Reflections on the Movie: "12 Years a Slave"

December 23, 2013

By far, the most authentic, visceral portrayal I have ever seen of the horror of slavery in its treatment of Blacks and the worst instincts in human nature, as well as a few of the best, e.g., courage, persistence and love of family.
At the most fundamental level, it shows an horrific setting, the ease with which people can separate themselves from the “other,” regarding them as virtually “inhuman,” not worthy of respect, “property” in the literal sense of the word. 
You don’t reach my age without realizing that all of us are a mixture of instincts, good and bad; we all need to fight against that instinct to develop our own sense of worth by negating someone else’s worth and finding that easier to do by differentiating the “other” by color or appearance or something else that, in the end, comes down to “caste.”
I choose the word “caste” with an upcoming trip to India in mind, where, by most counts, there are upwards of 12 million people still in some form of slavery:  bonded labor or sexual trafficking.  When one wonders (as I do) how this system of slavery could continue so long, you come back to the element of caste which this movie suggests to me is what Negroes had become to so many White people, particularly those with economic gain to be had and a mode of living that was dependent on their subservience.
There was an acute comment made by one of the members of the audience (I believe Bernadette Watson) that Solomon’s stamina and his never being willing to let go of freedom took strength from the fact that he had at one time experienced freedom.  In contrast, many of the slaves on the plantations had been in that condition, probably since birth and, while I’m sure they felt the horrible constraint of slavery, they could not proceed with the “hope” and vision of “what was possible” which Northup did.
The takeaway from that perspective for me is the need to give people hope.  That, above all, is what a good parent does; what a great teacher can do; what a mentor can do; what a person can do in any relationship which conveys trust and high expectations to another person.
Anyone has to have a sense of sadness in seeing how the Bible and various extracts from it were used by slavers to support the institution that was so diabolically opposed to any view of God that sees “love of others” as its foundational point.  But that happened and it continues to happen all too often today. 
For me, life in its essence gets back to something pretty simple.  And that is to try to make the life of everyone around you better.  It brings me back to two words which, if I could only name two in defining human relationships, it would be these:  “everyone counts.”
I hope this movie will help people understand not only the horrific nature of slavery but the fact that this tendency of ours to view and discount and to sometimes malign those who are different than we are still exists and to try as best we can to overcome that instinct and rather as one writer, Matthew Kelly, expressed it:   “…see ourselves in others and others in ourselves—that is wisdom!”
The movie poses moral issues of courage and integrity which remind of situations that we face today and which personally raise the question of what I would have done in similar circumstances.
There is the chilling scene of Northup, hanging with a noose around his neck, the tips of his toes barely touching the muddy ground just sufficiently to ward off his death, hanging there for a seeming eternity in the film.  Around him, you see the White overseer and the plantation mistress, looking on, turning away, conscious surely of the man’s agony but also that they will not lose their property to death.  Around Northup also are fellow slaves, going about their lives, almost not wanting to notice him; kids playing, certainly not noticing him.  No one even considering, it would appear, to come to his rescue, except one soul who comes up to give him a sip of water. 
What would I have done if I were an enslaved man or woman in this situation?  Would I have had the courage to go up and cut him down, knowing that I was risking my life and certainly bringing on a whipping?  Perhaps it wasn’t even a question in the minds of most of the slaves; they had become so conditioned to this way of life.
Today, there are situations that bear at least a remote resemblance to this.  We read about a shooting, with the victim on the ground, and many people staying clear for risk of their own lives.
At a wholly different level, we encounter a poor person on the street with a “homeless” sign around his or her neck and we go by, feeling that they are undeserving, that our help wouldn’t be of real help in the end, feeling that they are “some other” somehow.
There is the horrific scene of the whipping of the young slave girl, Patsey, the most brutal part of the film for me; a girl already brutally treated sexually by Eps.   Solomon is ordered to do the whipping.  He is told that, if he doesn’t do it, he will be shot in the head.  He commences the whipping with as little force as he could.  Then, following the threat that if he doesn’t do it with more force, he would be killed, he does it, being compelled, as I saw him, to do so fiercely because of his disgust at himself for doing it at all.
What would any of us have done?  What would I do if ordered to whip or maim a fellow associate with the knowledge that, if I didn’t, my own life or body was at risk?
During the Holocaust, of course, Jews were ordered to guide fellow Jews to their deaths.  All over the world today and throughout history, there are circumstances where family members are ordered to maim or kill other family members. 
No doubt, the instinct for survival is second to none; it’s human nature.  Northup acknowledged his own deep commitment to not only survive but to “live.”
Yet, what price in honor is too great to survive, to live?
One never knows, I would never know, for sure until the moment was at hand. 
There is much more to this film.  There are counterpoised scenes which capture brilliantly what I have long thought of as the best and worst in life.
We see the joy of being with one’s family at the beginning of the film and at the end.  (Interestingly, we see no joy in family life on the plantation.)  These scenes are interspersed with the demeaning, joyless lives of the Negroes and the unremitting, demeaning treatment imposed on them by the Whites.
We see beautiful, inspiring scenes of nature--of landscapes and of skies--counterpoised against scenes of drudgery, of hopelessness, of day-to-day survival.
There are also scenes of hope.  I refer particularly to the Negroes’ singing spirituals.  Northup is initially intentionally detached but then, almost despite himself, he becomes deeply engaged with full voice.
There are three thoughts which I ponder, having reflected on the film hours after seeing it:
1.      I am reminded of how badly we can treat each other when we are not at our best.
2.      I am reminded that this has happened throughout history as people have used power and position to advantage and justified this by the instinct of defining “others” as unworthy and, in some cases, sub-human.
3.      I return to the thought expressed earlier:  “The greatest barrier to loving people, to cherishing people, to accepting people is our inability to see ourselves in them.  Take a closer look. We are one.  To see ourselves in others and others in ourselves—that is wisdom.”
Acting in accord with “The Better Angels of our Nature,” a task to which, with God’s help, we are always called.
(11/18/13)  I re-read these reflections on “12 Years a Slave” shortly after returning from my ten-day trip to India.  It is sobering, indeed chilling, to contrast the searing content of “12 Years a Slave” with what I witnessed in India:  a red-light district in Kolkata in which 10,000 women are entrapped due to poverty or sheer enslavement in prostitution; millions of men and women entrapped in bonded labor.  As I reflected in my notes on “12 Years a Slave,” I had seen, once again, how people have used power and position to their own advantage, justifying it by the instinct of defining “others” as unworthy and, in some cases, sub-human.  That was the situation with the Negroes; as it is today for millions in India as they are looked on as a lower caste.  In both these situations, I witnessed how people came to view those they treated brutally as not deserving human treatment.   

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