More thoughts on 12 Years a Slave

I had some more thoughts on 12 Years A Slave that I wanted to share.

1 To me, the scene that most showed how dehumanized blacks were in the slave system was the purchasing scene. A Southern man brings his wife to examine the slaves.

This man’s wife lives in a world where men do NOT wear shorts and a T-shirt, no matter how hot it gets, and being that this is the South, it gets incredibly hot. They walk around wearing long sleeved shirts, vests, coats, long pants, boots. If she had seen a man in shorts and a t-shirt, it would have offended her sense of modesty.

And yet, her husband saw no reason to refrain to taking his wife to examine the naked bodies of black men. Apparently, she saw no reason not to go either, because she does not show any discomfort or embarrassment about the whole arrangement. To me, this brief shot demonstrated how completely dehumanized the slaves were in the South.


2 A wise woman once said that there is something really vicious about niceness, sometimes it covers over violence. That’s my thinking about the first master Solomon has, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. On the surface, he is nice, even trying to buy the little girl along with the woman. But that’s all he is. He does not refuse to buy the woman because he cannot buy her children as well. His wife is the same way. She comforts the woman saying “Some food and rest. Your children will soon be forgotten.” Really? To quote Into the Woods, “You’re so nice. You’re not bad, you’re not good, you’re just nice.” (More of this later on.)

3 I heard a reviewer criticizing the portrayal of religion in the film. No doubt the reviewer is referring to Mr. Epps. In his first scene, we see him reading the Gospel, declaring that “Any servant who does not obey his Lord will be beaten with many stripes.” It is immediately reminiscent of Frederick Douglas.

I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—”He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, chapter 9.

Frederick Douglas

Of course, the first slave owner is also seen reading Scripture to his slaves. He reads the story of Jesus with the little children, in which Jesus declares that all who become like little children will enter the kingdom of Heaven. On the surface, this is harmless, but the subtext is that they should become docile and obedient, like little children. (Of course, little children are not necessarily docile and obedient.)

The reviewer claimed the film’s portrayal of religion was one-sided, and ignored the role that religion played in the abolition movement.

I have to defend the movie on this score.

It is very true that religion played a large role in the abolition of slavery, not just in America but in England as well. In my class on the Rise and Fall of the British Empire, our instructor talked about how the rise of evangelicalism, particularly Methodism, was very much responsible for the abolition of the slave trade (run by the British) and eventually abolish slavery in the British Empire. (Ironically, if the US had not won the Revolutionary War, slavery would have ended much sooner.)

It was the same way in the North. Religion was very much intertwined with the abolition movement.

abolition poster

But 12 Years A Slave is not set in the North.

We spend very little time, almost none at all, in the North in the movie. Almost immediately we move to the South, to Georgia and Louisiana. Now, there were abolitionists from the South, many of whom were inspired by their religious convictions and used religion as a justification for their political action. Angelina Grimke would be one well known example. A quick perusal of her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South reveals that she is making a religious argument, arguing that slavery is against the law of God. She views herself as a kind of prophetess.

Abolitionists have been accused of abusing their Southern brethren. Did the prophet Isaiah abuse the Jews when he addressed to them the cutting reproofs contained in the first chapter of his prophecies, and ended by telling them, they would be ashamed of the oaks they had desired, and confounded for the garden they had chosen? Did John the Baptist abuse the Jews when he called them “a generation of vipers,” and warned them “to bring forth fruits meet for repentance?” Did Peter abuse the Jews when he told them they were the murderers of the Lord of Glory? Did Paul abuse the Roman Governor when he reasoned before him of righteousness, temperance, and judgment, so as to send conviction home to his guilty heart, and cause him to tremble in view of the crimes he was living in? Surely not. No man will now accuse the prophets and apostles of abuse, but what have Abolitionists done more than they?

Angelina Grimke Appeal to the Christian Women of the South


But no doubt, she was a little unusual. (And no less awesome for being unusual, might I add.)

The thought of Jefferson Davis is far more indicative of how the Southerner (particularly large plantation owners!) would have viewed religion and slavery.

It [slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts…Let the gentleman go to Revelation to learn the decree of God – let him go to the Bible…I said that slavery was sanctioned in the Bible, authorized, regulated, and recognized from Genesis to Revelation…Slavery existed then in the earliest ages, and among the chosen people of God; and in Revelation we are told that it shall exist till the end of time shall come. You find it in the Old and New Testaments – in the prophecies, psalms, and the epistles of Paul; you find it recognized, sanctioned everywhere.”.

It’s also worth pointing out that there is a brief view into the Angelina Grimke view of slavery in Brad Pitt’s character. He argues with Epps about the morality of the plantation system, and even implies that he could be damned for being a slave owner.

Now, a commentator could argue that the film ignores the religion of the slaves, and I would acknowledge that argument as valid. On the other hand, I have never read Solomon’s memoir; Solomon may have simply ignored that. (In a movie about Frederick Douglass, the omission of religion would be a major oversight. Read the appendix to his Narrative for further clarification.)

4 When we think of plantations in the South, we think of cotton plantations. (Maybe tobacco.) However, when the film opens, we see Solomon working on a sugar cane plantation. I wonder if this is Steve McQueen (who is a Granadian Brit) paying homage to his ancestors and the slaves of the Caribbean.

5 There is a rape scene in this film, and I am glad that there is. Even today, we still have the image of black men (violent, hypersexual) that was created by white men in the South to justify things like the Klan. It’s also important to remember that, for centuries, it was not black men who were raping white women, but the other way around. It was white men who were raping black women. Frederick Douglass pointed out that there was an economic interest in that; a slave’s children belonged to her master.

6 In lieu of posting a picture from 12 Years a Slave, I am posting statistics and numbers to call for human trafficking in Ohio, my home state.

Human Trafficking stats

Even though slavery is forbidden under the 13th amendment, slavery still exists around the world, including the US, including Ohio. Steve McQueen acknowledged in his acceptance speech for the Oscar that slavery exists all over the world. I’m just focusing on Ohio because that’s my home state, and it should be stopped.

Human Trafficking

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