Film: 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Subject: Slavery
Why: Education

“I will survive! I will not fall into despair. I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!”

The film getting a lot of Oscar nods at the moment (2014) is 12 Years a Slave. But it’s also one of the few previews I’ve been to that hasn’t been packed, and I go to a lot (shout out to Steve M. for all the tickets over the years).

But with a line like that in it why wouldn’t you want to see it? It’s inspiring, it’s uplifting, it’s got an incredible cast and beautiful Negro spirituals. So what is keeping people away? Well it’s also violent, harrowing and appalling and takes you right into the mire of human depravity with lynchings, rapes and floggings … You want to look away and crawl under the seat but you also have this unnerving feeling that you need to see this film and it could be the most important thing you see this year.

I went into this film expecting to be confronted and I was as much by the inherent evil of some of the characters and what they did, but the complicity with which other people went along with it, including the slaves themselves.

This is the official trailer:

The film is the true story of free black man Solomon Northup from Saratoga, New York, who is drugged and sold into slavery where he then struggles to survive vitriolic overseers, masters and even the wives of these men. The oppression is tangible and painful thanks a lot to the silence in which most of the film is shot. In fact a lot of the sound comes through only in scenes of frightful hardship as a man gasps for air in a noose, when there’s a violent confrontation with a white man over something trivial or the occasional resounding song that the slaves sing to comfort their souls. These lines were particularly uplifting at the gravesite of a man that dropped dead picking cotton in the fields:

Oh march the angel march
March the angel march
O my soul arise in heaven, Lord
For to hear when Jordan roll


“O my soul arise in heaven, Lord” was perhaps all many of them could hope for. But if “Man is capable of as much atrocity as he has imagination” (A Beautiful Mind), he’s also capable of incredible resilience, hope and courage. And in Solomon Northup there’s this incredible sense that he refuses to be broken, to fall into despair, to just survive. He wants to live, despite the circumstances in which he finds himself. One longs to believe they resonate most with Solomon’s struggle, but there’s also the despair of Eliza who is separated from her children who just wants to weep for her loss, and Patsey who can’t bear the lustful attentions of her slave master and wants to end it all. The challenging question then presents itself – how would we face such hardship? would we keep ourselves hardy like Solomon until freedom presented itself 12 years later? what would we do to survive? This is the exchange Solomon has with Eliza that demonstrates their different responses to slavery:

There is no abashing, Hollywood sentiment at the end of the film, and that actually impressed me, because there are scars here that won’t heal. There is resolution for Solomon of a kind (no spoilers) but a tangible sense of loss of the life he could have had. And so the movie ends, with much unresolved, and so it should, so we, as the audience, don’t forget the injustices that people did and still suffer. Because slavery did not only exist back in the 1850s in America, it still goes on today through things like:
* bonded labor
* early marriage
* child labor
* sex slavery
* prison labor
* migrant labor
* slavery by descent

In the USA January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, culminating in the annual celebration of National Freedom Day on February 1. Other important dates to remember are:
25 March – International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
2 December – International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

If you feel challenged to get involved in any movements there are numerous organisations out there and plenty of resources to read. Here are some and do feel free to add more in the comments:

12 Years a Slave is also a book by Solomon Northup (image with link below to Amazon). I’m happy to say I just picked up a copy and will post a book review of this as soon as I’ve read it. I’ll end with some quotes I found from it as food for thought:

… “Life is dear to every living thing; the worm that crawls upon the ground will struggle for it.”
… “What difference is there in the color of the soul?”
… “Is every thing right because the law allows it?”
… “In the sight of God, what is the difference between a white man and black one?”

If you see one film this year, this should be it.

Rating: 8.5-9 / 10 (stars removed because of the violence only, yet acknowledging this film had to have violence).


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