4 Stars – Powerful
Every once in a while a film comes along that remarkably captures history in a way that sears its images and its impact on the depths of your soul. Shindler’s List with its contrasting portrayals of the horrors and heroes of the Nazi Holocaust, or the storming of the beaches at Normandy in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, are but a few that have risen to this level. Now among them will be 12 Years A Slave, an autobiographical look at the despicable treatment of one group of human beings by another in the decade prior to the Civil War of the United States.
However, this is no more an easy film to watch than Shindler’s List. This story is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography written by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery to work on a series of plantations in Louisiana. Northup, masterfully portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, takes us on an emotional roller coaster: Beginning at the high of his loving family in Saratoga, New York, he plunges to daily beatings on a southern plantation at the hands of men and women who could hardly be classified as civilized.
Solomon Northup was a trained musician who made his living playing the violin. When he is thrown into the depths of slavery, he is advised to never let anyone know that he is educated or possesses musical talent lest he be beaten for thinking he is of superior intellect. While it is common knowledge that the laws of the early 19th century looked upon African slaves as less than human as affirmed by the Dred Scott case before the Supreme Court in 1857 that slaves and their descendants did not have the right to be citizens of the United States, it is a shock to one’s moral senses to witness the level of cruelty that some slave masters inflicted on their fellow human beings. These masters treated their dogs with loving respect, but their slaves were beaten into submission on a daily basis. A horrifying side effect of this behavior was the fact that other slaves looked the other way when cruelty occurred as a method of self-preservation.
In the 150 years since the Civil War, Americans have been erratic in their responses to America’s history with slavery. We declare Abraham Lincoln to be one of our greatest Presidents and we see reenactments of the battles of Gettysburg with a sense of patriotism. Yet it was only 50 years ago that the world of Martin Luther King, Jr. was actively refighting the war of America’s racial injustice, and even today black and white Americans see our history and culture very differently. It may be true that violence against another person is no longer tolerated as a cultural norm, but racial profiling is alive and well, especially when we debate the issues of immigration and its impact on our society.
12 Years A Slave is not some imaginary story exagerated for effect. What Solomon Northup gave us is a real-life glimpse into our past that is very different from the “humming and strumming” images of films like Gone With The Wind. This is an important history lesson that all students, young and old, need to see and understand with both head and heart.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. The impact of treating some human beings as less than human continues to plague us. How are you an active part of the solution to this in your own community and nation?
2. The broken soul is seen in both the slave-holder’s violence and the legal violence of our Supreme Court. Do you see the Supreme Court deciding that a child in the womb is less than human as similar or dissimilar? On what basis do you answer this?
3. The way prejudice is overcome is by getting to know the people against whom we held a prejudice. How are you getting to know people who are “different” from you? What has helped create love within you for those who are different?