Slavery is a topic that cannot help to move the heart as well as ignite the temper. Many movies have touched on the topic but most get lost in the sheer physical punishments meted out to its victims. But 12 Years A Slave introduces us to a more damaging, daily horror: the slow separation of an individual from every bright memory and freedom they once enjoyed, including the freedom of conscience.
12 Years A Slave is based on the real account written by black American Solomon Northup, a citizen of New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Shortly after his abduction Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) protests that he is a free man, and receives a brutal beating in response. He soon learns that saying the world is other than his masters suggest will only result in pain and oppression.
Northup, a skilled carpenter and violinist, is traded from one master to another until he finally arrives on the cotton plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). There he is alternately subjected to inhumane punishments and threatening sermons about his duty to God and his master. As affecting as the savagery he and other slaves suffer is, it is the slow transformation of Northup at this spiritual level that will truly make the audience shudder.
At the beginning of Solomon’s slavery he is a man who protests his innocence and challenges injustice. However the longer he stays in captivity, the more his spirit is crushed into the mould his captors require. His speech changes, his manner becomes more servile and he learns to be silent where once he would have spoken out. Though there are occasional flashes of his former self, the warping of his spirit is terrible to watch – and a process Christians might find strangely recognizable.
The Bible contains several warnings about the choking nature of evil. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, places his family in the city of Sodom and his wife and daughters are eventually infected by its lusts. The first Psalm cautions about the danger of the company of the wicked. And Jesus warns us about weeds that strangle and the bad yeast that spoils the whole bread. Whether forced or chosen, a constant exposure to evil will corrupt every part of a person’s soul until, like Solomon, we find ourselves almost unable to remember our true selves.
However the title of 12 Years A Slave tells the viewer that even this horrible situation can come to an end. At the depth of his depravity Solomon sings with the rest of the slaves that God will remember his soul, though at the time he does so with little hope. Yet though slavery might begin in a moment and its effects shape the course of a lifetime, it can end just as quickly. God doesn’t forget Solomon, as his story bears out. Neither does He forget those who crush His children, as one former slave reminds Northup:
“In time the Lord will see to them all. The curse of the Pharaohs is but a small account of what awaits the entire plantation class.”
History bears out the faithfulness of that prediction too, reminding those with the eyes to see that though their path might lead them through the valley of shadows, God is faithful to the end.
12 Years A Slave
Release Date: January 30, 2014