Movie review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave was a strange mixture of black and white, free and slave. All races and statuses of liberty intermixed. We see free blacks and enslaved blacks in the North. A black woman “freed” from slavery by being the mistress of a white man in the South. A white man, a former overseer, brought low by drink and forced to work in the cotton fields. A white woman on a plantation who contributes to the oppression of the slaves her husband owns. Yet a slave herself. Trapped by her husband’s whims: his threats to send her to oblivion. She is in essence a kept woman. And a cruel slave mistress to the slave her husband rapes.

Christianity appears in the film. Both in the spirituals the slaves sing. And in the Sunday services the slave masters hold for their own families and their slaves. Christianity forms the basis of the justifications they give for owning other human beings, for whipping them mercilessly. The justifications are painful to hear.

In the end slavery dehumanizes everyone. The people who have bought the slaves. The people who sell them. And of course, the slaves. Individually and collectively. The slaves are forced to ignore the circumstances of the other slaves around themselves for their own survival. They ignore the suffering of others. They do not reach out to help. At least not publicly.

At one point, Solomon, the enslaved freeman, was strung up to be hung, but the overseer stopped the vigilante justice before the hanging was carried out. Rather than cut down Solomon, he left him where he was. Hands tied behind his back. Noose around his neck. Rope slung over the tree branch and tied to the ground. Solomon gasped for air as well as a foothold on tippy toes in the mud. The seconds drag into minutes and then into an eternity as we see the other slaves come out of hiding and go about life. Women on the porches. Kids playing in the yard. And all the while, Solomon gasps and struggles to remain on his toes. Ignored by everyone around him, except one slave who gave him something to drink and then skittered away.

A white hired hand on the plantation, a Canadian abolitionist, gets involved in a discussion with the cruel slave owner about the wrongs and rights of slavery. The slave owner bolsters his claim with the law. Ah, but laws lie, claims the Canadian. Laws change but universal truths are constant. “In the eyes of God, what is the difference {between black and white}?”

Emboldened by this conversation, Solomon approaches the Canadian, asking him to risk his own life to pass a message to friends in the North. The Canadian hesitates, realizing the danger, but proceeds. This is juxtaposed by the times in the movie when Solomon crossed paths with a slave as a freeman. And did nothing. Or when Solomon crossed paths with free blacks as a slave. And they did nothing. Or in the end, when the sheriff came for Solomon, accompanied by a white man and papers that showed Solomon’s free status. All Solomon could do for a female slave on the plantation, the one raped and beaten by the slave owner, was hug her tight and watch her as the buggy rode away.

I can’t fathom his experience. Or the experiences of those that lived their entire lives as slaves. A soul-numbing and ultimately destroying existence. Even in the best of circumstances. To be shattered every day, but not succumb. How can one do that? I am left with what Solomon said to a woman who had been sold into slavery with him. She continually cried for her children whom had been ripped from her and sold to a different person. “If you let yourself be overcome by sorrow, you will drown in it.” At what point, though, do you stop swimming and let yourself sink?

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