12 Years a Slave


Do you remember that a few years after Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg made a film about the middle passage called Amistad. It seemed as though Spielberg was intent on doing for slavery with that film what his Oscar-winning magnum opus had done for the Holocaust–offer it the perfect, most wrenchingly true rendering in cinema possible. Amistad, though, failed to carry the resonance of its predecessor.

12 Years a Slave is the film that Amistad wanted to be.

If you’ve followed the film’s publicity at all, then you already know that it’s an early Oscar favorite. About that, I will only say that not only does Chiwetel Ejiofor deserve a best actor statue, but so does Lupita Nyong’o for her portrayal of the young slave Patsy.

Steve McQueen has produced a powerful film here and, like Schindler’s List, it is one that perhaps everyone should experience because it serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy–of its primacy in any valid moral or ethical system. Throughout the film there are many characters whose consciences tell them that slavery is wrong, but because of the strictures of Southern society and their own weaknesses of character, they do nothing to help Solomon Northup who has been abducted and sold into bondage despite being legally a free man. Of course, all of the enslaved characters were rightfully free, and the film reminds us that any code that denies that universal truth–whether it’s the Old Testament scriptures quoted by the deranged slave owner played by Michael Fassbender or the law of the land that reduced human beings to property–is destined to suffer the judgment of history.

As Alfre Woodard’s character tells us in the film, “In good time, the Lord’ll manage ‘em all…The sorrow of the pharaohs is no match for what awaits the plantation class.”

We should remember that while the institution of slavery is dead, it nevertheless continues to exist in our time in many forms, as do countless other injustices, from racial bias in our legal system to rampant inequality caused by globalization, and if we mean to be people of conscience, we must never quail from speaking and acting against these affronts to human dignity–lest we become those cursed by history.

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