Sunday, April 6, 2014

'12 Years a Slave' - The Price

One moment in particular in Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” stood out for me. The slave Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has run afoul of the carpenter Tibeats, played by Paul Dano. Returning with two other men, Tibeats strings a noose around Northup’s neck and attempts to hang him from a tree branch, but the men are prevented by the timely intervention of the overseer. Tibeats runs away, with the overseer in pursuit, leaving Northup still suspended by the noose, breathing only because he is standing on tiptoe. 

A minute passes, with no one else on the screen in a wide shot except Northup, still hanging from the branch, his feet balanced precariously in mud. Then a few of the other slaves stir out of their cabins. They walk around. No one lends a hand. After an excruciating amount of time, a female slave runs up with a cup of water for him, but she does not attempt to get him down. Only the owner Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) can free him, which he eventually does. Ford sells Northup to another slaveholder in order to preserve his life, for Tibeats will surely kill him. This presumed act of mercy sends him into the care of Edwin Epps, a tyrannical owner played with skillful malevolence by Michael Fassbender.

“12 Years a Slave” takes a well-regarded biography written in the 1850s and uses it to tell the story of American slavery in all of its multi-layered evil. It portrays the dreadful human cost not only to the bondsman but also the owner, the dehumanization on all sides that must take place in order for it to survive. It shows the disruption of families, the degradation and rape, the isolation and insensitivity bred in owner and slave, and the upside down logic that must be employed in order for it to survive. The horror of slavery is juxtaposed with one man’s struggle to preserve as much of his dignity as possible, while the institution works tirelessly to strip him of it. It is very hard to watch, as it should be. It also stands out in the history of American filmmaking for its essentially truthful depiction of the institution, a part of American history that Americans of all races have tried hard to forget. 

Compare it, for example, to Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” When it was made in the late 90s, “Amistad” was considered by some commentators as Spielberg’s attempt to do for slavery what he had done earlier for the Holocaust with “Schindler’s List.” But while Djimon Hounsou and Morgan Freeman show the African-American perspective, the screen time is largely dominated by Matthew McConaughey, Anthony Hopkins and the white actors engaged in the court case. Other films have touched on slavery, but rarely through the eyes of those within its grasp. This is presumably for commercial reasons. Other films, such as “Beloved,” did not see success because slavery is still considered a shameful part of history both for whites and blacks. 

But in addition to its value as a historical document, “12 Years a Slave” has a spiritual story to tell.  “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin,” Jesus is quoted as saying in John 8:34, and “12 Years a Slave,” if it wasn’t a historical fact, would function well as an allegory for the wages of sin. Solomon Northup is a free man living in the North who is tricked into coming to the nation’s capital, where slaveholding is legal. He is kidnapped and sold into slavery by men he trusts, then shipped South without his wife or children knowing what became of him. The business of slavery forces him to make terrible choices in order to survive, knowing that death will almost certainly be his only outcome. 

But I keep coming back to that scene of him, hanging by the noose, standing on his toes on slippery ground in order to insure his next breath, the world continuing around him because that is the nature of the world. It is the 21st century, and even though it survives to this day, it is almost universally accepted that slavery is wrong – indeed, that it is, even in our secular society, a “sin.” But as I watched him struggle for breath, it made me wonder – how much evil do we tolerate in this world, how much do we facilitate; indeed, how much evil do we celebrate because we are used to it? 

On Sunday mornings, Master Ford reads to his slaves from the Scriptures, and even Northup himself calls Ford a benevolent man. But he is a slaveholder who separated one woman from her two children and is dumb to her weeping. Epps is an awful man, who believes in the necessity of slavery and that it is his God-given right to own them. When he beats a slave later, he announces, “There is no sin. Man does what he pleases with his property.” Since he feels his slaves are soulless creatures no better than animals, he may mistreat them without result. We may be tempted to regard Ford as the better morally of the two, but they are both utterly wrong, with regard to slavery. They are unable to see, or unwilling to see, that their system of labor is an abomination. 

We, here in our homes or theaters look back on the slaveholders of the 19th century and pass a fair judgment on their conduct, but we also smugly pronounce ourselves righteous because we presumably don’t live by the sweat of another man’s brow. But I wondered as I watched, what are we tolerating in our own lives that might bring just indictment from a future observer? There is the temptation to think, because we are dealing with slavery, about the question in purely political terms, and many will. But in moral terms, if we aren't blind to them, "12 Years a Slave" reminds us that quick and easy choices, willful ignorance of another's pain, and intentional cruelty, mixed with individual and collective selfishness have consequences that can span generations. Time, which we feel heals, can carry and perpetuate wounds. Pain will doggedly find an everlasting nerve, as a miner searches for a deep and inexhaustible vein. What sins are we slaves to, and what will it take to free us?

Any discussion of Christianity in the context of slavery should include what the character of Epps points to – the use of Christianity to justify the institution of slavery in American society. It is a historical fact that many of those who owned slaves used the Bible to justify the system and relied on Christian teachings of benevolence, tolerance, meekness and forgiveness to keep their slaves docile and pacified. We kid ourselves in believing this strategy was successful, because historical research is constantly uncovering how slaves themselves undermined the institution, not only through open rebellion but by simple acts of individuality, and through the construction of an African-American culture that survives and thrives to this day. 

But that same discussion of Christianity should include the almost inconceivable fact that the oppressed embraced the same faith, and found within those teachings the seeds that made them free. Remember, the abolitionist movement in America, as in England, was largely helped along by the church, and abolitionists made appeals for slavery’s end based on it being “a moral sin.” Another vivid moment in “12 Years a Slave” comes when Northup participates in the burial of a slave. As the other slaves gather for his burial, they begin singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” Northup, himself a Christian, slowly begins to sing. Unlike past depictions of slavery in film, this is not the dull, unnaturally happy spiritual sung by docile servants, but an angry, persevering, affirming faith in song, a faith that something imperishable and enduring awaits him – that he who hopes in the Lord will not be disappointed. 

And by the film’s end, Northup is saved through the intervention of Bass, (Brad Pitt) a Canadian who hears Northup’s story. Authorities in New York are alerted to his presence, and he is eventually returned to his freedom. He walks into his home and is reunited with his family, and his new grandchild. Though he has done nothing wrong, Northup tearfully says to his daughter, “Forgive me.” Just as with all suffering, there is inside the question of “what did I do to deserve this?” It would be almost impossible for someone to pass through the awful experience of slavery and not feel some of its residual evil has attached itself. Northup, at one point, is given the whip to beat another slave, and threatened with death if he refuses. He has had to make a thousand compromises every day just to stay alive in order to eventually enjoy this moment with his family. And yet, he feels he must ask forgiveness. 

What evil do we tolerate? We should all search it out, and do what we can in order that we may also return home, and hear the words of a Loved One saying, as does Solomon Northrup’s daughter, “There is nothing to forgive.” It is all forgotten.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 


  1. For my money, the worst people in the movie are the guys in the beginning who trick Solomon and then get him drunk and sell him to the slaver. Those SOBs deserve some serious Hell.

    It was a very good movie, and whereas I kind of felt like the ending was a little anticlimactic (in some way I couldn't quite spell out for myself) when I saw it, I think your post may have put it in a new and improved light for me.

    I was glad to see Chiwetel Ejiofor finally get a big role that took use of his talent. Been saying for years -- at least since "Serenity" (although I already knew him from something -- not sure what -- at that time) -- that he ought to be a star, and dadgum if it didn't finally happen. Speaking of "Amistad," IMDb tells me he has a small role in that movie!

  2. Powerful, Bill. I couldn't watch it all. I ran out of the theater during the horrific scene involving Patsey.
    I agree there is still darkness in the world, and the Light has gotten complacent and accepts it.