“12 Years a Slave,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American living in Saratoga, New York, who was captured and sold into slavery while visiting Washington, D.C., in 1841. The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, originally published in 1853.
Northup is a smart and well-spoken violinist who makes a decent living as a performer. He and his wife have two children and lead a blessedly quiet life in Saratoga, living as free as any white person in their community. While it’s subtly apparent that they face some racism, by and large, they are happy and thriving.
When his wife and children go out of town for a few weeks, Solomon takes advantage of an unexpected opportunity to travel to Washington with a refined circus of sorts, to make some additional money performing in the show. He believes the trip to be a financial success — until he wakes up in a dark cell, bound by heavy shackles and chains, the men who recruited him under false pretenses having sold him to slave traders.
And just like that, his hellish nightmare begins. He’s sent by riverboat down to Louisiana, where he is sold for $1,000 first to one slave owner, and then another. He spends the next 12 years felling and milling lumber in the bayou swamplands, picking cotton under the sweltering southern sun, and cutting sugar cane in the thick, oppressive humidity.
From the day he is captured, he is mercilessly beaten, abused, and tormented. However, it is some time before Solomon’s spirit is forced into submission. His love for his family and desire to be reunited with them strengthens his resolve, enabling him to steel himself day in and day out, despite violence, abuse, and injustice.
Additionally, his life experience as a free man fills him with courage that many of his fellow slaves who were born and raised in captivity don’t seem to possess. While they can only imagine freedom, Solomon has experienced it. He knows he was created for it and deserves it just as any other man does. Time and time again, he refuses to be silenced because of his awareness of his inherent freedom: He knows he was meant to be free as deeply as he knows he is alive, and that no one has any right to take that from him, tell him otherwise, or subject him to such unjust atrocities.
But 12 years is a long time, and there is only so much physical, mental, and emotional abuse a person can take before his body weakens, his mind deteriorates, and his soul withers. While Solomon’s first owner, Mr. Ford, is a “kind” man by the standards of antebellum society, and he sees and appreciates Solomon’s intelligence and talents, his overseer does not. A life-threatening altercation between the overseer and Solomon causes Ford to believe he must sell Solomon to save his life. He ends up in the hands of Mr. Epps, an evil man controlled by alcoholism and a deep lust for power and control.
Under the hand of Epps, Solomon and his fellow slaves suffer the unthinkable: vicious physical violence; manipulative humiliation; and severe sexual abuse. They are never safe from the violent and twisted whims of Epps; they hide and cower, fearing his presence, his command, and his whip. It is here that Solomon’s spirit begins to fade. Under such truly tyrannical circumstances, there is no room for hope to grow and take hold.
Hope finally appears, however, when Solomon meets a sympathetic businessman working for Epps. A man who sees the injustice of the slave system and values his own personal freedom so deeply that he recognizes its importance for all, he commits to helping Solomon when he hears his story. But even as the possibility of Solomon’s freedom and return home begins to materialize, it still seems an unimaginable dream.
Over and over again, the film highlighted the disregard for the sanctity and dignity of the lives of others that is fundamental to slavery. More than any other film I’ve seen, “12 Years” powerfully communicated that fact that slaves were viewed as property, no different than an animal or a parcel of land, to be treated and disposed of however the owner desired. Additionally, the evil that is possible in the human heart and our ability to subjugate each other through severe violence and manipulative control was apparent in nearly every scene.
However, as seen in Solomon’s character, the film also depicts our inherent yearning for freedom and abundant life. It cannot be denied, for eternity is written on our hearts; we are created in the image of God. (Ecc. 3:11, Gen. 1:27)
“12 Years a Slave” is the kind of film that stands alone. Hundreds of movies are made every year in the name of entertainment; dozens released every month under the guise of box office blockbusters. But only a handful succeed in creating a story that is as powerful as it is artistic; cinematically well crafted and thematically weighty and significant. This is one such film.
It is not easy to watch. Solomon and the other slaves undergo such extreme violence and physical abuse that there I spent not just seconds, but whole minutes unable to watch the screen. The theme of sexual abuse and manipulation addressed in one subplot is particularly heartbreaking. The degradation of people, and consequently the human spirit, is so unrelenting and ruthless that it truly felt oppressive at times. But that is the reality of slavery — in the history of our country, in the history of mankind, and in our modern world.
In light of such horrors as the slavery of the United States’ past — in light of equally horrific evil and injustice happening in the world today — it can be difficult at times to hold onto hope. To walk with faith in things unseen. To believe that God is real, and that if He is, that He is good. As with Solomon Northup, even when hope suddenly appears, our circumstances and our histories can cause us to freeze in disbelief and fear, certain the promise of our hope will be snatched away as quickly as it seemed to appear.
“12 Years,” was not overtly Christian in its message — although it did portray the way Southerners abused the Bible to justify their slave-labor society, and also subtly paid homage to the deep, spiritual resolve that grew in both the hearts and culture of the oppressed slaves. However, what it vividly depicted was the struggle to hold onto hope in the face of the ultimate persecution, imprisonment, adversity, and loss of freedom. Consequently, I walked out of the theater deeply reminded of four things.
First, the balance we believe exists in our lives — the security we try to build and hold so tightly — can come crashing down in an instant. We truly are not in control; life really is but a vapor (Ps. 39:5). Second, the depth of our depravity apart from God knows no limit; apart from Him sin and suffering abound (Rom. 1:28-32). Third, we are truly in need of a Savior to save us from our sins, to heal us from all suffering, and to bring lasting hope to our lives (Ps. 147:3, Isa. 61:1-3, Titus 3:3-7).
Finally, it struck me again how God’s judgment truly is a sign of His deep, abounding love. It can be seen in the judgment he placed upon Christ at the cross, for it was here that He made a way for each and every one of us to be spared the consequences of our sin (1 John 2:2, 4:9-10). And it will be seen again when we all stand before him, for it is there that all will be called to account — either for their sincere belief in Christ, or the weight of their sins without His atoning blood to cover them (Heb. 7: 25-27, 9:14, 27-28, 10:10). It is here that such atrocities and injustices as those so vividly displayed in “12 Years” will be reckoned for, and true, righteous justice will be served once and for all (John 3:15-21).
“12 Years a Slave” is rated R for violence, language, nudity, and sexual content and is not appropriate for young viewers. While it is difficult to watch at times due to violence and other graphic content, it powerfully highlights themes such as our innate longing for life and freedom, the struggle to hold onto hope, the importance of love and family, the dignity and sanctity of human life, and the evil and despair that arise when these are disregarded. In addressing such themes both artistically and unapologetically, the film is sobering, provoking, and worth contemplating long after the final credits have rolled.
Image copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Annie Provencher is a writer in Manassas, Va. Visit her website at http://www.annieprovencher.com.