What It's About: Solomon Northup (Oscar nominee Chiwetel Eojiofor), a free man living in the pre-Civil War state of New York, is kidnapped, thrown in chains and sent south to be sold into slavery. His first owner, a man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), seems kind enough (as far as slave owners go). But when Solomon attacks his abusive overseer, Ford sells Solomon to the truly monstrous Edwin Epps (nominee Michael Fassbender). He has the power to make life a living hell for the human beings he's bought, and he does just that, particularly for the proud and beautiful Patsey (nominee Lupita Nyong'o), whom he abuses in every imaginable way. It's a horrible, dehumanizing life for all involved: To survive, Solomon must hide his identity and education, all the while trying to find some way to return to his wife and children back home.
Some Thoughts: No one, I think, can watch 12 Years and not be impacted, even shocked, by what they see. We know, of course, that slavery's an evil institution, but this brings it home. It's tempting to shut your eyes and ears to some of what you see here.
And that, in itself, is a telling reaction, since in a way that's what our "good" slave owner Ford must've done for much of his life. A part of him knows that slavery is a wicked institution. He seems deeply disturbed by it at times, and does what he can to make it more humane. And yet, he accepts the institution's inherent awfulness as the cost of doing business, apparently.
I've read a great deal about America's founding fathers, most of whom owned slaves. Washington, Jefferson, Madison—all were slave owners uncomfortable with slavery. They saw the horrific irony of the country they were creating—a land built on liberty when its founders without even that essential right. And while some expressed the wish that slavery had never come to America, they didn't know how to get rid of it once it was here. For me, the movie helped shine a harsher, more tragic light on these national heroes: And while I believe that the good someone does isn't wiped clean by the bad, it's an important reminder of the lies we tell ourselves sometimes to excuse the bad—in both ourselves and others.
I was also really struck by how Christianity was used to undergird and often excuse people's behavior here. Ford sees faith as a comforting, civilizing agent for his slaves, and he offers a plantation-side message to his bought masses. But there's a tragic dissonance at work: Ford preaches about the children of Abraham as a slave woman sobs over her own lost children—mother and kids separated in the sale. Epps uses the Bible as justification for owning slaves and treating them so horribly. He quotes Luke 12:47: "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." "That's Scripture!" he bellows. And when Epps' plantation is struck with drought, Epps calls it a biblical plague: He knows he's not being punished for his own sins, and blames it instead on his slaves. "I bring 'em God's word, and heathens they are, they brung me God's scorn."
But faith is also shown, briefly, as a source of solace, hope and even humanity. Solomon and his fellow slaves sing "Roll, Jordan, Roll"—a song that speaks of the hope for a better life to come—together in a powerful moment of solidarity. And undergirding the entire movie is a sense that there is a higher law than the law of the land—one given by God, not man—and that as such, the institution of slavery is a sin.
We hear it from a visitor named Bass (Johnny Depp): "Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike."
We hear it from a woman named Mistress Shaw: "In his own time, the Good Lord will manage them all. The curse of the pharaohs was a poor example of what waits for the plantation class."
We hear it from Solomon himself: "Thou devil!" he tells Epps. "Sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice thou shalt answer for this sin!"
The message is obvious: Slavery is a sin, abhorred by God Himself. It is a universal truth, far above the powers of mortal man to change. 12 Years a Slave posits there is a morality in the universe misunderstood by the likes of Epps and Ford. And that, however you call it, points right to God.
1. Characters in 12 Years a Slave twist religion to serve their own ends. Can you think of times when certain people now have done that? Have you done that?
2. Was Epps a Christian?
3. At one point, Patsey asks Solomon to kill her, claiming that God would look on it not as a sin, but as a mercy. Do you think she's right?
4. The song "Roll, Jordan, Roll" is perhaps a nod to the comforting power of faith in times of great misery—even when it doesn't make that misery disappear. Have you gone through times when your faith comforted you?
"But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
Amos 5:24 (a verse that gives "Roll, Jordan, Roll" perhaps extra resonance)
"He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
"Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness."
1 John 3:4
"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."
"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies."
2 Corinthians 4:8-10