‘This Is Sin’
  • Friday, January 3, 2014

Review by Leonard Freeman

This is not a film for the faint of heart. But, like the crucifixion, 12 Years a Slave speaks beyond its immediate, grim, physical story to touch upon deepest, troubling questions of life, sin, desperation, the human experience, and truth.

Based on the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup, a talented musician and family man in 1840s America, the film portrays in horrifying detail his kidnapping and sale into slavery, and the degradation and desperation of his dozen years of bondage in Louisiana. It is not a story of personal rising against difficult odds, or nobility of action, but rather of the failings of corrupt systems, and of the human heart, sustained by the truth that some things are eternally right or wrong.

12 Years a Slave
Fox Searchlight
Directed by Steve McQueen

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a well-educated freedman from upstate New York, is tricked into crossing the Mason-Dixon line to Washington, D.C., with the promise of a two-week contract to perform as a valued musician. Instead he is drugged, slung into chains, and beaten with a board until it breaks over his back. On a paddleboat south he at first thinks of how to escape, telling other slaves that he does not want merely to survive but to live. It is a hope that will prove unfathomable in what transpires.

The New Orleans slave market quickly shows the institution’s cruel underpinnings. Black slaves (“nigger” is the term throughout) are essentially dealt with as animals for sale or rent. A mother screaming for her children is pulled away with no more thought than one would have at dragging off a dog barking on the leash at the pet store as her pups are sold.

Solomon, now renamed Platt by his auctioneer (Paul Giamatti), has already learned an important lesson of his captivity. “If you want to survive, do or say as little as possible. Tell no one who you are, or that you can read or write, or you be a dead nigger.”

His first owner, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), represents the best possible slave-owner. He cares for his slaves, and leads worship services for them out of a personal piety. And in the end he even tries to save Platt’s life by transferring his ownership to another slave-owner when Platt’s fight with an overseer puts him in personal peril. The fact of Platt’s actual free status is an inconvenient truth: “I cannot hear that! I’m trying to save your life.”

Mr. Ford’s story underscores an important theological point: in a corrupt system, personal piety alone will not be enough. Systemic injustice, and violations of basic morality, must be confronted.

Platt’s next owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), personifies all that is wrong with the institution and its intellectual underpinnings. From here on the story devolves into a total degradation of body and spirit for all concerned.

“The devil can quote Scripture,” says an old aphorism. And Epps exemplifies it with ferocious specificity. He cites Luke 12:47 to both justify and terrify with the promise of “many, many stripes” for the slave who does not satisfy the master. He speaks and thinks in biblical terms but without any contexual moral referent. When a boll weevil infestation attacks his cotton crop he perceives it as a biblical plague brought upon him by “these heathen scum,” and the infestation ends as the result of “clean living and prayer.”

But holy living hardly informs the management of his “property.” His lust for one of his “most profitable slaves,” Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), turns horrifically sinister: Epps forces Platt to participate in her ghastly beating. At this moment the film articulates the objective reality of sin, and of right and wrong as eternal truths.

“This is sin,” Platt sobs at the obscenity of the beating. “There is no sin here,” thunders back Epps, “a man does what he pleases with his property.”

A visiting Canadian pro-abolition carpenter (Brad Pitt) addresses the matter with Epps. “What is right is true and right for all,” he says. “Only ask: in the eyes of God, what is the difference?”

The carpenter, at peril to himself, sends a letter to Platt’s friends in the North, who simply come for him with the papers proving his freedman status. Platt by now is so broken that when asked by the sheriff to identify his real name — Solomon Northup — he nearly fails to respond.

Northup returned home to his wife and grown children in the North, and his memoir became a staple of the abolition movement in America. That is the good news. But this film is a cautionary tale. More than just a hard look back at an old evil, it speaks wisdom and warning for perpetual struggles.

The Rev. Leonard Freeman writes at the weblog poemsperday.com.


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