12 years a Slave
Although this movie discusses offenses that happened over 170 years ago, there are ways in which it still resonates to this day if you stop to think about it. Just ask yourself “What drove certain people to create institutionalized slavery?” It’s not difficult to see the ways in which we still as individuals and as a society have a tendency to judge a book by its cover and people by their outward physical qualities. There is still a tendency to think that those qualities determine or should determine a person’s position in society and to punish a person who questions the position into which he or she has been placed.
In short, slavery was about more than just race. Race just made it easier to exploit the African people because they were racially identifiable and ripped away from the African continent and the people, languages, and lands that they knew. Unable to read or write the new language, and rarely encouraged to do so, it made the Africans more vulnerable for exploitation. Slavery was attempted with the Native American population, but since they knew the land, and their social networks were intact, it never took hold as successfully. The film does, in fact, feature an incongruous meeting of a group of Native Americans and African slaves – who seem to do little more than hang out for a few minutes.
The motive for economic exploitation of cheap labor still exists; employers still like to pay as low as they possibly can in benefits and wages, likewise, there are many organizations trying to look for creative ways of using interns and volunteers as much as they possibly can. We still look askance at those former prisoners or individuals who have been sentenced to perform community service and make judgments about them.
We still have class warfare and economic exploitation and income inequality. Who gets to determine how much your work is worth? If you work for someone else, chances are, it wasn’t you. The employee usually has to be on his or her best behavior at all times, but the boss, especially, the top level executive, doesn’t necessarily have to be. The employee faces dismissal for misbehavior much more readily than the top level executive.
Regarding the film itself; it’s a lot to take in one sitting, so I recommend viewing it on DVD or via DVR or streaming video. There are at least three powerful scenes that make it clear that U.S. slavery was not the mere inconvenience or mild discomfort some modern day commenters would have others believe; the first is the one in which Patsey, a downtrodden and much abused female slave approaches “Platt” (Solomon Northrup) to beg him to end her suffering by ending her life by holding her head under water since she’s unable to do this herself. The second is when Platt/Solomon is sent on an errand by Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) to a nearby plantation. He encounters a few white men who are about to lynch to young African American men. Platt is asked to explain his presence and destination, and sent off with an uncermonious kick to his backside, but not before he can hear the strangling noises of the two young men as they are being hanged to death. Platt is forced to simply walk away – unable to do anything about it and pretend as if it weren’t happening. The third, and perhaps most painful scene is when Platt is forced at gunpoint to whip Patsey for having gone to a nearby plantation to get a bar of soap. Platt eventually gives out – and turns away and his owner – the sadistic Mr. Epps takes up the whip and continues to beat Patsey. We see Platt’s silent tears as his heart is broken by the needless suffering and cruelty, to say nothing of the injustice. Having to directly endure abuse is one thing, but having to pretend it isn’t happening, know you’re unable to stop it, and then to be forced to abuse others is enough to damage anyone’s psyche.
Indeed, it is unclear by film’s end how exactly Mr. Northrup will pick up where he left off 12 years after suffering abominable conditions. Likewise unexplained is how his wife handled his 12 year absence other than remarrying. Did she look for her husband? Ask what had happened to him? Was she told that he’d been in an accident or run off with another woman?
We are told;however, that Mr. Northrup attempted to press charges against those who kidnapped and sold him into slavery, but to no avail.
I was initially reluctant to watch this film, having already seen so many depictions of the horrors of slavery; but I think it’s good that every generation have a blockbuster film or two to remind them of this tragic reality that was not so long ago, and the effects of which still reverberate to this day.