Reviewing 12 Years a Slave
by Ted Giese
Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 book of the same name (co-authored with David Wilson), 12 Years a Slave recounts the story of Northup, a man kidnapped and sold into slavery. It recounts his life as a slave and his eventual redemption from slavery. This is a difficult movie to watch, not just because of the brutal violence but also because of its depiction of Northup’s loss of freedom and dignity. Before seeing this film, viewers may want to ask themselves why they watch movies: if it’s for entertainment, I might not recommend this film to them. If it’s to be provoked to think, to investigate, to consider, then perhaps this film merits viewing.
What makes 12 Years a Slave particularly unique and compelling is its autobiographical nature. In an interview with NPR, McQueen explained his reasons for making the film: “I had the idea of having a free man from the North… who gets kidnapped and pulled into the maze of slavery. I liked the idea that the audience follows this person in every step that he takes within the context of slavery… [My wife] found this book called 12 Years a Slave, and I read this book, and I was totally stunned. It was like a bolt coming out of the sky; at the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn’t know this book…. Slowly but surely I realized that most people, in fact all the people I knew did not know this book. I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero. She’s not just a national hero, she’s a world hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank’s diary but written 97 years before—a firsthand account of slavery.”
12 Years and faith
Christians watching 12 Years a Slave will be confronted with a complex depiction of faith. Some people in the film hold fast to their faith even in the midst of their trouble. We see this at the grave side of a slave when a group of fellow slaves sing a spontaneous, heartfelt rendition of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” On the other hand Christian viewers will be confronted with the slave owner, Mr. Epp, quoting Luke 12:47 to his slaves: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” This is followed with a rather crude exposition of the Scriptural text as to what, in his opinion, “many stripes” means. Epp’s ‘explanation’ finishes with him shutting his Bible and saying, “That’s Scripture.” Epp, with others, is then shown beating the slaves. These beatings add to the film’s horror and raise the bar on the level of violence.
For these suffering slaves, God’s Word is both a source of comfort in the face of trouble and the self-justifying document excusing and/or promoting the slave trade and the brutal mistreatment of slaves. For this reason the viewer of 12 Years a Slave needs to be aware that the film is intending to create a dialogue between these two contrary interpretations of slavery found in Scripture. Both approaches need not be accepted on face value by the viewer. In fact, a careful investigation of Scripture on a whole as related to this topic is recommended.
Many film reviewers approached the violence inherent in the telling of this story in a peculiar way. A well-researched article by Mollie Hemingway in The Federalist details how “[12 Years a Slave] reminded [Hemingway] of [her] response to The Passion of the Christ, the visceral 2004 film about the suffering and death of Jesus.” She continues saying, “Both films are very good. Both films are depictions of real people in history. Both films are full not just of violence but violence that must be depicted because it serves the central point.” Hemingway’s article then compares and contrasts a number of reviewers who had reviewed both The Passion of The Christ and 12 Years a Slave. Over and over again the same reviewers decry the violence in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ while excusing or downplaying the violence of 12 Years a Slave. The article asks the question, “Did critics evolve or did something else happen?” Could there be a double standard at play?
Solomon Northup is not a stand-in for Jesus Christ no matter how many stripes he receives. While he comes across as a righteous character in some of his convictions, he is a failure in other areas of life. While he has noble intentions to remain unbroken, to avoid falling into despair, and while he clearly states that he doesn’t just want to survive but rather live, these intentions lead him to compromise his morals. Jesus at the cross was willingly pierced and crushed for the sins of others while Northup quickly works to find ways to keep away from the violence perpetrated against him. Northup isn’t shown willingly receiving chastisement for his own actions or for the actions of others like the reader of Scripture sees Jesus doing in His death. Christians will thus not be able to draw a direct parallel between Northup and Jesus. The Jesus of Scripture is without sin; Northup in 12 Years a Slave has sins. Northup lies to Mr. Epp to save his life when he is almost caught trying to send a letter he wrote on stolen paper, and he often fails to support his neighbour’s physical needs.
Solomon Northup is not a stand-in for Jesus Christ no matter how many stripes he receives.
Northup is not alone in his disregard for the physical needs of his neighbour. There is a disturbing scene at the house of a Mr. Ford, Northup’s previous owner, where Northup is lynched by an unhappy overseer. This overseer and his accomplices are sent running away by Mr. Ford’s chief overseer, but he doesn’t cut Northup down, leaving him standing on the tips of his toes. All day Northup stands there in danger of slipping and breaking his neck. One woman slave brings him a drink of water but the others go about their routine as if Northup is invisible. Children play, slaves walk by, yet no one raises a finger. It’s a very distressing scene. Christians may be reminded of the crucifixion, but it’s good to remember that Northup is not Jesus and his suffering saves no one of their sins. In fact, Northup’s suffering doesn’t even save him; his life after that terrible event actually gets worse as he’s handed over to Mr. Epp.
However, Northup does display many moments of virtue; he refuses to assist a fellow slave in committing suicide and occasionally steps in to help others. Still, he is most concerned for himself and his desire to return to his freedom and his family. Here the complexity of Northup’s character begins to become clear. This complexity is further developed because viewers are asked to focus on these virtuous moments while excusing the moments where Northup acts badly because of the circumstances of slavery in which he is found. This is relativism. Why is this important? When a character is presented as a hero, Christians need to ask themselves whether the character displays actual heroic virtues. Then the Christians need to ask whether these heroic virtues are actually Christian in nature.
What would I do?
Due to Northup’s predicament, the autobiographical nature of the source material, and the way in which the story is filmed, viewers are left with the question: what would I do under those circumstances? 12 Years a Slave may seem a safe place to ask this question since at the end, when the lights go up, viewers go home—albeit with an uneasy feeling. There is no simple answer to the question ‘What would I do under those circumstances?’ In fact, this remains a very important question today as society still deals with the horror of human trafficking. In contemporary North America, it’s too easy to see this film as a historical drama disassociated from our day-to-day lives. Yet every day, people wake up to find themselves kidnapped, separated from their families, with no chance of freeing themselves.
The larger question posed by the film is the question of identity. Northup, at the point of being abducted, was faced with questions concerning his personal identity. He says to one of his abductors, “I am Solomon Northup. I am a free man; a resident of Saratoga, New York. The residence also of my wife and children who are equally free. I have papers. You have no right whatsoever to detain me” His kidnapper says, “Yah no free man. And yah ain’t from Saratoga. Yah from Georgia. Yah ain’t a free man. Yah nuthin’ but a Georgia runaway.”
While being transported he’s given some advice by another kidnapped man: “If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible. Tell no one who you really are and tell no one that you can read and write. Unless you want to be a dead ni**er.” For Christians our identity is not wrapped up in civil freedom or even in our name; identity is wrapped up in our baptism into Christ Jesus and in the name of Jesus which is above all other names. This is important because, as much as 12 Years a Slave includes Scripture by way of quotations and public readings, it gets the concept of Christian identity wrong.
Northup’s identity is tied to his vocation as a musician, his civil liberties which were stripped away, his dignity which suffers, his personal name, and his family from which he was separated. Christian identity is not tied up in these things (which isn’t to say they are not important; they are very important to our lives). Instead, Christians know that their identity is hidden in Christ. They know that nothing—not these things or the loss of them—”will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
Christians know that their identity is hidden in Christ. They know that nothing—not these things or the loss of them—”will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).
Director Steve McQueen has tackled a difficult topic in this film, and 12 Years a Slave is not for every movie-goer. Christian viewers are warned that this movie is hard to watch and not without its theological problems.
Lutheran viewers may have another important thing to think about. Lutherans are not averse to pointing out where individuals get Scripture wrong. Historical slavery in the United States is not analogous to slavery as it’s depicted in Scripture and using Scripture to justify slavery as conducted by 19th century plantation owners is a twisting of Scripture. Christian viewers therefore need to be careful to remember that an incorrect view of Scripture is a narrative component of this film just as it was in that time period.
The best way to watch this film is as a historical drama and to avoid comparisons to modern issues outside the very real issue of human trafficking. 12 Years a Slave received seven Golden Globe nominations and won for Best Motion Picture–Drama. It is nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Motion Picture of the Year, along with eight other nominations. This film, like Schindler’s List, is poised to become one of those historical dramas enshrined into film history. For this reason it is worth viewing and using as a springboard for thinking, talking, and study.