MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Photo By Fox Searchlight
Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbinder.
12 Years a Slave is a remarkable, beautiful, and devastating film, all the more important because it is based primarily on the source document of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 memoir. Northrup (Ejiofor), an African American, was a free citizen of the United States and a well-educated member of society living in Saratoga, New York. Since he was known as a gifted violinist, he was offered a job to play in a circus orchestra. After traveling to Washington, D.C., Northrup was drugged and sold into slavery, passing from owner to owner, as his years of bondage increased.
There are good masters and bad masters, but it is primarily the society that accepts slavery that creates a system that is good for no one. 12 Years a Slave presents slavery as a simple part of everyday life, in which in the midst of a beautiful Southern sky a black body can hang from a tree. The Bible and Christian faith are used as means to justify cruelty to Africans, but it is Northrup’s refusal to surrender to despair (a part of his faith) that makes his story a moving and powerful one.
The film uses flashbacks and other dramatic techniques, but it remains a first-person account of one man’s journey. As Solomon meets new persons, we meet them as well, not knowing for sure which characters will figure prominently and which will remain in the background. One slave owner, the alcoholic Edwin Epps (Fassbinder) is not only presented as a mood-swinging brute but a complex and conflicted individual, married to a wife (Sarah Paulson) every bit as complicated. There are some slaves who make it to the big house and decide to settle, and others who surrender to the banality of hopeless bondage. There are not big scenes of rebellion or long-winded speeches to distract us from the daily challenges that Northrup faces.
The film is honest about slavery as well as the possibility of hope. There are compassionate persons to be found throughout Northrup’s story, but the reality of slavery is a greater power than any one person.
It will be interesting to see if the millions of persons who watched Jesus get flogged in The Passion of The Christ will purchase tickets to 12 Years a Slave. I’m guessing that they won’t (as is their right), but I found myself more emotionally stirred by this eloquent film, a work of art that reminds us that, after Christ gave his life for our sins, our sin has a way of striking back at others and killing Christ all over again. I would recommend that parents view this film before they let their children see it, but I would highly recommend it to high school sophomores and older.
I do want to make special mention of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a performance like nothing I’ve seen on screen before, with several key moments in the movie relying on the emotions of his face to tell the story.
12 Years a Slave is obviously a labor of love that hopes to connect its audience to the incredible life of Solomon Northrup. It succeeds mightily.
Five halos: A testimony to the human spirit and dignity and hope in the midst of persecution, the use of religion to offer hope.
Five pitchforks: Scenes of whipping and brutality, murder and rape, full frontal nudity, offensive language, the use of religion to enslave people.
Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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