I watched this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture last night – 12 Years a Slave. It’s a powerful film based on the book by Solomon Northup, in which he recounts his experiences as a slave in Louisiana. It’s not a feel good movie. It’s a feel sad, feel mad movie. It’s a movie that some want to avoid. Who wants to to do something that makes you sad or mad?
Some are mad at the injustices that were committed against people. Some are mad that the movie portrayed slavery in such a negative way. Really.
It’s not a movie that you enjoy. It’s one that you endure. But we need to watch it.
We need to know. The movie makes us confront the cruelty of which people are capable – yes, people who claim to follow Christ.
We need to remember. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
We need to recognize that slavery is not just history, it is the history of our country.
We need to do some serious soul-searching. Is it possible that even though we’ve done away with slavery, the attitudes and stereotypes that surrounded it still exist? Think back to the Cheerios ad and the responses to it.
We need to look at our use and understanding of the Bible.
The Bible plays a prominent role in the movie – as it did in the days of slavery – something I’ve mentioned before.
In one scene, slave owner Edwin Epps holds a church service for his slaves and quotes the Bible, Luke 12:47, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” After he reads this passage, he waves his Bible in the faces of the slaves and says, “and that’s Scripture!”
Each lash of the whip from the hand of Epps upon the back of Patsey – played by Oscar winning Lupita Nyong’o – was punctuated with Biblical justification.
Hopefully no Christian today still quotes the Bible to defend slavery. But how many still use the method of interpreting the Bible that allowed slave owners to use the Bible as a spiritual whip.
We need to see God as the slaves saw God. The “slavers” used their faith as a tool to control and dehumanize. The slaves used their faith to endure the degradations, indignities, and cruelties of slavery.
We need to make a “hypocrisy check.” After Solomon arrives on the plantation, his master, William Ford, gathers the slaves and gives a sermon, quoting Luke 17:2, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and be cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” We had just seen, in the previous scene, Ford buying and thus separating a female slave from her children. We can’t miss the hypocrisy. I should see my own hypocrisy as clearly.
We need to let the spirit of Jesus shape us – the spirit of justice, the spirit that sees each person as one made in the image of God. The voice of justice in the movie belongs to Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt, a Canadian surveyor and abolitionist. He tells Epps, “If you don’t treat them as humans, then you will have to answer for it… Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike.”
It is Bass’ intervention that leads to Solomon’s deliverance and return to freedom – deliverance and freedom, but not justice. Solomon does not find justice. Because of racist laws, he was unable to hold the men accountable who sold him into slavery. In what ways do we need to intervene?
We need to see this film because it can change us for the better. Maybe that’s what art does.