Birth of a Nation (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours.

Our content ratings: Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference,

not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

1 Peter 2:18

Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’”

1 Samuel  15:3

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners…

Isaiah 61:1

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With his watchful master Samuel Turner on his right, Nat Turner preaches to the other man’s slaves.                            (c) Fox Searchlight Pictures

Director/star/co-writer Nate Parker begins his story of the Nat Turner Rebellion with the famous words of Thomas Jefferson, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Penned in 1781 when he was governor of Virginia, these words proved to be as prophetic for America as the warnings of Isaiah and Jeremiah were for Jerusalem. They were written by a slave holder with a bad conscience, just as Mr. Turner ‘s film was created to appeal our consciences today. The film demonstrates in graphic detail that just as love begets love, hatred and violence beget hatred and violence.

The prologue to the film is a dream set in a wood where a holy man, examining the vertical three marks on young Nat’s (Tony Espinosa) chest, tells the mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis) that this boy is a leader, a prophet. After the opening credits the time jumps to a night in 1809 when Nat’s father Isaac (Dwight Henry) is getting ready to run away. He had fought with three whites in the woods, killed one, and succeeded in slipping away. Now he must flee as far from the plantation as possible. He tells his son that he is a child of God and to take care of his mother.

This segment’s other childhood scenes find the plantation mistress Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller) summoning her son Samuel, who is playing with Nat, to supper. Alone, the slave boy walks up onto the porch where he spies a book, opened over the back of a chair. The taking of that book marks the turning point of the boy’s life. A little later Elizabeth calls Nat into the family library where she reveals that she knows Nat now has the rudiments of literacy. Pleased, she announces that she will teach him further. When he reaches out for one of the many books lining the shelves, she stops him, saying, “Those books are for white people, your kind can’t understand them.” She insists that his book will be The Bible, because from it he will learn how to live. She means as an obedient slave, of course. Elizabeth might have a trace of kindness in her, but she is still infected by the racism of her time.

Much later, the grown-up Nat (now played by Nate Parker) preaches to his fellow-slaves in a corner of the barn adorned with a crude cross. The old master Benjamin Turner has died, and his son, Nat’s former playmate Samuel (played by Griffin Freeman as a boy and Armie Hammer as an adult), now heads the household. He stands at the back of the gathering to make sure that Nat is preaching a gospel of subservience. The young man starts out awkwardly, but with practice puts more feeling into his message. There are no passages from Exodus about the freedom of the slaves, nor from any of the prophets about God hating injustice. Nat’s texts are mainly from the New Testaments demanding that slaves obey their masters. During the week, he picks cotton alongside of the other slaves.

One day while driving his master in a wagon they come upon a slave auction where Nat convinces the reluctant Samuel to buy a female slave he fancies. At the plantation Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is rebellious at first, and anything but grateful to Nat, but this will change. The two fall in love and marry, but both know that they could be parted at any time at the whims of their master. The film shows the daily indignations they suffer, these symbolized by Nat’s recurring memory of a white girl blithely skipping along with a black boy in tow, her rope tied around the slave’s neck. One day in town Nat retrieves a doll dropped in the street by a white child. When he speaks to the mother while giving back the doll, her husband angrily hits the slave with a rod for daring to speak directly to a white woman rather than her husband. Even worse is what happens during a party Samuel is hosting to impress his friends. A lustful guest seeks the service of a black female, so Samuel summons the wife of one of Nat’s friends. All that any of the slaves can do is stand by, and then when the abused woman is brought out the next morning, attempt to comfort her.

Samuel finds himself in financial straits during a time when the price of cotton drops to a new low, so he is open to a suggestion from his greedy minister, the bewhiskered Rev. Walthall (Mark Boone Jr.). Rumors of slave unrest and of revolts are abroad, so the good Reverend tells him that other plantation owners would pay well for Nat’s preaching of a gospel of meek obedience and service. Samuel takes Nat on a tour, during which Nat again preaches from the New Testament epistles in which slaves (also translated as servants) are ordered to obey their masters. He starts out woodenly, but gains in fervor with each new assignment. There is a montage of shots in which coins flow from the hands of a plantation master into that of Samuel’s. (This reminded me of the sell-out of TV prosperity preachers serving up their “God wants you rich” gospel! There have always been ways of using religion for profit.)

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(c) Fox Searchlight Pictures

However, an unintended consequence of the tour is that Nat is bothered by what he sees on plantations whose masters are far more cruel and brutal than Samuel. In one instance, he and his master are made to watch how a slave owner deals with two slaves that have protested their treatment by going on a hunger strike. The slaves are chained inside a shed, their mouths covered. Uncovering the mouth of one slave, the overseer uses a hammer and chisel to smash out the victim’s teeth, and then forces food into the bloodied mouth, stifling the wretch’s screams. Thus, the tour intended for his master’s profit transforms Nat, his respect for whites turned into contempt. His change is reflected in his preaching in which he turns for his texts from the obedience-enjoining epistles to the Psalms, “Sing to the Lord a new song…”

Nat is further radicalized when he is publicly whipped for talking back to Samuel and the white minister following a baptism. This was a remarkable case of Nat crossing the line, because a white man had asked Nat to baptize him. The congregation, almost all black, looks on as Nat performs the sacrament in the river. Such an unheard-of act scandalizes the white community, thus bringing on the confrontation between Samuel, Rev. Walthall, and Nat. Whatever respect the slave had held for his master is gone after the flogging. While tending to his bloodied back his grandmother Bridget (Esther Scott) relates stories of the many similar acts of injustice she has witnessed during her long life. His radicalization is completed when his beloved Cherry is ravished and injured by the brutal overseer Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) and his two companions.

Late at night Nat presides over a meeting in the woods with a half dozen slaves whom he trusts. The “new song” that he now preaches is one of violent revolt, of vengeance for all the wrongs committed. He reads from the 1 Samuel passage in which the prophet Samuel orders King Saul to go and kill their enemies the Amalekites, sparing none of them, not even the women and the children. When one man demurs, saying that that God is a God of love, Nat replies, “God of wrath.” There follows in quick succession scenes of the slaves arming themselves, mostly with farm tools and just a few old muskets, and setting forth into the night to kill their masters, starting with Samuel, dispatched by Nat with a hatchet.

The slaves move from plantation to plantation wreaking their vengeance, killing all whites they come upon, men, women, and children. However, before their band can grow large enough to become a real threat they are betrayed by a black boy, and the aroused whites, backed by militia, quickly overcome the rebels. The slaves killed 60 whites, but hundreds of them are killed in return by the angry whites—many who had no knowledge of or connection to the rebellion. There is a sequence of grim shots of slaves hanging from trees, one with so many dangling bodies that it called to mind the old song about lynching made popular almost 80 years ago by Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit:” “Southern trees bear a strange fruit,/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,/Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,/
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

The film ends as optimistically as it can be showing a black youth in the crowd looking up at the about to be hanged Nat Turner. The boy’s face is morphed into that of a grown-up man, and the camera pulls back to reveal more of his body, showing the blue uniform he is wearing. Clearly, Nat’s influence lives on in the life of the young man inspired by his example.

One interesting aspect of the film is the way in which it reveals how the Bible has been used, or we should say, misused, by whites for social control, a technique scorned by Karl Marx in this quotation, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.” I recall reading several decades ago black poet/preacher Howard Thurman’s beautiful book Deep River in which he asks his grandmother why when he read the Bible to her she would never permit him to read from the letters of the apostle Paul, except for the love chapter from 1 Corinthians. She replied that when she was a slave the white minister on the plantation always read the portions of Paul’s letters commanding, “Slaves, obey your master.” She vowed that if she were ever freed, she would never read from that portion of the Scriptures. Director/writer Parker renders a real service in reminding us how religion and its holy books can be used for evil rather than good purposes. Selected passages from the Bible have been used similarly to keep in subjection women and gays, with those wielding it as a club for exclusion while ignoring passages that teach the opposite.

Birth of a Nation is a visual parable that challenges us and enlarges our understanding of both our past and our present. There is irony in the filmmakers’ choice of a title, Parker knowing that virtually all serious film goers are aware that the first film bearing this name was D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic based on The Clansman, a novel about the Civil War that demonized black males and glorified the KKK as defenders of society. The first film falsified history, reflecting the racist values then dominant in America. Griffiths’ story was told from the standpoint of those at the top of society; Mr. Parker’s is told from the viewpoint of those at the bottom. (I should mention here the new documentary named 13th in which Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is shown as a major booster of racism. It should be seen—on NetFlix—as a companion film to Nate Parker’s. Directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), it is the story of how 19th century slavery has morphed into 20th century Jim Crow and then into today’s mass incarceration system weighted against blacks. See my review soon to be posted on this site.)

Nate Parker’s film is not, of course, history, given we know so few facts about the leader of the rebellion. Author William Styron states this in the essay “Nat Turner Revisited” included up front in the Modern Library edition of his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, pointing out that there is no historical basis for portraying Nat as marrying, as other writers have claimed. In an Author’s Note Mr. Styron says that the lack of information about Turner’s early and private life gave him “the utmost freedom of imagination in reconstructing events.” The same might be said of Nate Parker, his film being more of an indictment of slavery and the misuse of the Bible than a biography of an historically sketchy but important figure. Today’s headlines of police shootings of black males and demonstrations and rioters protesting these demonstrate that racism still exists, even if the form is not as extreme as in 1831.When the Supreme Court struck down key points of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the grounds that racism had receded the naïve justices proved that we still need the warning written in 1905 by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Note: I cannot conclude the review without some mention of the 2002 rape case that director/actor Nate Parker and Jean Celestin were involved in when they were students at and members of the Pen State wrestling team. Some have urged the public to boycott the film because of this. I can understand this sentiment, especially in the light of the traumatized alleged victim’s suicide, but I believe this film is of such importance that this is another case in which wemust separate the work from the artist.

This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.

If you find this review helpful, please help support the site by going to the Store and purchasing an issue or a subscription.

 

ROOTS (1977 TV Series)

For about 10 years I was the media critic for the Catholic Marriage & Family Living Magazine. The following review is reprinted from the May 1977 issue for comparison purposes—not just of the two versions of the book, but also for the settings of the series. Given the quality of the original, I am not sure why a new version is needed. We shall see, the History Channel airing the first of 4 episodes the night of Memorial Day, May 31. One thing I do know because of the vast difference in the delivery of entertainment: the huge size of the audience of 39 years ago is not likely to be matched, not with the hundreds (instead of 3) of choices now available to us.

roots 1977

Were you among the vast number of Americans rooted to your TV set when ABC telecast “ROOTS” in January? If so, you were part of a historic phenomenon. You joined the largest audience ever to watch a single series-over 100 million, perhaps 130 million according to one count. Now that’s something to think about; to realize that so many of us were sharing the story of Kunta Kinte at the same time. We were the wired-together American Tribe gathered around our video campfires listening to the village storyteller-only this time ABC spun the yarn.

The critics were divided over the quality and authenticity of the show -and the reason for the show’s popularity, but without doubt something deep within us was tapped by the presentation. Perhaps it was our need or desire for our own roots. Ours has been a rootless nation, founded by those who pulled up stakes and left behind the old countries in a search for a better life. In this new land the old is often scorned and forgotten, while the new is prized and praised. We tear down Louis Sullivan buildings to make way for shiny steel and glass towers. Corporations transfer employees as a matter of routine; in fact, an executive who stays in place too long thinks of himself as being passed over. Our elderly are stored away in crowded but expensive way-stations on the road to death. And our second generation immigrants’ children try to forget the language and customs of the old country, anything which might mark them as strange or foreign. Nevertheless, within us is the need to be connected with our past, since it is our heritage which gives us stability in the midst of the rapidly changing present and hope and goals for the future.

The saga of Kunta Kinte and his descendants brought this home to us as no other media event has. “ROOTS” didn’t begin this, of course, but rather, has benefited from the growing interest in our past. Television has performed a real service to the nation during the Bicentennial year by offering such productions as “The Adams Chronicles,” the “Ben Franklin” series, “1776,” “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates,” several specials on Harry S. Truman, and many others. Which of these did you see? Did your children (if you have any) watch with you? What a good chance to talk together about our roots as a nation and at what point in time your family became a part of it–if you know.

No doubt ABC will televise “ROOTS” again, possibly this summer so that families can view it together without worrying about school the next day. (Here in Pittsburgh we were almost glad for this Winter’s severe gas shortage, causing the schools to close during the week that “ROOTS” was shown. School didn’t interfere with their education; they experienced more of Black history those few days than in all of their years in the classroom!) You will want to exercise your parental discretion if your children are younger than ten or eleven, as the series contains a number of strong scenes of violence and bedroom play, several of which are of questionable taste. Children should not see this without an understanding adult present-not because of a few potentially disturbing scenes, but more importantly, because of the questions which an incident might raise. Our children, five in number ranging from ten to sixteen years, asked all sorts of questions and gained real insight into today’s racial situation.

Much has been said about the stereotyping of whites in “ROOTS,” but there’s a more fruitful aspect of the saga I want to dwell on, one which should be of particular interest to Jews and Christians. This is the way in which the memory of Kunta Kinte was passed down from one generation to the next. Not in detail’, but the essence of his story was preserved and passed on. At some important juncture the treasured memory of their African ancestor-a free man-was transmitted from the elder to the younger members of the family. The form of the story was like a creed. Indeed, it ‘was a creed for the enslaved descendants of Kunta Kinte–a statement of belief, a faith that they were, despite their outward condition, a free people of dignity, not niggers, Negroes, or coloreds. And thus their longing to regain their former condition of freedom would not die.

This affirmation of their past set Kunta Kinte and his progeny apart from the other slaves whom they encountered. The others had forgotten their heritage, They had fallen prey to the white man’s definition of them as niggers with no dignity or rights of their own, a subhuman species fit only to obey the whims and orders of their masters. Thus Kunta Kinte’s daughter Kizzy falls in love with Sam but refuses to marry him. She explains to her son, “Sam wasn’t like us. Nobody ever told him where he come from. So he didn’t have a dream of where he ought to be go in ‘.” After being sold apart from her family to another owner, Kizzy visits her former home years later in the hope of seeing her parents again. One slave recalls her father, now dead, “Oh yes, Toby. He was that crazy old man always talkiri’ ’bout freedom and planning to run away.” Kizzy visits his grave, and in final tribute to her proud father, she scratches out the hated white-given name on the wooden grave marker and prints “KUNTA KINTE.”

The Kinte family recital is similar to the ancient creedal formulas that recount the deeds of our spiritual ancestors. A thousand years or more before Christ the Hebrews who brought their thanksgiving harvests to the priests recited the creed found in Deuteronomy 26:5-10:

“A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number; and there he became. a nation, great, mighty and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold now I bring the first fruit of the ground, which thou, 0 Lord, hast given me.”

No details here, just the brief recounting of their past ancestors Jacob and Moses and of their wonderful deliverance from slavery. Christians, too, recite creeds. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth … ” Again, little detail is contained in the liturgical creeds, just the bare-boned outline of our deliverance in Christ and a listing of basic doctrines. Such creeds unite us as the family of God. They set us apart as a people with a peculiar memory of our spiritual ancestor-a former Jewish carpenter who “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” but who “rose again from the dead, .. ” Through our baptism we have been adopted into his family. We have roots; all the way back to his ancestors Abraham and Jacob and Moses. We might not be able to trace our human family as far back as did Alex Haley. Our ancestors might have come over on a cattle boat rather than the Mayflower: but that doesn’t matter. What does count is that we discover our spiritual roots. Paul’s is good advice: “As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving,” (Colossians 2:6-7, RSV)

Kizzy, Chicken George and Tom possessed a fine heritage, one that told them where they came from and gave them a dream of where they ought to be goin’. But you need not envy them, for ours is an even more ancient heritage. If you watch “ROOTS” again, especially with children, look for those times when the family “creed” is recited. During the commercial breaks compare it with the creeds of our Faith. Families usually celebrate the baptism of a child, but the child him/herself is a bit young to appreciate the occasion. Why not think of ways of celebrating the anniversary of this spiritual event so that the child will grow up with an awareness of his spiritual roots. The knowledge of these roots can help tell us who (and Whose) we are and where we are going. For family devotions, or for your “Family Night,” if you’ve begun to follow the Reillys’* excellent suggestions, try using Psalms 105 or 106 which commemorate the great events of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel. The next time you participate in worship as a family look for those elements in the liturgy which also commemorate our roots as Christians; children afterwards can make this a game by seeing who can name the most. With the above in mind, watching the reruns of “ROOTS” can be more than eight evenings of diversion. Kunta Kinte’s story can help us to discover, and add to, our own story. If that happens, television becomes more than an escape from life–it can lead us into life.

*This is a reference to the magazine’s monthly column about activities for families written by Terrry & Mimi Reilly.

For information on the new series, go to: http://roots.history.com/

Amazing Grace (2006)

Amazing Grace

Back in the early days of Visual Parables (1991) when most reviews were seldom longer than a paragraph a marvelous 90-minute documentary was released by Vision Video. Then it was available in VHS format; today in either DVD or .MP4 Digital download. The technology has changed but not the high quality of this thrillingly beautiful film. I hope that the producers are on their cell phones or computers discussing how they can incorporate Pres. Obama’s marvelous use of the hymn in his eulogy to the fallen martyrs in Charleston!

We are also including the longer review of the feature film of the same name. John Newton is a minor but important character in this story of the life of William Wilberforce, the great fighter against the slave trade in the British Empire in the 18/19th centuries. The great abolitionist regarded  Newton as his spiritual mentor. Vision Video sells the DVD of this also, in case you can’t find it locally.

 AmzGraceDoc

The excellent PBS special is a great treat for all who love John Newton’s hauntingly beautiful hymn. It is hard to believe that 90 minutes could be filled up exploring the hymn without the audience becoming fed up. But such is the richness of the background and the hundreds of ways in which the hymn has been interpreted over the years that there is little danger in the viewer losing interest. One ironical note caught by one of the black performers – that the words of a slave ship captain should so capture the hearts of so many of those descended from the salves he had brought from Africa! Treat your music director or your whole choir to a viewing of this wonderful special. You will find it at better video stores or your public library.

Still available from Vision Video: www.visionvideo.com PO Box 540, Worcester PA, 19490 | 1(800) 523-0226 | support@visionvideo.com Customer Service Hours: 8:00 am – 6:00 pm EST

 

Amazing Grace (2006)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating: (1-5): 4.5

 AmzGrace

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:27-28

William Wilberforce was less than 5 ½ feet tall, yet he towered over most of his fellow members of Parliament in the latter quarter of the 18th century (except, of course, for his good friend who became Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger [Benedict Cumberbatch]). A gifted orator, he was elected to Parliament at the unheard age of 21 where he became a close friend and ally of William Pitt, son of the previous Prime Minister of the same name. Once converted to Christianity, he, joined with like-minded friends to reform “the manners of society.”

This did not mean just social niceties, but included the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, reformation of the brutal penal code and prison system and of the way in which children were treated, and a host of other social concerns. But he was pre-eminently noted for spearheading the long campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Sad to say that today he is little known in this country, something that I hope that the excellent film Amazing Grace will rectify. Directed by Michael Apted (best known for directing Coal Miner’s Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist), this is a riveting story of a small man with a gigantic task, one far more revolutionary in its impact than the bloody revolution taking place across the English Channel during his time.

Even had he been healthy, William Wilberforce, called “Wilber” by his friends, would have been incredible, accomplishing so much, despite suffering from a debilitating form of colitis that struck him down from time to time. His doctor brought him some relief from his pain by prescribing the wonder drug of the time, laudanum, an opium derivative, but its side effects sometimes were as bad as his ailment. Steven Knight’s screenplay touches on some of the highlights of this man’s complex life, but obviously has to simplify matters a great deal by combining some characters and telescoping some of the events and time span. (See the book by Eric Metaxas, described briefly at the end of this review, to fill in the huge gaps in the movie story. Available only in the Spring 2006 VP.)

The film opens in 1797 with the 34-year-old Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) stopping his coach so that he can tell a man to stop beating his fallen horse. Wracked with pain and exhausted by all of his battles in Parliament, he arrives that night at the country estate of his cousins Henry and Marianne Thornton (Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel), where they give him the tender loving (and firm) care he needs. They take him to Bath in the twin hopes that its famed waters will help cure him and that he and the woman they arrange for him to meet, Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), will be attracted to each other. However, each of them walk out of the situation, not caring to be so manipulated, and it is only later that Barbara comes to Thornton Manor, where she induces Wilberforce to recount his life in regard to his seeking the abolition of slavery.

Thus the film is a series of scenes between the present and flashbacks to the past. We see something of Wilberforce’s conversion from the bland rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, favored by his mother and most of the upper class of society, to the heart-felt faith of the evangelicals, so influenced by the preaching of George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers—though unless you know of this background, you might think that he was led to God by the beauty of nature, rather than a long process of conversations with a close friend, study of the Scriptures inspired by reading a book by Philip Doddridge, and evangelical preaching, for we are shown little of the latter, and Wilberforce is in a garden when he expresses his reawakened faith. I write “reawakened” because, as Eric Metaxas’s book relates, the young Wilberforce had been drawn to John Newton’s evangelical faith during the brief period after his father died that he lived with his Aunt Hannah and Uncle William at Wimbledon, themselves close friends both of Newton and famed evangelist George Whitfield.

Wilberforce’s well to do parents were like most of those of the upper classes, or who aspired to be, despisers of orthodox Christianity as hopelessly primitive and outmoded. They spent their nights playing cards and gossiping, or dancing and going to the theater, so when his widowed mother saw in her boy’s visits and his correspondence a change of attitude toward her frivolities, she smelled “methodism,” and promptly swooped down upon Wimbledon to snatch away her boy, despite the pleas of William and Hannah.

Safe back home, the fervent faith implanted in the boy grew weaker, until at last had almost vanished. Wilberforce grew up to join in all the gaiety and frivolity expected of a young man of his time. Once he became a Christian again, he believed that he should give up politics because of all the maneuvering and compromises required to move any bill through Parliament. His good friend William Pitt, uncommitted to what he regarded as an outmoded religion, argued against such a rash move. Thus Wilberforce pays a visit to John Newton, his old mentor. Albert Finney makes a wonderfully captivating John Newton, except for the ridiculous, ragged monk’s robe they dress him in when Wilberforce comes calling. The two talk of the old days and of his recent conversion, the older man suggesting that Parliament is exactly where he as a Christian should be. “You have work to do!” the old sea captain tells him.

Given a new spirit and impetus, Wilberforce throws himself into the abolitionist cause. Earlier we had seen his keen wit in being able to cut down any sneering opponent, no matter how highborn. A close-knit group of men and women reformers gather around him, most notably Thomas Clarkson (Rufus Sewell), James Stephen (Stephen Campbell Moore), and Olaudah Equiano (Youssou N’Dour). The latter had been slave in the West Indies, and when brought to England, was able to earn enough money to buy his freedom. He wrote a book about his slave experience that became a best seller, thus helping to raise public awareness of the brutal nature of the slave trade. He and others provide Wilberforce with an education in the misery of slavery, taking the Parliamentary member on a tour of the docks and a slave ship.

What he saw was to haunt the dreams of Wilberforce for years, his conscience never giving him rest as long as the slave trade existed. It was in 1787, seven years after entering Parliament and about three years after his quiet embrace of Christianity, that the small man took up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade. Although opposed to slavery itself, the abolitionists wisely thought that it would be easier to abolish the trade before tackling slavery itself. Slavery and the trade were so embedded in the life of the Empire that few, except the Quakers and John Wesley, had questioned it. Wilberforce soon found this out, with the angry members of Parliament offering a myriad of reasons why abolition would “destroy the Empire.” The first vote on his bill was a disaster, with just a little over a dozen members voting in favor.

It would take twenty years of pleading, educating, demonstrating, and maneuvering before William Wilberforce would emerge victorious—in 1807, this year being the Bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade—and a year after the great man’s death (in 1833) all the slaves of the Empire were declared to be free, almost 30 years before they would be set free in the United States, and over fifty years in Brazil. At one point in the early 1790s Wilberforce actually had enough votes to pass his bill of abolition, but on the night of the vote Parliament’s business sessions often did not begin until early evening) many of his supporters were attending a comedy at the theater, and thereby the bill failed for lack of votes.

Ken Wales and Michael Apted’s film is a fit tribute to William Wilberforce and the cause to which he was so dedicated, as well as to the circle of friends who inspired and supported him in his cause. It is encouraging to see that the producers are tying the film in with the abolition of modern slavery—see elsewhere in this issue the brief reviews of the two books that the film studio has sent out to critics—thus making the film more than just an entertainment event. This is a film that churches should be taking their youth to see and discuss—and in those communities where the film has not been booked, church folk should be calling the theater managers urging them to book the film. This is one movie that really matters.

Those of you who lead film discussion groups would do well to host viewings and discussions of the two films as a tie-in to current history. My review of the feature film in the Spring 2007 issue of VP includes 9 multi-part questions. Should any subscriber plan to use the film and doesn’t have this back issue, I will be glad to send you a digital copy of the guide.

The Book of Negroes (2015)

BET TV Six-part miniseries

Running time: 265 min. Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 4. Our Star ratings (1-5): 4.5

(Still time as of this writing to see 4 episodes on Tues. & Wed.,

Feb. 17 & 18, 2015)

 PassagesLogo

This 6-part miniseries produced for BET comes just in time for the celebration of Black History Month. It tells a little known story of history, taking its name from a document created by the British in 1783 right after the Revolutionary War. At the outbreak of hostilities the British had promised freedom to any slave in America who would serve with the British army against their white oppressors. I certainly never learned of this in high school or college! The 150-page document listed 3000 black Loyalists, most of whom emigrated to Canada, and some to England.

Their story is told through the woman Aminata Diallo (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon as a girl and Aunjanue Ellis as a woman) who in 1761 lives happily with her parents in Mali. A girl trained by her mother to be a midwife she is captured from while on a journey with her father and mother. They are killed, and she is marched in chains to the sea. Along the way Chekura Tiano (Lyiq Bent), a boy in the slaving party, befriends her. She is surprised aboard the filthy ship to see that he too has been sold.

The chaos of the first moments on the ship are powerfully shown, people crying and moaning, the ship’s captain trying to examine the recalcitrant captives, various manacled slaves being beaten. When one man struggles too hard, refusing to open his mouth so his teeth can be examined, the captain coldly orders him tossed overboard. Aminata resists at first, but she and others cooperate when they see the fate of those who will not. A pregnant woman is about to be tossed overboard, but when a crewmember speaking Aminata’s language informs the captain of her midwife experience, the woman is spared, the girl assigned to tend to her. The below-decks filth of the ship, the cramped quarters, even an abortive rebellion to seize control of the ship—all are told in graphic detail.

In South Carolina Aminata and Chekura are parted, the girl sold to the cruel Robertson Appleby (Greg Bryk). After years of service the pair will eventually come together. In the meantime Aminata will be supported by various strong-willed slaves such as Georgia (Sandra Caldwell), who secretly teaches her to read and speak proper English, as well as (for a few years) staving off Appleby from ravaging her.

Chekura seeks her out, managing to slip away from his owners at night. They “jump the broom,” and she births a daughter—who meets a sad fate. When Appleby learns of Chekura’s nocturnal visits, Appleby publicly humiliates her in one scene by shaving her head. Aminata fares better when Solomon Lindo (Allan Hawco), a Jew, purchases her so she can assist his pregnant wife Rosa (Amy Louise). The latter had detected during a visit to the Appleby plantation that the slave was better educated than she let on, thus forging a bond between them. However, even though Jews are also outsiders, Aminata learns that being a slave to another outsider still is being under bondage.

From what I read of subsequent events the plot contains some improbables as Aminata makes her way north during the actual American Revolution.  Even George Washington makes an appearance. All this is held together well by Aunjanue Ellis, an excellent young actress tying together an enormous number of themes and episodes. Roots gave us largely a view of Black History from a man’s point of view, so this new series provides a real service showing us a woman’s standpoint. Hopefully this series will soon be available via streaming TV or on DVD. In the meantime, BET’s website for the show offers an incredible array of educational materials on Black History, the making of the series, photos and videos, and even a portion of the novel that the series is based on. For those wanting to learn about an unfamiliar portion of our history I cannot recommend this too highly. Some of the hollowness of our Founding Father’s rhetoric about freedom and “the rights of man” are revealed in great detail. Had there been a Daily Show back hen, Jon Stewart would have had a field day!

Belle (2013)

Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners…

Isaiah 61:1

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

BellLuvr

Belle dislikes John at first, her heart opening to him when they agree on issues of race and human dignity. (c) 2013 Fox Searchlight

Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sagay’s Belle is a beautiful blend of a Jane Austen novel about women forced to contend with male-centered marital prospects with the social concern of Michael Apted’s 2006 film Amazing Grace which dealt with the British anti-slavery leader William Wilberforce. Both films deal with the themes of prejudice and the battle against slavery in 18th century England, but approach it from different sides of the issue—Amazing Grace from that of the abolitionists’, and Asante’s film from that of one of the victim’s, Belle, a young mixed-race woman who learns to refuse to remain a victim. Thus the new film should appeal to two audiences, those that love a love story amidst sumptuous surroundings, and those seeking a social justice film that, despite being set in the past, still has great relevance.

Loosely based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of an aristocratic Royal Navy captain (Matthew Goode) and a Caribbean slave, the film was inspired by the painting “Dido and Elizabeth” at Scone Palace in Scotland. The painting shows two young ladies in 18th century aristocratic dress, clearly depicted as equals, yet the one on the left is a “Negro.” The script, “based on a true story,” imaginatively seeks to fill in the gaps in the historical record.

The story begins with the then Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) bringing his little illegitimate daughter to his uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). His lover has died, and he wants to insure that their daughter whom he has named Dido Elizabeth Belle will have a proper upbringing, with his being always away at sea. Lord Mansfield is the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and so his taking a girl deemed a mulatto into his household is no small matter. However, after getting over their initial shock at the girl’s mixed race (Lindsay had not told them in advance), he and his wife agree to do so. They will have the considerable aid of the Lord’s unmarried sister Lady Mary Murray (Penelope Wilton). Later as they look out the window to watch Dido, as they prefer to call Belle, playing with Elizabeth, the other niece the childless couple is raising, they already express their concern for the girl’s marriage prospects in England’s racist society.

Jump ahead 15 years, and now Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who have grown as sisters, are at the age of being courted by prospective suitors. The irony is that Belle, having a good inheritance left to her by her father, having died at sea after reaching the rank of Admiral, has all the money required for the dowry of a good marriage, whereas Elizabeth is almost penniless, and thus unlikely to attract a moneyed suitor. The big obstacle for Dido is her race, and that for Elizabeth is her lack of money. The latter sighs to Belle late in the film, “We are but [men’s] property”—a sentiment worthy of Jane Austen.

Belle is raised as a companion and not a servant of Elizabeth, and thus, as can be seen in the famous painting, dresses as well as her “sister” and also receives the same education in languages, music, and literature. But, when the Mansfields entertain guests, she is not allowed to dine with the family, Lord and Lady Mansfield apparently bowing to the racial feelings of their peers. Dido questions him about this treatment, noting that she is, “Too high in rank to dine with the servants, but too low to dine with the family?” Those feelings are voiced by one of their guests when Belle joins the guests for the after dinner coffee: when introduced to Belle, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) remarks, ”I had no idea she’d be so…black.”

The catty Lady is in the market for suitable mates for her two sons Oliver (James Norton) and James (Tom Felton). During their visit the nasty James denigrates Belle in a snide remark to his brother. Across the room Belle is shown blithely unaware of the racist tone of the whispered remarks. Oliver, however, is attracted by Dido’s beauty, and subsequently revealed intelligence and wit. Despite his brother’s disapproval, he decides to court her. James for a while seeks to woo Elizabeth, but when he discovers she will bring no wealth or property with her, he quickly drops her for a better prospect. One of the most powerful confrontations in the film will be that of his manhandling Belle at a garden reception, sneering at her racial status, and Belle’s rapier-tongued reply that puts him in his place. This is quickly followed by Elizabeth, not yet aware that James has spurned her, becoming deeply upset when Belle tries to tell her that James is not worthy of her. She even calls Bell a liar when her cousin reveals the scoundrel’s attack on her, accepting the veracity of the story only after she reads of James’ engagement to another woman.

In 1783, Lord Mansfield as High Chief Justice is struggling with his decision in what the political pamphlets of the time called “The Zong Case,” one dealing with what anti-slavery advocates called the Zong Massacre. In 1781 142 Africans, aboard a slave ship named Zong and suffering from disease and the ravages of the Middle Passage, were thrown overboard on the pretext that there was not enough water and food for both crew and “cargo.” The owners and the insurance company were in a dispute over payment for the loss of the “cargo.” A lower court had found in favor of the ship owners, and so the insurers had appealed the decision to the higher court.

Now Belle has grown in her understanding of English racist practices through her own experience and from several contacts with the would-be lawyer John Davinier (Sam Reid), a fervent abolitionist and son of a vicar. The two had started out on the wrong foot, and it takes a while for Belle to warm to him. But he had been drawn to her from the first moment of their unfortunate first meeting. For a brief time he serves as a clerk for Lord Mansfield, but his abolitionist views and his attraction to Belle lead the judge to fire him and forbid further contact. Such statements as, “Human beings cannot be priced. Humans are priceless” leads Belle to reassess her opinion of the young man. She gives her heart to Davinier, slipping out of the house for furtive meetings concerning the case. She discovers and shares with Lord Mansfield some evidence that disproves the claim of the Zong’s crew, leading the judge to a decision that will virtually make slavery illegal in England and Wales (more on this later). Belle’s discovery is the product of the writer’s imagination, but historians do suggest that her presence in Lord Mansfield’s household was an influence in his decision.

One of the strengths of the film is the way in which Belle’s self-understanding develops, resulting in her refusal to accept society’s adverse judgment of her and her kind. Early in the film we see her still accepting her inferiority when she looks with great anguish into a mirror. Crying, she grasps her skin as if she would strip it away, rejecting its dark complexion just as much as her detractors had. I was reminded of this similar self-rejection two centuries later when thousands of black Americans bought creams “guaranteed” to lighten their complexion, and thus supposedly making the user more acceptable to the larger society. That “Black is Beautiful” campaign in the Sixties was indeed necessary! No doubt that Belle could have embraced such a slogan is beautifully depicted in the sequence in which she sits uneasily for the artist at work on the famous painting. She is obviously fearful, perhaps thinking how she would be portrayed alongside her beautiful cousin. When at last she sees the finished painting the face of the actress shows not only relief but also the awareness that she truly is beautiful. There is a self-acceptance or self-assurance that society’s racists can no longer disturb.

This self-assurance is strongly shown in the scene that was so moving that the screening audience broke out into applause and cheers. Oliver had proposed marriage to Belle, much to the relief and joy of Lady Mansfield and Lady Ashford listening just outside the parlor door. Belle agrees to think about it, but eventually decides to decline. She has by now found that John Davinier is her true soul mate. Lady Ashford, with her son Oliver in tow, visits Lord and Lady Mansfield to appeal Belle’s rejection. No doubt the dear lady is concerned at losing out on Belle’s considerable fortune. When she demands to know why Belle has turned down what she considers such a worthy proposal, Belle bluntly tells her that she would not think of marrying into a family in which her race was considered odious.

The film might move slowly for American audiences, but it has many such moments that stir the soul. As with most historical films, the script is loose with the historical facts. In the case of Lord Mansfield it combines two cases separated by almost two decades: it was in a 1772 case (Somerset v Stewart Case, Lord Mansfield) that the Judge actually declared that slavery is “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law”—the latter referring to a law passed by Parliament. The effect of this decision was to make slavery illegal in Great Britain itself, certainly a great step that highly encouraged the nascent abolitionist movement of the time (so wonderfully depicted in Amazing Grace). And aside from its anti-racist theme, the film’s love story will gladden the heart of the myriad of Jane Austen fans. John Davinier is a good stand-in for Mr. Darcy, and Belle can certainly hold her own with Elizabeth Bennet—even Austen’s title Pride and Prejudice could apply to this film.

The review with reflection/discussion questions will be available for subscribers in the June 2014 issue of Visual Parables. You can subscribe–and have access to even more reviews and articles in back issues–by going to the Visual Parables Store.

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

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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.