12 Years a Slave (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our advisories: Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 4.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed.

Psalm 10.12

 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Luke 4:16-18

1

Patsy pleads with her master while Pratt looks on.
(c) 2013 Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

We allude to the existence of the free black population in the United States, than which a more indolent, degraded, corrupting, miserable class of beings does not exist within the pale of civilized society. Destitute of moral principle, and devoid of native energy, their mode of life is in unison with the base propensities of their nature, which they seek alone to gratify.

From p. 491 of “A Plan of National Colonization” in Bible Defense of Slavery, printed in Glasgow, KY, 1853. (Same year as Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave.)

Director Steve McQueen’s film, based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup, gives quite a different picture of a free black person than the two ministers responsible for the above quoted book, a long and repetitious (“the curse on Ham” is constantly reiterated) attack on abolitionism. In 1841 Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a well-dressed married man whose skills include building, engineering, and playing the fiddle. He lives with his wife and children in an elegant frame house in Saratoga, New York, where leading white citizens hold him in high esteem (which will prove very important years later).

Lured by two smooth talking tricksters to Washington DC with the promise of a handsomely rewarding job playing his fiddle in a circus, he is treated to a dinner at which the pair keep replenishing his wine glass. (This was a surprising scene in that the upscale restaurant would serve a mixed race party, given the proslavery society of Washington in 1841!) He wakes the next morning manacled and chained in a slave holding cell. When he protests that he is a free man, the attendant beats him into silence, declaring that he is an escaped slave from Georgia.

A fellow prisoner warns him not to reveal that he can read and write if he wants to survive, to which Solomon replies, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” However, he will soon learn that if he is to live, he must first survive, and that that task is not easy, beatings and death occurring all around and, in the case of the former, to him. He and his fellow captives, some of whom actually are captured runaways, are taken by steamboat to New Orleans, where slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) inspects them and displays them as if they were cattle. He dismisses Solomon’s claim to his own name, telling him that he now is “Pratt.”  Inviting his customers to partake of refreshments as they look over his “merchandise,” he praises one for his strength and Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a young mother, for her looks. Her young son and even younger daughter cling to her shirt.

“…and this is the circumstance of separating the families of slaves, by their being sometimes sold to other masters. On this subject, abolitionists argue the same as they would were the case their own, imagining that Negro parents feel such a circumstance as acutely, and as sentimentally as white families would under similar circumstances. But this is a mistake, we believe, and does not apply to the negro’s case, as it would to that of the whites on account of a want of the higher intellectual faculties of the mind of the blacks. On occasions of severe bereavement, the feelings of Negro parents seem to be of shorter duration…” Ibid, p. 382

The purchase of the slaves is accompanied by a black fiddler playing discretely. All is calm and orderly, with planter William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) buying Pratt and Eliza. Eliza begs Ford to buy her remaining child when the other is bought by a different planter, but Ford says that the price is too high, whereupon Eliza shrieks loudly, disrupting the proceedings. When Ford brings his new purchases home, his wife and house servants stand by the steps of the spacious white mansion, looking on as the slaves are unloaded from the wagon, Eliza still sobbing. The wife evinces a note of distaste when her husband tells her that Eliza’s children were sold to others, but then she says to the weeping mother, “Your children will soon be forgotten.”

Life on the plantation is harsh, and Eliza does not forget her children, weeks afterward still sobbing and moaning during waking hours. The Overseer (Dickie Gravois) and his Field Boss (Paul Dano) are cruel, warning the newcomers about whippings meted out as punishment for infringements of any rule. The slaves are put to work cutting down trees and bringing the stripped trunks to the plantation’s sawmill. Field Boss John Tibeats takes a special disliking for Pratt when the latter suggests that it would be a lot quicker to tie the tree trunks together for rafts and pole them along the canal rather than haul them overland through the brush to the mill. Tibeats scornfully turns down the suggestion, but the open-minded Ford tells Pratt to give it a try, and is delighted when Pratt proves to be right.

Tibeats, upset by this, criticizes and taunts Pratt until the latter resists, struggling against his oppressor, beating the smaller white man to the ground and whipping him. Tibeats runs off, returning with two burly men who start to hang the slave from a tree. The Overseer rushes in just in time to drive off the three, but he leaves Pratt strung up, barely able to keep himself from strangulation by supporting his body on tiptoe in the mud. The day drags on with Pratt struggling to stay up on his toes. Sadly, the mistress sees this but does nothing, and all the slaves but one go about their chores as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. The exception is a female slave who hurriedly gives Pratt a drink of water before running off. When Ford returns home that night, he cuts the rope and brings the prostrate mud-caked Pratt into the mansion, laying him on a blanket.

Pratt’s fortunes sink even lower when Ford comes upon hard times and Pratt is sold to the vicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has any field hand falling short of picking the daily allotment of cotton whipped.

Here the well being of the slave is a matter of deep interest to the master. Like the venerable Patriarchs of olden time, they delight to administer to the wants and happiness of those whom God has committed to their hands. If the slave is sick, a physician administers to his wants; if hungry or naked, he has but to look to his master who provides what is necessary without any care on the part of the slave. No constable or sheriff dogs his steps, for he is out of debt and free from all responsibility, save that of good and blessed behavior.” Ibid, p. 417

Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) always picks two or three times as much as the other hands, but a word of praise is her only reward. She bonds with Pratt, though he is reluctant to have sex with her. Epps isn’t however, frequently sneaking out and raping her right in the crude cabin where the men lie in their bunks pretending not to be awake. Thus everyone is aware of this, including Mary (Sarah Paulson), Epp’s jealous wife. In the book she tries to bribe Pratt to take Eliza to the edge of the swamp and drown her, but in the film, evidently to show how far into despair the slave girl has sunk, it is Patsey herself who pleads with Pratt to drown her. Either way, he refuses. He tells the girl he is worried about their souls, but she responds that God is a god of mercy and would not condemn him because his killing her would be an act of mercy.

As events unfold both Patsey and Pratt receive further degradation and whippings, these scenes being very difficult to watch, the raw wounds on their backs (and of many other’s as well) revealed in all their gruesomeness by the camera. One of the degradations is Epp’s rousing them from their sleep and forcing them to come into his mansion to perform a dance to a tune played by Pratt, while he and (sometimes) guests looked on with amusement. Pratt sinks into the same slough of despond engulfing Patsey, especially after one of the slaves dies from his mistreatment. In a scene sure to earn Chiwetel Ejiofor at least an Oscar nod, if not the award itself, we see him standing with his fellow slaves by the side of the pitiful little plot set aside for dead slaves. The others are singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” but Pratt stands silently for what seems like a long time. In a medium and then a close shot of his face we can see by the glacial change of his expression his spirit slowly being lifted up by the song. First he just mouths the words. Then we can hear his voice starting to blend with the others. By the time he is singing with enthusiasm, his earlier expressionless face has been transfigured into one of hope. His dream of returning to his family is reborn. We can see the return of his earlier determination, not just to survive, but to live.

In the bosom of the a Negro man, the idea of liberty, freedom and independence, does not give rise to the same sensations, hopes, and expectations, that it does in the bosom of the whites. To the mind of a slave, or even of a free black man, with but small exception, the idea of liberty is but the idea of a holyday, in which they are to be let loose from all restraint or control; they are to play, work, or sleep, as may suit their inclination, following out to the utmost, the perfect indulgence of indolence, stupidity, and the animal passions.” Ibid, pp. 387-388.

A couple of times we expect Pratt to run away in order to achieve his dream of liberty, especially when sent into town on an errand for supplies. He does leave the well-trod trail through the woods, but is soon stopped by a party of whites about to hang some captured runaways. The whites no doubt constitute one of the patrols ubiquitous throughout the South, empowered to run down and capture any slave trying to escape to the North. Explaining his errand, Pratt heads to town. His eventual return to freedom is more prosaic, brought about through the good graces of an itinerant Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a rare man who dares to express to Epp his disdain for slavery. As Pratt works alongside the unorthodox white man, his protective reserve begins to dissolve—earlier another white man to whom he had revealed his desire for freedom had betrayed him—and he bares his soul, telling his incredible story. What happens next will warm your heart, though this will be tempered by the realization that those left behind by Solomon will secure no such justice for themselves.

Director Steve McQueen’s film is important in that most Americans have been raised on the false view of the South engendered in the masterfully made Gone With the Wind, in which the only blow struck against a slave was Scarlett’s slapping the overly excitable house slave Prissy. This and most films (including Westerns in which the hero is often a former rebel soldier) depicting the South show it as a land of cultivated people dedicated to a lost cause and victimized by rapacious Yankees after the War Between the States. 12 Years a Slave, rips the cover off the phrase The Southern Way of Life to reveal the brute force upon which it was built. To his credit Quinten Tarantino’s Django Unchained attempted to do this, the whippings and lynching shown in gory detail, but the film turned out to be a blood-soaked revenge fantasy so out of touch with reality as to make it more of a Marvel Comics tale than a slice of history.

Mr. McQueen reminds us of the brutal origins of the racism that still infects us as a society, despite our election of a black president. During the last election President Obama was often depicted as an African savage or an ape or monkey by organizations of the far right. (See the infamous Tea Party Comix .) If enough Americans go out and then discuss the film, it would be a sign of progress in our continual struggle against racism. The excerpts from the antebellum Bible Defense of Slavery juxtaposed throughout this review illustrate the racism prevalent not just among Southerners but also among all too many Northerners as well t that time. The Peculiar Institution may have been located south of the Ohio River, but the racism supporting it knew no bounds of geography—and, we must add, no boundaries of time as well. Alan Dershowitz called this film the African-American Schindler’s List. A pretty good comparison, though I think a more apt one would be to the popular 1977 TV adaptation of Alex Hailey’s Roots. A few days after its airing a white funeral director said to me on the way to the cemetery, “Now I understand why so many blacks are so angry.” I hope there will be a similar reaction among white viewers to this film. Now that I have written the review I can hardly wait to get to working on the Reflection/Discussion questions! This is a “must see” film for every adult and teenager.

Addendum on Bible Defense of Slavery

I came across this cloth bound book when preaching at Dryridge Presbyterian Church, located in the most southern part of Cincinnati Presbytery, almost 40 miles south of the Ohio River. I vowed that someday I would examine it more closely. Oddly enough, the very next Sunday I was filling in at the Ripley Presbyterian Church, once served by the most famous abolitionist of the region, John Rankin, who, with his wife and sons helped a large number of runaway slaves escape north to freedom in Canada. Thus in the course of a week I spanned the two irreconcilable sides that divided our nation in the 19th century.

As soon as Steve McQueen’s film came out, I sought permission to borrow the book (I am currently serving as moderator of the church’s session and occasionally still fill in for the pastor.) Scanning and speed-reading my way through the book’s yellowed pages, I came upon the above quoted passages that reveal the beliefs that motivated such slave owners and their white underlings in the film. This, the sixth edition (1853) of a book originally published in 1843, was issued 160 years ago, but the beliefs of its authors can still be found in the hearts and minds of too many Americans. After writing all of the above, I came across an on-line edition of Bible Defense of Slavery provided by the University of Pittsburgh’s University Library System. You can also read the text of 12 Years a Slave, complete with its 7 illustrations–just click onto either title.

If you find this material useful, please help us keep afloat financially by going to the Visual Parables Store and buy access to one of the issues–or buy an annual subscription to Visual Parables. This review, with 14 discussion questions, is in the December 2013 issue of VP.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-5; L-5 ; S/N-2 . Running time: 2 hours  12 min.

Cecil serves President Eisenhower his coffee. © 2013 Weinstein Pictures

Cecil serves President Eisenhower his coffee.
© 2013 Weinstein Pictures

I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?’

Psalm 42.9

 I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son and son against father…

            Luke 12:49-53

 But when he came to himself…

            Luke 15:17a

 “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

                                    Martin Luther King, Jr.

 How propitious that this powerful drama, based on an article in the Washington Post was released during the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech! The film’s butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) may be a fictionalized version of the real Eugene Allen, but the events he witnessed, inside and outside the White House, are true, indeed historic, including Pres. Eisenhower’s sending in troops to protect the students integrating the Little Rock Central High School; the Kennedys and the Freedom Riders; the Selma March and Pres. John’s “We Shall Overcome” speech; the Mississippi Summer Feedom Project; the urban riots following the murder of Dr. King; the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and much, much more. Some critics have mentioned Forest Gump in their reviews, but by means of juxtapositioning of scenes in the White House with those occuring outside its orderly interior, as well as by some telling conversations among black characters, Lee Daniels and scriptwriter  Danny Strong have created much more of a social justice film by comparison.

Cecil’s story begins in 1926 in a Georgia cotton field (not the Virginia of real-life Eugene Allen) where 8 year-old Cecil (Michael Rainey, Jr.) is upset to see Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) force his mother Hattie Pearl (Moriah Carey) into a barn. Knowing what has transpired there, the boy incites his father Earl (David Banner) to make a mild protest, whereupon the white overseer draws his pistol and shoots his field hand. This brutal scene, considered by some reviewers as injected for shock value, actually serves both not only to show how dangerous it was for a black to show even the slightest sign of resistance to white domination, but also to explain why, as years later the now elderly son says that he has always worn two faces, the outward, subservient one, and the private one. Had Cecil had any schooling, he might have used Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem with its opening lines, “We wear the mask that grins and lies,/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” This powerful poem, addressed to blacks, describes what virtually every African American was forced to do during the Jim Crow era in order to survive in a racist society in which a white could kill a black with impunity. In its third stanza the poem reveals the pain of having to wear the mask, “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/To thee from tortured souls arise.”

Ironically, it is his father’s murder that improves the boy’s work situation. The white matriarch Anabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave) takes pity on the father-deprived boy and takes him out of the sweltering cotton field to make him a “house Negro,” which means he is taught good manners and dress and how to set a table and serve the dishes. Above all, she gives him the order that will shape his life ever after, “A room should feel empty when you’re in it.” She means to be kind, and so is completely unaware of how dehumaizing is this custom of regarding servants as pieces of furniture. Later on Cecil will see that the attitude at the White House is little different. No wonder that African Americans read far more into the “White” of the Exceutive Mansion than whtes do.

When he is a teenager Cecil realizes that he cannot stay any longer on the plantation where his father’s killer is one of the heirs. His mother, suffering mentally ever since the murder of her husband, barely is aware of his leaving. Mrs. Westfall, obviously supportive of the lad’s decsision slips a book into his bosom as he bids her farewell. I wish more had been made of this—had she been like the white woman in the 1995 film Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored wherein an aristocratic white woman had encouraged a black boy to read her books? Anyway, away from the plantation young Cecil falls onto hard times, unable to find work, and thus reduced to trying to steal a cake to feed his starving body. The kindly black assistant at the shop helps get him hired on, and teaches the boy even more than about serving—at one point he orders the boy not to say “house nigger.” “It’s a white man’s word,” he says. From there Cecil goes to Washington to work at a posh hotel where the demands for decorum are even higher, and then when a White House staffer is impressed by him, he is taken on at the White House.

Eisenhower (Robin Williams) is the first of the Presidents that Cecil serves, and the episode depicts the days when Ike is agonizing about sending troops in to protect the black students integrating the Little Rock Central High School. He is extremely reluctant to do so, realizing how explosive the racial situation is, and how politically costly siding with the “Negores” would be. An almost spooky scene during his term is the visit to the kitchen by Vice President Nixon (a strangely cast John Cusack) in search of votes in the upcoming election. The discomfort is apparent on both sides, with the blacks reluctantly accepting (but not putting on) the “Elect Nixon” badges he passes out to them. Nixon asks what the men would like. When one of them says that pay equal to that of the white staff, Nixon promises that he will change that, but when he does move into the White House, rebuffs the request—of course, this is 8 years later after the promise, so we can assume that he did not remember the promise.

Of all the presidentail terms depicted, I was most impressed by the incidents unfolding during the all too brief Kennedy admininistration, and not just because of the sorrowful events of the assassination. In this sequence juxtaposition of scenes was used so powerfully, the camera shifting back and forth between guests being served at a White House dinner and scenes of Cecil’s son taking part in the civil rights movement despite his father’s orders. Other than in the TV film about the coming of the civil rights movement to a small Mississippi town, Daniels’ film does the best job of showing the training in discipline and courage of the college students—black and white—who intended to integrate a whites only lunch counter at a Nashville Woolworths dime store.

Louis, the oldest son of Cecil and Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is one of many Fisk University students attracted to James Lawson (Jesse Williams), the young minister colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the workshop on nonviolence. After lecturing on Gandhi, each student in a role play is subjected to a harsh round of taunts and racial slurs from other students. A white lad tells Lawson that he cannot call the person he’s supposed to attack a “nigger,” that just isn’t something he can do. Lawson insists, pointing out that the role playing must be realistic. The student, tears rising in his eyes, complies. Adding to the realism are the mustard and catsup poured onto the heads of the trainees. The camera cuts away to Cecil and his colleagues, immaculately dressed in tuxedos preparing for a state dinner. The student action moves on to Woolworths where the white help and patrons are shocked that the mixed race group of students are transgressing the time honored system of Jim Crow seating. They are refused service, insulted, and soon, as toughs arrive, hateful words transpose into spiteful deeds. “Stand up!” the sit-in students are ordered. “Stand up,” the guests seated at the White House are told as the President and First Lady enter the room. The guests are served courteously by the black staff, whereas at Woolworths those aspiring to eat at the lunchcounter are not only refused service by the waitress, but are covered with condiments, knocked off their stools, and some of them beaten, and then hauled off to jail.

There is much more to tell of this excellent film, that strangely on the Imdb site has been accused by some viewers as boring and too one-sided. Cecil is castigated because he is so subservient, taking little part in the events around him. These posters forget that virtually all his mentors, from Anabeth at the plantation on have trained him to be what novelist Ralph Ellison called “the invisible man,” training that was reinforced by his superiors at the White House—there he was to hear nothing and say nothing—to “wear the mask,” as Dunbar wrote. Indeed, at that time the whole culture—literature, movies, radio, and degrading images of “Negroes” in advertising proclaimed that the Negro was an inferior who must be kept in his place!

Louis is important in the story because he represents the younger generation of blacks who refuse to accept their parents’ obsequious relationship to whites. We watch Louis himself develop from a believer in nonviolence to a period when, disillusioned by the perception of the  failure of nonviolence following the murder of Dr. King, he and his girlfriend  join the Black Pamther Party, leading to Cecil ordering them from the house during a dinner table quarrel. But when told that they must be ready to kill white men, Louis leaves, eventually finishing college and becoming a candidate for office in Tennessee. For many years he remains estranged from his father until…

Both Gloria and Cecil move away from their opposition to the civil rights movent. Gloria herself has  drawn back from an affair she had fallen into because Cecil’s long hours at the White House had left her alone most of the time. The change in Cecil must have begun when Pres. Kennedy asked him about Louis, showing that he already knew about the young man’s arrest record—16 times. Commenting on the Freedom Rides and sit-ins, the President says, “You know my brother says these kids changed his heart. They’ve changed mine too.” It will take a long time for Cecil’s heart to change, but by the time he quietly brings up to Pres. Reagon the matter (the second Presidnet he has approached) of the black staff’s unfair pay, he has come far enough to open up his heart again to Louis. It is a tender and moving scene. The film then returns to the scene which began the film, the retired Cecil sitting on a bench in the White House waiting to be ushered into the presence of the black President he never thought possible. When a black aide comes, expressing his admiration for him and saying that he will show him the way, the old man responds, “I know the way.”

Every person of faith should see this film and discuss it with others. White and African American pastors should seek each other out and see if their congregations are willing to meet together and talk about the issues raised. Some of the conversations the black characters have among themselves will surprise many whites about their assumptions and views, one example being how acclaimed actor Sidney Poittier is perceived by militant blacks. It is so good to see a film in which the story of blacks is told without bringing in on an equal basis a white character to share the star credits. Oh yes, the constellation of famous whites playing the supporting roles has garnered lots of attention, but essentially this is an African American story told by African Americans. It may be open to the charge of over simplifying a complex period in our nation’s history, but my response is, “This is a movie, not a history lecture. Lectures are good and necessary to cover the facts, but as a movie it does much more than a factual lecture can—by identifying with the characters we come to feel what they did and see the world through new eyes, their eyes that had welled up with tears so many times by the injustices committed against them.” Few films manage to accomplish so much in the minds and hearts of its audience. No wonder that the audience applauded at the matinee showing I attended.

The full version of this review containing 16 discussion questions and links to materials is in the Sept/Oct issue of Visual Parables.