The Common Good

No Turning Away, or Back, After Seeing '12 Years a Slave'

Tanner was in the habit of reading the Bible to his slaves on the Sabbath… The first Sunday after my coming to the plantation, he called them together, and began to read the twelfth chapter of Luke. When he came to the 47th verse, he looked deliberately around him, and continued— “And that servant which knew his lord’s will”— here he paused, looking around more deliberately than before, and again proceeded “which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself”— here was another pause— “prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

'12 Years a Slave' still, Fox Searchlight

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“D’ye hear that?” demanded Peter, emphatically. “Stripes,” he repeated, slowly and distinctly, taking off his spectacles, preparatory to making a few remarks. “That n—– that don’t take care that— don’t obey his lord— that’s his master— d’ye see?— that ’ere n—– shall be beaten with many stripes. Now, many signifies a great many— forty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty lashes. That’s Scripter!”

— From Solomon Northrop’s memoir Twelve Years a Slave, 1853

Before I saw the new film 12 Years A Slave, I knew nothing about Solomon Northrop or his astounding story of courage, forbearance, and faith.

I’d never heard of Northrop, an African-American freeman, who was born and reared in upstate New York in the early 1800s, well before the abolition of slavery in the rest of the nation. I’d not known of the historical practice of kidnapping freeborn black Americans in the North and selling them into slavery in the South.

I’d never heard about how Northrop, an accomplished violinist, was bamboozled into traveling from his farm in Hebron, N.Y., where he lived a prosperous life with his wife and three children, to Washington, D.C., for work, but was drugged, kidnapped, and sold in Louisiana. I’d never heard how he remained for a dozen years before heroically regaining his freedom in 1853 — one of a very few kidnapped freemen and freewomen ever to regain their freedom.

I’d never heard how, right after returning to his family in New York, Northrop wrote a memoir of his years of enslavement, titled Twelve Years A Slave, which sold more than 30,000 copies in three years, or how he traveled broadly to lecture about his experiences.

I’d never heard how Northrop became an avid abolitionist, helping to rescue slaves via the Underground Railroad, and even sued his kidnappers and enslavers, though the case came to naught as, at the time, African Americans were not allowed to testify against whites in Washington, D.C. courts.

I didn’t know. But now I do. And so should you.

“My wife found this book, and as soon as I opened the book I couldn’t put it down,” Steve McQueen, the film’s British director, said after a screening of the film. “By the time I got to the end of the book I was just astonished and amazed. But at the same time, I was upset and disappointed with myself that I didn’t know this book. Slowly, rather than surely, I found that no one I knew, knew this book.

“I live in Amsterdam and everyone here knows Anne Frank’s diary. She’s not just a national hero in the Netherlands, she’s a hero in the world,” said McQueen, whose parents hailed from Grenada and Trinidad.

“I just couldn’t believe that I hadn’t read this book that came out 97 years before Anne Frank wrote hers. And I didn’t know it. No one knew it. It was, like, buried. I made it my passion to make this book into a film because it was just incredible.”

12 Years A Slave, is, at times, excruciatingly difficult to watch, not in spite of its cinematic beauty, but because of it. What McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit show is raw, honest, and terrible — from brutal floggings that rip the skin off the backs of men, women and children, to rape, lynching, and indescribable degradation.

I wanted to look away numerous times during the 130 minutes of the exquisitely acted and photographed film. But I didn’t. McQueen wouldn’t let me.

Chiwetel Eijofor is magnificent as Northrop with his huge eyes taking in the horror of slavery and reflecting back honor and strength even as his body is broken day after day. He refuses to become what his enslavers believe he is: less than human and so much chattel.

When asked how Northrop never gave in or gave up, Eijofor, who is British of Nigerian descent, said he believed it was Northrop’s “spirituality” that kept him from giving into despair and connected to the people around him.

The violence Northrop and the other slaves endure on film is horrendous and so discomforting that I saw grown men covering their eyes or turning away during particularly graphic scenes.

Perhaps even more disturbing to watch were the scenes where the sadistic slave owner Edwin Epps (masterfully depicted by Michael Fassbender) literally reads aloud from the Bible to not only justify but secure a divine imprimatur for keeping and mistreating his slaves.

Listening to the sweaty, maniacal rapist and murderer Epps preach to his captives from the Gospel of Luke made me want to scream at the screen. If Epps had been standing in front of me, unlike Northrop who somehow managed never to descend into retributive violence, I would have lunged for his neck.

Those scenes with Epps and other slavers, using the Bible as a spiritual weapon against their slaves, weren’t poetic license. They actually happened to Northrop and, presumably, untold thousands of other men, women, and children.

And it begs the question: How are we using the Bible today to enslave the “other” or each other? How is the Good News wielded as a deadly weapon now?

McQueen has tackled uncomfortable subjects before in his award-winning films Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strikes, and Shame about sexual addiction. He wants to make us uncomfortable, but not for prurient reasons. Rather, he wants us to face the darkness, the evil, the inhumanity — to look it straight in the eye without flinching — name it and do something about it.

As I left the theater in Los Angeles and drove home in the darkness, I kept thinking about something the Indian author Arundhati Roy said in her book Power Politics:

“The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

I’m so glad Northrop told his story. I’m so grateful McQueen told Northrop’s story. I hated what I saw — but I feel blessed for having seen it.

Cathleen Falsani is the faith and values columnist for The Orange County Register. Via RNS.

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