“12 Years a Slave”: A Reflection with Spoilers

By Lawrence Ware 

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: “12 Years a Slave” is a 2013 British-American film, an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave   by Solomon Northup.] 

One’s intellectual response to “12 Years a Slave” will invariably lag behind one’s emotional reaction. In the days since I’ve seen the film, the emotions have subsided, but three lessons from the film have remained.

Lesson #1: Socioeconomic status is no exception from racial realities.

Solomon Northup was an educated, cultured free black in the 1840s. His only mistake was thinking that being born free meant he was safe from the ugliest manifestation of white supremacy in America.  A person of color is always threatened in a white, capitalist society. Yes, he was educated; yes, he was musically talented; yes, he was petite bourgeoisie; no, that did not matter. The reality of one’s skin color is always a factor when living under white hegemony.

This remains true today.

As black folk in America gain greater levels of economic upward mobility, there is a temptation to think since some of us live in mostly white neighborhoods and have access to mostly white schools, that means we are living in a post-racial society. This simply is not true.  Skin color can preclude from access to adequate schools, health care, and economic opportunities. That was true in the 1840s and remains true today.

Lesson #2: We can become indifferent to suffering

In a powerful scene, Solomon Northup is hung from a tree by his neck just low enough for his toes to reach the mud beneath him. Director Steve McQueen does this in an extended scene. While watching a man hang from a noose is disturbing enough, it is what happens in the background that is truly horrifying: children play and adults engage in business as usual. The inhumane treatment of another human being is not uncommon in this culture—in fact, it is the norm

Again, this remains true today.

We have become desensitized to the suffering of others. People of all colors (but disproportionately, those with black and brown skin) are living in a state of emergency. Schools are underfunded; access to adequate healthcare is limited; and acts of violence against women of color are ignored while acts of violence against white women are used as a catalyst for reform. We cannot allow ourselves to become desensitized to human misery—that is, well-adjusted to injustice. We must be vigilant to remain outraged by all human suffering—not just those the culture considers important.

Lesson #3: Black stories about race are possible

“12 Years a Slave” shows us that one can make a compelling film about race without marginalizing black characters and making a white person's moral outrage the driving force behind the narrative conflict. In the past, movies like Amistad, The Help, and Mississippi Burning have told black stories by focusing on white characters. In this film, the social dynamics of the black characters are in the forefront, and white characters are relegated to supporting roles.

For once, the conscience of a good white person isn't the dramatic center of a movie about race. This movie is not about white people saving the helpless, hapless slaves, but about the lived experience of human beings suffering under an oppressive and brutishly dehumanizing system.

There are many who say the film should not depict the violence suffered by slaves so explicitly. Certainly McQueen did not have to show the flesh falling off the back of the slaves being whipped. 

I have little sympathy with that sentiment.

Slavery was an evil system. The torture visited upon those under this system was vicious. Having read the book upon which the film is based, I am not surprised by what others call McQueen’s gratuitous use of violence; I am taken aback by his restraint. What McQueen chooses to not show are scenes of children being whipped; children being raped; and indiscriminate killing of slaves at the hands of white slave-owners. McQueen could be criticized for not showing more violence.

“12 Years a Slave” is a tour-de-force; a masterpiece. It is a film that forces us to examine one of the darkest parts of American history in an unsentimental, unflinching way. It teaches us many things. Go to the theaters; class is in session.

Lawrence_Ware.jpgLawrence Ware is a professor and lecturer in philosophy at Oklahoma State University; pastor of Christian education at the Prospect Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City; and a member of DSA.

 Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.

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