A good movie should entertain of course, but it should also give the viewer fresh insight into life, and inspire one to want to make a difference. 12 Years a Slave (2013) is such a movie. Although it’s “entertainment” it is hardly a feel-good experience. (And for the record, darling Bernice and I saw the movie before it was crowned best movie at the Oscars.)
The movie is an unflinching look at slavery in 19th-century America. It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. It is an in-your-face reminder of the kind of brutality that humankind can inflict on one another. You want to look away but you can’t. You shouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to watch this every night. If I did I would soon numb my soul so the scenes wouldn’t hurt so badly. And that would make me less human. I think of the many who are caught in horrific situations today who do not have the choice of switching off their painful narratives. The movie is a kick in the solar plexus of my middle-class default position of cocooning myself from the horrors of life.
This is essentially a movie that is defined by two songs. The first is “Run, NIgger, Run” a ditty sung by the slave masters to put their slaves in their place and to destroy their spirits. Here is a sample of the lyrics:
Some folks say a nigger won’t steal
I caught three in my corn field
One has a bushel
And one has a peck
One had a rope and it was hung around his neck
Ironically this was a song that was originally sung by slaves to encourage themselves to escape but also pointing out the dangers of running away. In the movie it is sung as a taunt to remind the slaves of the hopelessness of their situation. It represents the horrors that evil inflicts and the sense that sometimes evil is so powerful we are helpless to escape it.
But there is another song in the movie, a counterpoint to “Run, Nigger, Run.” It’s the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” It is sung at the funeral of an old slave in what should have been a moment of deep despair:
A female voice appears out of the blackness and begins to
sing solo, “Went down to the river Jordan.” A response of
“Oh Yeah” quickly follows. Again the singer continues,
“where John baptized three.”
The singer continues, “Well some say John was a Baptist,
some say John was a Jew, but I say John was a preacher,
because the Bible says so too, preach on Johnny.” And
with that, the rest of the congregation chant “I believe.
Oh, I believe.”
Nicholas Brittel adapted the words of the spiritual for the movie (Corinne Ramey, “In ’12 Years a Slave,’ Music Set to a Time and Place,” NY Culture, The Wall Street Journal, Feb 28, 2014, https://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304026804579409731527220844). Here is the chorus:
“Roll, Jordan, roll; roll, Jordan roll; my soul arise in heaven, Lord, for to hear when Jordan roll.”
In the face of a seemingly all-powerful evil, at a moment of hopelessness, faith in Christ inspires courage and hope. It is a conversion moment for Northup, a moment when he chooses to believe, in one of the most powerful scenes in the movie.
I was wondering how the Christian faith would be portrayed in 12 Years a Slave. Popular culture has not been very kind to faith in recent times. I thought the movie was fair enough. It is true that historically there have been those who have used the Bible to justify their support of slavery. This may be something abhorrent to the modern Christian reader, but it’s true [See Richard Reddie, “Atlantic slave trade and abolition,” Religions, BBC, 29–01-2007 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/history/slavery_1.shtml)].
One of the more disturbing moments in the movie is the juxtaposition of the singing of “Run, Nigger, Run” and Ford, the plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch, preaching a sermon based on the Parable of the Good Samaritan with its call to love God and neighbour.
But the movie also portrayed the role of the Christian faith in sustaining the lives of the slaves and possibly in Northup’s eventual salvation. Christians were key players in the movement to abolish slavery.
The cause of immediate emancipation, as the abolitionists came to define it, had a different germ of inspiration from those Enlightenment ideals that Jefferson had articulated: the rise of a fervent religious reawakening just as the new Republic was being created. That impulse sprang from two main sources: the theology and practice of Quakerism and the emergence of an aggressive, interdenominational evangelicalism. (Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “American Abolitionism and Religion,” Divining America, Teacher Serve, March 13, 2014, https://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/amabrel.htm )
Brad Pitt plays Samuel Bass, an Amish-looking Canadian itinerant carpenter who saves Northup. (He reminded me of the drawings of Jesus where Jesus is portrayed as a blond Caucasian.) Although not specifically stated, the Bass character presents a position that is consistent with the convictions of Christian abolitionists.
Eventually Solomon meets a Canadian carpenter, a white man named Bass who’s outspoken in his criticism of slavery. For example, when Epps offers Bass a drink and comments that he must be thirsty, Bass counters that he should be more concerned with the condition of his slaves. Bass tells Epps he believes that all men are the same in the eyes of God. He rejects the commonly held notion that blacks are brute beasts, saying, “It is a fact—a plain and simple fact—that what is true is true and right, white or black alike.” (Adam R. Holz,“12 Years A Slave,” Movie Reviews, Plugged In, March 13, 2014, https://www.pluggedin.com/movies/intheaters/12-years-a-slave.aspx)
So, yes, evil is cruel and powerful and sometimes apparently unstoppable. But faith in Jesus gives us the courage to carry on in the darkest of times, and inspires us to work for the dismantling of evil in the long run. In the face of “Run, Nigger, Run,” we fight back and sing, “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”
This is a discouraging time. Our hearts are heavy, from events in Ukraine, to the results of certain court cases in Malaysia, and the disappearance of a Malaysia Airline plane, which at the time of writing has yet to be found. Like Northup, I have a choice to make. Do I fall into despair and be trapped by “Run, Nigger, Run,” or do I choose to sing “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” It’s a choice we need to make, and to make daily.