12 Years a Slave is a true story, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, a free black man, an American citizen from New York with a wife and two kids, who was abducted by slavers on a trip to Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery in the Deep South. He stayed trapped in slavery for twelve years until
HERE BEGIN THE SPOILERS
he was able to convince a sympathetic white laborer to carry a letter to his white friends in New York, who came and rescued him.
AND ALSO, A GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF SOMETHING PRETTY HORRIBLE
For me, the most arresting scene in the film comes soon after Solomon is sold into slavery. The master of his plantation is supposedly a "decent" slave owner. He gives his slaves plenty of food and good living quarters. He is unable to purchase a woman's children along with her to keep her family together, but he feels bad about it. He respects Solomon's intelligence and obviously realizes he was not born in slavery, but makes no effort to find out the truth, since he went into debt to buy Solomon.
One day, one of the master's sadistic overseers attacks Solomon, and Solomon, still fresh from the North, fights back, steals the overseer's whip, and strikes him with it. Shocked and enraged, the overseer flees, and returns with a gang to hang Solomon. They get the noose around his neck and hoist him into the air from a tree branch, the other end of the rope staked to the ground. At that moment, a different overseer arrives, and, knowing Solomon's value to his master, drives his attackers off at gunpoint. After the attackers release the rope, Solomon drops just low enough that his feet are brushing the ground, and he can breathe if he pushes his body up with his feet.
This is where the truly horrible part comes. Instead of cutting Solomon down, the overseer sends for the master - and then leaves. Solomon is left hanging by his neck for hours, just barely able to breathe by constant, laborious footwork. In the background, we see the other slaves coming and going about their work, their eyes averted. And not just other slaves, but other white people - the master's wife, the other overseers, day laborers. No one dares rescue Solomon until the master returns at sunset, rushes over with genuine alarm, and cuts Solomon down with a machete.
That night, Solomon sleeps on the floor in the foyer of the master's house, the master watching over him with a shotgun, hastening to investigate every little sound in the darkness beyond the porch. He is terrified that the attackers are coming back for Solomon, and arranges to sell him as soon as possible.
For the vast majority of this horrifying segment, there are no villains onscreen. The only villain present is the invisible, demonic Power of racism. This Power dictates the actions of everyone onscreen, from the blacks who have been taught by long years of terror never to interfere in the punishment of a black, to the whites who have learned the same lesson. Even the supposedly all-powerful master is only powerful enough to cut down the noose - to do the very least to help the black man. He is too afraid to do anything else. The terror, the violent Power of racism that Americans invited in to help build their country hangs over all their heads, ruling over them. Some people in this picture are rich and comfortable, but none are free.
Over and over again, the movie presents us with similar no-win scenarios. Does the "good" slave master buy the enslaved mother and separate her from her children, or leave her with her children and run the risk that they get bought by someone awful? Does Solomon accept his status as a slave and get constantly abused, or insist on his rights as a free citizen and get beaten even more? Does he help a tormented female slave commit suicide, or force her to stay alive? Do the slaves intervene when the master rapes a slave woman, or look away? When Solomon's deranged second master pulls out a gun and orders Solomon to whip his fellow slave or "I'll kill every n----- here," does he do it?
There might not be right answers to these questions. There might also not be right answers to the questions that confront Americans on a daily basis, whether we realize it or not. I passed a homeless man asking for money twice on the way in and out of the theater last night. Do I give him money and contribute to making degrading street begging a viable means of survival for him, or do I pass him by and do nothing to help him survive? Which of two candidates promising to continue bombing innocent people overseas do we vote for? Which national corporate bank involved in massive fraud and economic malpractice do we open an account with? Which grocery store carrying cheap products produced at unimaginable cost to the environment and overseas laborers (and yes, slaves) do we shop at?
This summer, I read An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, a frustrating, convicting book by William Stringfellow, an Anglican lay-theologian and 1970s antiwar activist. Stringfellow argues that the "powers" of the world - all governments, organizations, militaries, churches, schools and families - are fallen creatures, fallen separately from the human beings that constitute them, and are given over the demonic Power of death. Certain things - the Vietnam War, for him, and I would add the Iraq War, farm subsidies, carbon dioxide pollution and the abortion industry to that list - only make sense if we realize that they operate not for the benefit of anyone involved, but for the benefit of the System itself - which is to say, for the benefit of Death.
For Stringfellow, the only answer to this dilemma we are all caught in is to resist the power of death, in whatever fashion our circumstances and the Holy Spirit avail us of. Our resistance will inevitably be futile, fallen and sinful to some degree, but "resistance is the only human way to live."
I'd be remiss if I didn't add that, except for the racial and religious dynamics, all the elements of slavery I saw in this film are present in modern-day slavery in Sudan, where I regularly travel to see people who have been liberated from slavery through the organization I work for, Christian Solidarity International. Abduction, family separation, name changes, murder with impunity, rapes, constant beatings, torture, maimings - it's all still happening today, and at about the same level of technological development, in the Darfur and Kordofan regions of North Sudan.
I met this man, Deng Akol Acien, in September. He was 20 years a slave. Before his capture, he was a Christian, a sugar trader. His master changed his name to Abdullah and forced him to pray like a Muslim. After Abdullah lost one of his master's sheep, he beat him, cut off the tip of his ear, tied him to the ground and left him in the sun for three days without food. On the fourth day, his master brought him food mixed with dirt to eat. Abdullah saw seven of his fellow slaves executed for trying to escape. There's more, but it's not fit even for this horror-show of a blog post. When I met him, he told me he wanted to be called Deng again. "I'm done with Abdullah forever now."
We can get people like Deng out of slavery through our contacts in Sudan, usually for the price of about $50 worth of cattle vaccine - per person.
It won't solve poverty, racism, systematic abuse of women, and war in Africa. We can't defeat the power of death on our own.
But we can resist. And that, I believe, is what we are called to.