12 Years a Slave

I had the great privilege to see the movie 12 Years a Slave this weekend, which reminded me of being 14 years old and watching Schindler’s List for the first time. Except I’m 33 now, and watching humans rape, maim, torture, and kill an objectified “other” can no longer be witnessed in silent horror. The stark brutality, violence and terror of slavery, brought to life with such honesty and passion in 12 Years a Slave, made my cry out in horror, made me wince and hunch down in my seat and bite my knuckles, made tears stream down my cheeks, and made me wish I could do what I really wanted to do– close my eyes, or run away.

But of course, I did not close my eyes. Or run away. I watched the film, and this mantra ran through my bloodstream the whole time: thank God, thank God, thank God this movie was finally made.

There was a reason why 600,000 people died fighting in the Civil War. Why the Union picked up guns to put a stop to this horror. And there is a reason why honest depictions of the system of slavery are… well, pretty much nonexistent, except for some of the scenes in Django Unchained and now this amazing, exquisite, breathtaking film, which was based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup.

I want to read Northup’s autobiography now. I want to know the source material that generated this amazing film.

The film’s screenwriter, John Ridley, was interviewed on the PBS NewsHour tonight, and I hung on every word, wishing the interview could have gone on for an hour, rather than only seven and a half minutes.

There are slaves in the Hebrew Bible (popularly called the Old Testament) and the Bible has its place in 12 Years a Slave, as so many people used the words of the Bible to support the system of slavery in the United States, just as so many others used the words of the Bible to put a stop to it. As I left the theater on Saturday afternoon and stared up at the sky, full of the horror of the film I’d just witnessed, I thought of all the things people still defend with the Bible today. Good and bad.

12 Years a Slave is a movie about evil. Not Evil as some personified force that exists outside of people, bending them to its will, a mindless presence with only the goal of destruction.

It’s the evil of an entire society willing to look the other way, willing to embrace the terrorization of a select group of people. A society willing to make life a place with pre-ordained winners and losers, and willing to reduce violence and murder to casual non-events. Please pass the milk, dear. Then hang that nigger out back.

It was the character of Patsey who made me feel like my heart had been torn from my body, ripped to shreds, burned to ash, and left me with a bloody hole in my chest that had once held something beating. When Patsey collapses near the end of the film, I wanted to collapse with her. The despair felt complete.

It’s impossible to praise this movie enough. Thank God it was made, thank God, thank God.

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