Twelve Years a Slave

As Solomon Northrop is drawn away in a carriage headed north towards his freedom, he casts a glance back at the Patsy and the slaves he’s leaving behind.

Two things crossed my mind at that moment, neither expected:

1)  Words from Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2012 Democratic convention –

We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. We draw strength from our victories. And we learn from our mistakes. But we keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us.

2)  Words from the Passover Seder, celebrated every year at my parents’ house:

Today, as well, wherever oppression remains, Jews taste its bitterness… In every generation, each of us should feel as though we ourselves had personally gone forth from Egypt. Every generation must discover freedom anew. For we read in the Torah: “And you shall explain to your child on that day, it is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went forth from Egypt.” Every generation must earn its claim to liberty.  “It was we who were slaves… we who were strangers.” And therefore, we recall these words as well:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt.

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them… You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. You shall rejoice before God with your son and daughter… and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow in your midst.

Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt. You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt. Not only our ancestors alone did the Holy One redeem but us as well, along with them, as it is written:

“And God freed us from Egypt so as to take us and give us the land promised to our ancestors.”

As many problems with belief in God as I have, and with actions taken in the name of God/Judaism/Christianity, etc. , every year when we read those words, I cannot speak them aloud, they move me so deeply and my voice trembles so.  “Wherever oppression remains, Jews taste its bitterness…” gets me as close to identifying as a Jew as anything ever has.

I said both of those thoughts were unexpected, but they were also a sign of a profound answer I found in this movie to the skepticism with which I brought myself into the theater to watch it.  To wit, I thought: this is going to be another one of those “period pieces” that celebrates our own exceptionalism.  Here would be a set of “good” characters who held recognizably contemporary views, set against a pseudo-Dickensian background of monsters and demons maintaining the institutions of slavery.

To be more specific – since the above describes how I feel just about any time I go to see any movie set in the past, at least until it proves otherwise – Lincoln being a notable example of a film that DID NOT prove otherwise:

I was worried that Twelve Years a Slave would be limited by its premise.  Here was a film about a person who claims to be a “free man,” without confronting the underlying contradiction: they’re ALL “free men” and free women, or they all deserve to be so.  So how could a movie deal withing with someone “wrongfully enslaved” make sense?  There is no such thing as non-wrongful enslavement.  I was worried – no – I even assumed – that this movie would ignore that paradox.  The previews made it look like it would.  They also made it look like they would indulge in the kind of a-historical/anachronistic moralizing that makes us feel better about ourselves, and puts that moralizing in the form of an enlightened white person (Brad Pitt’s character).

To that worry, this film turned out to be 2 hour 15 minute answer.  Or, better said, an attempt at an answer.  This film was, from start to finish, a profound meditation on he contradiction at the heart of the concept of a “wrongfully enslaved free man.”  It does this in a variety of ways I’m sure I haven’t processed yet.

There’s a scene just a little ways into the film, when one of Solomon’s fellow kidnappees is returned to his master.  He runs away hugging this rotund, well-dressed man, and the audience (at least at my showing) was made to laugh at him for being so servile.  It was a kind of laughter that comes from discomfort, though, not judgment and condemnation.

When Solomon looks back at his fellow slaves, and embraces Patsy, the one most graphically mistreated through the film (she is raped, whipped, tormented, chased) that earlier scene immediately pops to mind.  The question “is Solomon any better than his earlier counterpart?” jumps out (and that’s what brought me to Barack Obama and the Passover Seder).  Somehow final embrace of his fellow slave literally gestured (but did not speak to) an answer.

The film holds the paradox of wrongful enslavement firmly in its view the entire time.  Solomon is wracked both with a feeling of personal injustice, but then (when he has time to think about it) he sees glimmers of the sense of collective injustice that allows slavery to exist in the first place.  When he is asked to whip Patsy, he confronts a whole most of moral questions, and the audience is made to confront those in a way they rarely are in our largely self-congratulatory film culture.  What does it mean to perpetuate injustice?  When am I obligated to fight it?  When is that an impossible demand?  Is it wrong to hurt another person under orders?

The insanity slavery creates in its practitioners, as well as its victims, was also considered in unflinching detail.  “Master Epps” is a realistic portrait of depravity unlike any I have ever seen before.  “Master Ford,” though seemingly more liberal-minded, is perhaps even more disturbing for that very reason.  He is, mutatis mutandis, Martin Luther King’s “white moderate.”

There are also the whole issues of the purely visual and sonic aspects of this film.  The depressed, dead and boggy landscapes viscerally deny the ante-bellum world of Gone with the Wind, and even Django Unchained (which movie Twelve Years a Slave immediately made me re-think my feelings about).  The music – atonal dirge soundtrack, on-screen fiddle playing by Solomon, funeral singing, field-slave singing, farcical Victorian dancing (of both whites and slaves forced to emulate those whites) – all of it was executed with a depth of feeling that deserves its own celebration.

All of the music brought constantly to mind one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography’s most vivid passages:

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

When the film shows Solomon begin to sing with his fellow slaves at the death of an older (I think nameless) slave – it confronts that central paradox, and puts Solomon’s obligations in the face of double injustice (both to him, ant to everyone else who was “rightfully” enslaved) in a deeply moving light.

Why does he begin to sing?  What are the ethical, political, even spiritual implications of that beginning?

Go see this film if you have not already.

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