12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013)

by Christopher B. Barnett

There is a scene, late in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which makes the horror of slavery painfully manifest: Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — once a free man but now a slave in the employ of Louisiana plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) — is forced to lash his fellow slave and friend, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). It is the sort of scene that garners a film an Oscar, gathering all of the atrocities of the slave trade into a single, unforgettable moment. With each crack of the whip, the human beings involved are reduced to something less than human, and so, like Schindler’s List before it, 12 Years a Slave becomes something more than a “movie.” It is a witness to human tragedy.

With that said, the quieter moments of 12 Years a Slave merit equal consideration. Indeed, for the most part, McQueen is content to observe what, for lack of a better word, might be called the “paradoxes” of the slave trade. For example, in one early scene, a slave named Clemens Ray (Chris Chalk) runs like a child into the arms of his master, petrified that he will be sent to another (presumably more cruel) owner. Or there is the moment in the shop of the (paradoxically named) slave dealer, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), when a bewildered Northrup plays his fiddle as a family of slaves is divided among different “customers.” Nevertheless, from a theological point of view, there is no more paradoxical figure than William Prince Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent as usual) — a Baptist preacher and farmer, who purchased Northrup in 1841. A pious man, Ford holds worship services for his slaves, treats them well, and is not above taking their advice on how to run his plantation. As Northrup himself once wrote of Ford: “In my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.” But Ford is a slaveowner, one whose piety has merged with the habits and mores of a corrupt institution. He wants to do the right thing but, crucially, lacks a vantage point from which to discern right and wrong. To quote Northrup once more: “The influences and associations that had always surrounded [Ford], blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.”

Northrup’s insight here points to one of the more subtle lessons of 12 Years a Slave. People tend to approach moral questions in binary terms, but the truth is devastatingly more complex than that. Ford may very well have been a “good” man — as his ancestors have recently protested — but his notion of “good” was significantly indebted to a nefarious culture. Moreover, this is a problem that threatens all of our moral reasoning. What looks to be right and normal today may not be viewed that way in subsequent times; in fact, it may just be the projection of a culture that has been warped by envy or greed. Doubtless, that is just another reason why, for St. Paul, one’s salvation is never a matter of course, but must be worked out “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).