A couple of weeks ago, we had the honor of hosting a pre-release screening of 12 Years A Slave for our local community members here in Pasadena. We are extraordinarily grateful to Fox Searchlight and Different Drummer for facilitating that screening for us. Rarely, a film comes along that warrants special consideration by movie-goers. Even more rarely, one of those films warrants extra-special consideration by Christians. 12 Years A Slave is one of those rare films, and particularly so if you are a white, American Christian.
12 Years A Slave centers on the travails of Solomon Northup, a free black man int he 1840s living in New York state who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. The movie is based on his memoirs which he published following his rescue in the 1850s.
This is a rich, complex film, and there are lots of very excellent writing and thinking being done about it from different perspectives. For thoughts on the religious imagery used therein, both the brutal and the beautiful, read this article from Variety’s Justin Chang. For the perspective and experience of an African American filmmaker, film scholar and theologian, read Avril Speaks’ article on our website. For a more pragmatic investigation of the film’s technique and effect, listen to this episode of FIlmspotting. For help coming to grips with the violence featured in the film, read Kenneth Morefield’s review at Christianity Today. (Honestly though, if one is able to embrace The Passion of the Christ, there’s no reason one can’t embrace this film assuming one’s key objection is its explicitness.)
I recommend seeing this movie twice. The first time, I was so waylaid by the movie, so emotionally rent, I was unable to do much of anything beyond weeping. Weeping is a perfectly adequate response. When you see this movie, feel free to sit and weep both while watching it and once it concludes. There is nothing shameful about grief.
The second time I saw this, I was able to reflect a bit on what I was seeing and how I was being moved. I knew what I was going to see, so I wasn’t shocked by any of it. I was able to anticipate it, the effect it would have on me, and to settle in more completely to the emotional and aesthetic experience of the film. When it was over, I was able to talk about it. My friend, who saw it for his first time that time, could only sit in silence all the way home.
See this movie, and if you can, see it twice and with the same people if possible. Set aside time to talk about it afterward when you’re ready.
I was most cowed by the contrasting depictions of Christianity contained in the film. The faith of the white slave owners is moralistic, used to gain power, and easily discarded when it would otherwise preclude selfish action. The faith of the slaves is vital, sustaining, and neither easily won nor easily discarded.
As a white man, born into privilege and power in society, 12 Years A Slave makes me question whether I have any rightful claim to faith in Christ at all. I know nothing of low places, low esteem, and the real life that is only found in close proximity to death. I know nothing of truly needing Christ. The only injustice I know is as one who has, at best, benefitted from it and at worst, has participated in enacting and enfranchising it.
My ancestry is that of the slave owners. They are my people. I am heir to their wickedness. Sitting in that theater watching 12 Years A Slave, I feared for my mortal life, for if I was among the children of those once slaves, I would want to rise up in violent revolution. I also feared for my immortal soul, for what hope should I have for eternal goodness. My demise, both instantaneous and final, would be entirely justified by even the most generous reckoning of guilt.
If there is room for me, a white man of Southern blood, in God’s mercy, God’s mercy stretches wider than I am able to comprehend.
Further, there is a scene in this movie in which a man considered “good” by reputation commits the story’s most vile act, because he is beholden to the system of slavery and unwilling to hazard his life to protect another. He is a coward. He has no conviction. If righteousness is reckoned not by confession but by action, he is the most wretched man in the movie, for he is walking away from the light. He is a lukewarm man, neither hot nor cold. He knows the truth but does not do it. It would be better were he entirely ignorant of it.
I am convicted by this character. I wonder whom the afflicted are in my day. I wonder what systems I am bought into and what groups of people are being felled by the shrapnel of those systems. Liberation eventually comes for Solomon because a privileged person stoops down to identify with him. Whom has circumstance set me above? Almost everyone, I think.
God, if I am to be included in your mercy, thank you. And may that mercy make me humble. May it knock me from my perch and set me down among those closest to your grace. May I identify with them, lift them up, hazard my mortal life in favor of my immortal soul. Amen.