Last night, Kish and I watched 12 Years a Slave. It is a well-made, gripping film that features an exceptional performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, a free man who is lured away from his New York home, drugged, and then sold into more than a decade of slavery.
For all of its beautiful cinematography and superb acting, the movie is incredibly difficult to watch because of the oppressive reality of slavery and the bloody and terrible beatings, the hangings, and the lashings of Northrup and his fellow slaves. Of course, that’s the point — at least in part. For too long, in movies like Gone With The Wind, the reality of slavery in America was sugarcoated and airbrushed into fantasyland. 12 Years a Slave, with its depiction of the story of one man’s hellish experience on several plantations in the deep South, helps to balance the scales.
Movies can make us laugh, make us cry, make us think, and make us wonder. 12 Years a Slave falls into the latter categories. One of the great values of the movie is its exposure of the many different people who participated in the slavery system and facilitated its enormous evil. For every brutish slave owner and sadistic overseer there were a host of slave auctioneers, jailers, tradesmen, ship owners, and fugitive slave hunters who helped to keep the system running. 12 Years a Slave shows them all doing their jobs, apparently untroubled by the fact that they are trading in the lives of human beings. How did that happen? How did those people come to accept and participate in such a perverse and inherently wicked institution?
In our fast-moving modern world, where everyone focuses on the future and things a decade old are viewed as the distant past, it’s important to remember that there is a deep and rancid stain on the history of the United States that grew and endured for decades. 12 Years a Slave is a fine movie in its own right, but its powerful message about the dark corner of our heritage makes it a must-see film.