12 Years a Slave

12 Years3Post by Drew Ham

Writing an article on the movie, 12 Years A Slave, is a task a that I do not take lightly. Truthfully, I hesitate to write one but I have found very few reviews of this film. I spent two hours watching the film and numerous hours thinking about it – and I love movies that make you think!

12 Years A Slave is very heavy and, at some points (many points) difficult to watch. The movie is based on the book by the same name. It is the autobiographical account of Solomon Northrup, who was born in 1808 as a free black man in New York but was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. He spent the next 12 years of his life as a slave on a Louisiana cotton plantation, trying to figure out how to get back to his wife and two children. The point of this article is not to give a full description of the film so the summary portion of this article is rather brief (if you are interested in more detail about the film, please go to http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2024544/).

My purpose for this article is to provide a particular perspective on the movie: I’m a 41-year-old middle-class white Christian male living in the South (North Carolina to be exact). To the best of my knowledge, neither my father’s nor mother’s families owned slaves (although I’m sure it’s entirely possible since my father’s family is from North Carolina and my mother’s from Maryland). However, the horrible atrocities portrayed in the film left me embarrassed to be white; embarrassed to be a white male; embarrassed to be a white Christian male. Two of the plantation owners portrayed in the film were middle-class, Bible-quoting, white males. They used particular passages of Scripture out of context to demand compliance from their slaves. It was embarrassing to watch, and embarrassing to know that such events took place less than 200 years ago in the land that I live and love.

While I did not know much about the movie before watching it (I did not even realize it was a book until after watching the movie), it was painful to watch. Two weeks after having seen the film, writing this article has been an arduous process. If given the opportunity I will not watch this film a second time – it was (and still is) visually and emotionally burdensome.

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I was a Social Studies major in college and have a Master’s degree in Christian Ethics. History is intriguing to me and I believe that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana). I’ve read about the atrocities of slavery, but seeing it is different. “A picture paints a thousand words.” Watching the beatings, rape, violence, and inhumanity is more cumulative than just reading about it. Perhaps the most disturbing issue for me is this: Genesis 1.26-28 is clear that all of mankind is created in and given the imago Dei, the image of God. Every human being is crafted by the Almighty God, and each of us has value as an image-bearer. I simply do not understand how one human being can act so horribly toward another human being because of his/her skin color. I recognize that similar atrocities take place all over the world, even today. I just don’t understand it. I can’t stand it. It’s embarrassing. It’s evil.

12 Years A Slave is an intriguing portrayal of Solomon Northrup’s time as a slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o were outstanding in their respective roles. However, this film is heavy and gruesome – not necessarily in an inappropriate way, but in a manner that effectively and painfully portrays the brutality of black slavery. While some of the nudity was excessive and a couple of explicit scenes were entirely unnecessary, the grisly portrayal of slavery left me repulsed and disgusted with the actions of those with my own skin color, gender, and faith. If this was indeed the intent of the author, then he succeeded.

As a final thought for reflection, in light of this truth, how could human beings be so cruel to one another?  Movies like these graphically portray the devastating effects of sin and Fall on the human condition.  And as such, they highlight the great need present in each of us: the need for redemption and thus a Redeemer.  I pray that each of us would recognize our great need for a Savior and then experiencing his grace we would see serve each other with glad hearts…regardless of skin color, nationality or gender.

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