur who knocked him unconscious and put
him in chains and kidnapped him and in turn sold him to a plantation owner in
. Nobody listened to him about the
mistaken identity. Nobody cared.
When he complained or explained, he was beaten and whipped.
So he soon learned to hold his peace and wait for an opportune time to
make his escape, and in the meantime he had to learn the fine line of being a
dutiful slave, but not being too smart for his own good.
You see, slaves were not allowed to read and write, or to receive an
education. A slave could possibly rise
to foreman if he could be cruel to his fellow slaves, or he could become a
construction worker rather than a field hand by demonstrating a certain
aptitude, but he could still always be struck or beaten or whipped for
insubordination, or “acting uppity.”
Director Steve McQueen, who is himself
black, and also British, chronicles the American slave community in such a way
that takes seriously the accommodations that had to be made in the context of
such unimaginable cruelty. Yes, at
times there were illicit romances (slaves were not permitted to live as
families; any children produced by a slave were themselves property of the
master). And yes, at times there was
singing among the field laborers, just to make the load a little more
bearable. And yes, there was sexual
exploitation of the young (black) female slaves by their (white) masters---and
there was neither redress nor reprieve nor remedy from the law.
It was a horrible circumstance, a horrific blot on the American soul,
but the Emancipation Proclamation would not be issued by Abraham Lincoln for
another 20 years, in the midst of a bloody civil war.
In the meantime, there was only suffering and deprivation and yes, a
sobering demonstration of utter depravity.
If you’re not depressed before you see
this movie, you will be afterwards. You
cannot sit through this and be unaffected by what you see on the screen.
That makes it one of the best-made films that people will avoid in
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St.
Stephen’s Presbyterian Church,