Far too often I find many misconceptions about the history of slavery in the United States. Whatever it is that people know about slavery, assuming they know what the word means in the first place, they understand that it is bad. I am thankful that they have gotten that far, at least. Their knowledge usually begins and ends at that point, but that rarely stops anyone from drawing all kinds of conclusions about the “Peculiar Institution.” Some assume that it was legal everywhere in the country. For others it lasted well into the twentieth century. There are also the concomitant stereotypes. All white people were (or are) racists, and all African Americans were enslaved. I have yet to figure out how people come up with these ideas, though our education system likely bears some of the blame. I bring these points up not because I wish to shame anyone. Rather, someone who believes these notions, or maybe one or two of them, might find a film like 12 Years A Slave (2013) surprising.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) opens 12 Years A Slave in bondage, though he did not begin life in that state. There are clues about this early on as we see him trying to write a letter (most slaves were purposely banned from reading and writing) and being generally ill disposed in his settings. So, how did he get in this situation? He once lived in Saratoga, New York, as a free man with a wife and children. One day while strolling the park, a couple of men offer him a large sum of money to play the violin for their traveling circus. He agrees because his children have gone off with his wife on a cooking job. Unfortunately, once in Washington, D.C., the two men, Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam), get Northup drunk and sell him into slavery. From there, he is transported to New Orleans and sold by the name of Platt to a plantation owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Once on Ford’s property, Northup begins to make an impression on Ford for his intelligence. This is much to the ire of one of Ford’s overseers, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who takes cruel delight in tormenting the slaves and lording his position over them. Tibeats sees a threat in Northup to the supposed natural order of things, and their relationship is particularly contentious. One day while Ford is away, a quarrel between Tibeats and Northup turns physical, and Northup is left hanging from a tree for hours with his feet barely able to touch the ground. Eventually he is cut down, and though Northup appeals to Ford for help, reiterating his claim that he is in fact supposed to be a free man, Ford instead sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), another plantation owner. Supposedly, this is for Northup’s protection, but Epps turns out to be a cruel master. While Northup seems to lay low, trying to be more subtle about his plans to be free, the majority of Epps’ heinous acts are taken out on his female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). She is able to pick a great deal of cotton, which makes her valuable to Epps. His interest in Patsey does not begin and end with her agricultural skills. Despite being married, he routinely rapes her, and then has her whipped when she misbehaves in the slightest, particularly when Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) discovers the liaison. Meanwhile, Northup is nearly discovered when a white hired worker, who Northup entrusts to send a letter North to tell interested parties of his plight, turns Northup over to Epps. However, when Northup begins to believe that all is lost, another worker comes along by the name of Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt). Bass is Canadian and an abolitionist, working his through the South and listens to Northup’s story. Deciding to risk it all once more, Northup gets Bass to agree to send a letter North on the slave’s behalf, despite the risk of such an act to Bass. After a while, a man in a coach appears on Epps’ property with a court order to remove Northup and return him to his rightful home. Returning after over a decade being held in bondage, he greets his grown-up family, and grandchildren he did not know he had.
I skimmed over some of the events of 12 Years A Slave because not all of it serves the plot. The point of the film is to tell the incredible true story of Solomon Northup. In doing so, much of what you see drives home the intensely brutal nature of the institution of slavery. It should be mentioned that Christianity is all over this film, but presented as a tool to prop up holding others in bondage rather than as the pathway to ultimate freedom. That is true Christianity, no matter what society might want to tell you. Ford is a preacher and gives sermons to his slaves, while Epps quotes scripture as a (false) way of justifying his actions. If you read through some of my other reviews that touch on the subject of slavery, you will see a fuller treatment of that subject there that I will not repeat at this moment. Instead, I would like to focus on Epps. No matter what prior experience might say, it is not the place of any Christian (or at least this is what they teach us Catholics) to judge anyone as evil. They may talk, walk, and behave evilly, but ultimately such judgements are up to God. At the same time, neither should such sentiments be construed as condoning the actions of a barbaric slave owner like Epps. There were many ways of approaching the owning of another human being in the Antebellum South. There were those like Ford who, though seemingly comfortable with such an abominable practice, nonetheless sought to provide care for those he owned. Then there were those of Epps’ ilk who seemed to think the only way to keep order was to through cruelty. All of it is predicated on the slave owner’s belief in their supposed superiority as white men. It should also be pointed out that throughout the South, especially in places where there were high concentrations of plantations, black slaves outnumbered white people. You see this in the film. There are clearly more slaves than owners or overseers. In Django Unchained (2012), Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) wonders quite logically, “Why don’t they kill us?” In this case, “they” are the slaves and “us” are the owners. Candie cites an imagined predilection towards servitude in African Americans, the result of a bogus science known as phrenology. You can see some of these same ideas in 12 Years A Slave. While Django Unchained presents a more direct answer to some of these pressing questions, 12 Years A Slave offers historical proof that people are not content with being kept in chains. God calls us to freedom, physical and spiritual, and he created all of us with a deep desire for it.
12 Years A Slave is a difficult film to watch, but an important one. There are many scenes that are lifted directly from the pages of Northup’s account by the same title of his time spent in slavery. After he returned home, he became active in the Abolition Movement, but then mysteriously disappeared in 1857 in Canada. The film does not cover this event, told rather in a postscript. What it does show is a brutal depiction of slavery that poignantly sheds light on how awful it was for everyone.