Saturday, February 1, 2014

12 Years a Slave -- surviving or living?

Director: Steve McQueen, 2013 (R)

Probably the strongest of this year's crop of Best Picture Oscar nominees, 12 Years a Slave is an intense film that is sometimes hard to watch. Indeed, it may be the best movie yet about slavery. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black in the North who was abducted and sold into slavery in the South.

We meet Solomon at the start of the film and see him as a man of culture, a musician with a wife and family. Set in the pre-Civil war antebellum era, he is a middle-class freeman who enjoys his life. But while his wife and children are out of town, he is enticed to travel to New York to perform. While there he is drugged, chained, and put on a ship to Atlanta. His days of freedom are over. He is sold to a kindly slaver (Benedict Cumberbatch) at first but finds himself subsequently owned by a brutal master (Michael Fassbender).

McQueen draws outstanding performances from an ensemble cast. Alongside Ejiofor, Cumberbatch and Fassbender, we see Paul Giamatti as a slave trader, Paul Dano as a mean overseer, Sarah Paulson as the master's wife, Brad Pitt (one of the producers and key to getting the movie made) and Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a pretty slave treated as the master's sexual toy. Indeed, Ejiofor and Nyongo'o have garnered Oscar nominations for their work here.

The bulk of the movie deals with Northup's twelve years spent in slavery. McQueen contrasts the kind and evil slave masters, even while depicting both as willing to dehumanize the slaves as non-humans, mere animals. They accept them as their property and hence free to do anything they like to them, including whipping, raping and killing them. There are some heavy scenes of all three. But it is the very capricious and violent nature of the slavers that haunt us, even the slaver's wife. In one scene, the slaves are forced to dance to music. When the wife comes in, she strikes Patsey violently and then tells the others to carry on.

I have dealt in detail with the moral implications of slavery in 2012's Lincoln  so I won't reiterate that here except for a quick comment. The apostle Paul says, "Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Rom. 6:16) We are born in sin and find ourselves slaves to sin. But we can find freedom if we choose Jesus (Jn 1:12). Then we can become slaves to obedience, an obedience to Christ.

A key theme here, though, is surviving or living. Early on, while still in the North (albeit in chains), Northup comments to another slave: "I don't want to survive. I want to live." Later, after some years of life as a slave, he finds himself just wanting to survive. In this life survival is a baseline requirement. We seek the barest minimum to survive: shelter, food, water. We can eke away at surviving. But living entails more than this. It entails community, dignity and joy. Real living involves knowing Jesus Christ, who came to give us real life (Jn. 10:10) along with real freedom (Rom. 8:2)

We may not be chained and enslaved, receiving physical punishment from our masters. But we may remain mentally, emotionally and spiritually enslaved, receiving spiritual punishment from Satan. We can seek to survive, and that may carry us for a year or two, until our spirit is finally crushed. But true living can come only from Christ. Will you find rescue, as Northup did, from the hand of the one who came looking for you (Lk. 19:10)?
Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

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