Thursday, January 16, 2014

12 Years a Slave

I watched 12 Years a Slave this week, and left the cinema unsure of what to make of it. I have seen "better" (whatever that means) films this week - The Hunt and No - but a film chronicling the life of a slave has a weight to it that few films can touch. In a lecture that can be partly viewed on YouTube, Stanley Hauerwas is keen for Americans to confront slavery as a "wrong so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make it right." Seeing this wrong played out on screen is perhaps one gesture towards truthful remembrance.

One reason that film left me confused is that it didn't satisfy my expectations. Whether these were generated by the film itself or were my own creations I'm not sure. Probably the latter. But I wanted a story about the triumph of evil over good, of the virtue of humanity over its vices. What I got was nothing of the sort. The lead character is no hero. He is no paragon of virtue in the face of vice. My reading of the film is that slavery corrupted not only those on the "oppressor" side of it but also those on the "oppressed" side. This isn't to say that the oppressed ended up just as bad or just as guilty as their oppressors. Perish the thought. But the sight of Solomon Northup whipping the flesh off of a fellow slave tied to a wooden pole signifies the possibility of shared identity: the slave becomes - unwillingly and remorsefully - the master. Indeed that is the true evil of these "masters": it is not contained within their own persons, but spreads like a plague throughout the environment.

*spoiler alert*
I was expecting redemption. I found only further tragedy, and those words of Stanley Hauerwas coming back to mind: Slavery is "a wrong so wrong that there's nothing you can do to make it right." Solomon Northup does eventually get to go home. He leaves the plantation on a horse and cart, with the woman he had previously whipped begging him to take her with him, or perhaps begging him to stay. He does neither. He is, after all, neither master nor slave, but a "free man" from the north, and to the north he returns. Even in this moment of "redemption," there still exists a deep pathos. This is why it makes perfect sense that upon his return home Northup asks his family for forgiveness. Even though he was a victim, he knows that he too needs it. (Of course this request could be heard as him asking for forgiveness for not being around for the last 12 years, for missing his daughter's wedding and his grandson's birth, but that's a sentimental scenario that I'd prefer to ignore.)

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