12-years for blog

Congratulations to the cast, crew, producers, and director of 12 Years a Slave.

Perhaps it is because of the increase in global inequalities and the global sense of insecurity. Whatever the cause: reflections on slavery are in the air.

That makes now an opportune time for a film such as 12 Years a Slave. Some of my colleagues, students, and I viewed this important film when it was released last fall. The effect is simply gut-wrenching. As the closing credits unfolded, we remained, stunned, in our seats.

Based on Solomon Northup’s account of being kidnapped while working in Washington, DC, and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South for a dozen years, this film offered a portrayal marked by the obvious demand of historical accuracy.

Few historians dare speak about the details of chattel slavery in the United States, and, for the most part, the Americas. Based in the 1840s, the account is after the British outlawed the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. This led to home production of enslaved people, and, given the demand exceeding the supply, a rise in the price of the enslaved. That American slavery was racialized meant, however, that freed blacks were vulnerable to being snatched into the clutches of those governing that brutal institution.

A powerful element of the film is its laying bare the reality of what it means to live in a world where one’s humanity is rejected. It didn’t matter how much Northup, portrayed by the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor, protested his situation when even mentioning his real name endangered his life. Even with all the brutality involved in not only enslaving him but also making him into a slave—to wipe out of him the humanity to which he clung with drowning desperation—the absurdity and cruelty of making people into property were evident. There are so many scenes of degradation and brutality that were features of everyday life in the slave states that there is no room to mention them all here. The ethical struggles were evident in such scenes as Northup’s attempting to flee in woods with which he was unfamiliar, only to encounter a group of white men lynching three black men. There was the reminder that virtually any white person had the status of a police officer. To be black out in the open was to be a crime, punishable by dismemberment or death.

And then there is the plight of enslaved women: Lupita Nyong'o’s extraordinary, Oscar-winning performance of Patsy, who faced the lust of the master, the cruelty of his wife, and the absurdity behind her being whipped nearly to death because of her effort to regain some dignity through procuring a bar of soap.

Yes, the question in this historical drama is obvious: how could this be the world was a short time ago? The answer? Who says it’s no longer so? As long as people could convince themselves they are free of sin and that others are not really people, the proverbial rest follows.

Brad Pitt, who produced this film, also appears in it as the agent who delivers the letter that sets the course of Northup’s liberation from the sadistic situation in which he was captive. Oddly enough, in producing this film, Brad Pitt is also the means by which the historic Solomon Northup’s letter is delivered to our audiences. Pitt has received a lot of criticism for appearing as one of the few good white characters in the entire film. Whether as the historic character or our historical present, I think the greater point is missing here: This is a message that needs to be delivered.

That Northup’s efforts to seek justice against his persecutors were in vain during his lifetime, the rest of which was also dedicated to abolitionism, should remind us, especially as we look at today’s slavery, whether in brothels, high-society homes, mines, or overcrowded prisons, the fight for human dignity continues. See 12 Years as Slave. Talk about it. And, without hesitation, join the fight for what is nothing short of right.

© Lewis R. Gordon