The Modern Witness of 12 Years a Slave

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By Josh Larsen

November 22, 2013

What is it we’re doing when we watch 12 Years a Slave, the critically acclaimed film based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free African-American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery?

Are we simply remembering? Are we mourning? Is a form of reparation taking place? Is watching and acknowledging a small way of enacting justice? Or is it the opposite – a way to feel good about feeling bad, to shake our heads in disapproval at the past without reckoning with the injustices of the present?

12 Years a Slave doesn’t really allow that last option. One of the things that distinguishes it from other dramatizations of historical atrocities – Schindler’s List being the most prominent example – is the way the movie refuses to let its audience be passive. Director Steve McQueen, who previously made Hunger and Shame, employs several long takes that force the viewer to sit and stew in the horror of slavery. Among these is the image of Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, tied by his neck to a tree branch, his feet desperately squelching in the mud as he tries to stay upright. Equally affecting are the moments when characters – always slaves – look directly into the camera. 12 Years a Slave isn’t content to be viewed as just another movie, or even an important work of art. It stares back.

Besides making for a harrowing filmgoing experience, what is the effect of this technique? On the Reel Spirituality podcast, produced by Fuller Seminary’s Brehm Center, Eugene Suen and Elijah Davidson recently made a connection between injustices past and present. They discussed 12 Years a Slave as the portrait of a system, one in which almost everyone who is not enslaved is complicit. This certainly seems to be one of the themes McQueen had in mind. As Solomon is taken to Louisiana by paddleboat, the camera focuses on the inexorable churning of the paddle in the water, suggesting that he is now part of an industrialized, unstoppable structure of abuse. Another shot works similarly: as the camera peers down from above, a carriage rushes in, its rectangle bed entirely filling the frame. The tarp is pulled back to reveal a number of slaves, tightly lined up in rows to maximize efficiency.

12 Years a Slave also depicts another structure abetting slavery, that of religion, sadly, especially antebellum Christianity. When Solomon first arrives in Louisiana, he finds himself on a plantation where the owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) holds interracial church services on the front lawn, maddeningly ignorant of the irony of preaching the freedom of the Gospel in a place of chains. Later Solomon finds himself under the whip of an even crueler owner (Michael Fassbender) who cites the Bible as the source of his authority. Countering these examples of men distorting Christianity to bolster their own positions of power is a moment of faith in weakness, as Solomon and other grieving slaves join in a graveside rendition of the spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll.”

Are others somewhere still singing that song today? Legalized slavery is a thing of America’s past, but in making it forcefully alive - by staring us in the eye - 12 Years a Slave gets us to consider how its echoes can be heard in the systems of 2013. Whether it’s the conflict minerals that power our electronic devices or the unsafe labor conditions that produce our cheap clothes, injustice fuels the dominant structures of our age. I know that I, for one, too often look away.

- Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.