6. Twelve Years a Slave: “Little Relief for the Moviegoer” #CaPC25

All this week, the writers of Christ and Pop Culture unveil their 25 most loved things of 2013. 

Previous #7: Welcome to Night Vale

#6: Twelve Years a Slave

“…and you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free…”

I saw 12 Years a Slave right before exams began, almost as a break from all the grading I had been doing and still had to do. I had read the story of Solomon Nothrup years ago, so I was quite familiar with what he had endured, and his written account. I have spent the better part of the last decade teaching American Literature, of which slave narratives are a significant and vital part. I read and discussed and heard enough to know what movie I’d bought a ticket for.

But seeing it. That, as they say, is a different story. The movie, 12 years a Slave, tells the story of Northup, a free man of color living in New York state who was stolen and sold into slavery in the 1840s. For Solomon, the reality of chattel slavery supersedes the truth of his freedom. Solomon is counted in the property of more than one man in this movie. His first master in the South, Ford, treats him with a humanity that ends up being a shallow patronage. Ford’s gift of a fiddle seems cheap when Solomon is sold to a brutal master, Edwin Epps, the disreputable slave breaker. The ten years that Solomon lived under Epps’s tyranny shows him transition from a skilled laborer who is known for his carpentry to a common field worker with a change in status and stature. During the 12 years Solomon is a slave, he seems to age longer than those years would tell. Even as he is abused and beaten and shamed by his last master, we know he should be free.

The movie tells Solomon’s story with a stark reality that can be jarring. Music, for instance, is often replaced by natural sounds of crickets chirping or even silence. When there is no silence, there is often the brutality that comes in the form of physical violence, shouting, and even more silence. There is little relief for the moviegoer looking for an escape.

For a Christian who watches this film, there is the added tension that other Christians worked to keep him enslaved. Sure, the knowledge that the abolitionist movement was enlivened by Christians should be celebrated, but not without the reminder that there would’ve been no need for abolition without Scripture-quoting slave owners.

The movie’s power comes from the knowledge that Solomon is a free man. Too often, we confuse someone’s place in life with their status. We confuse someone’s actions with their essence. The feeling you get while watching this movie is testament to the weakness of that confusion. Solomon, for much of the movie, acts like a slave. But he is, in fact, free.

Next #5: Gone Home (PC/MAC)


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