The award-winning film 12 Years a Slave, now in theaters, isn’t just an astonishing film about an important subject. It’s also a rare and valuable film of a kind I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.
I can’t believe I never realized it until now, but I can’t think of another fact-based motion picture about the slave experience in America—that is, a movie about slavery in the United States told from the point of view of actual, historical slaves, many of whose stories were published by abolitionists prior to the Civil War and by civil rights activists after it.
There are good, fact-based movies about slavery told from the point of view of the abolitionists, like Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln last year. On the other side of the pond, in 2006 Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, a biopic about William Wilberforce, emphasized the religious and Christian inspiration for the anti-slavery movement.
The 1997 film Amistad, also directed by Spielberg, is notable, among other things, for focusing on a black abolitionist—Morgan Freeman’s ex-slave Theodore Joadson—with a memorable supporting performance by Djimon Hounsou as the leader of an African revolt on a slave ship held captive while Joadson and white allies fight for the Africans’ freedom.
Notably, Spielberg didn’t shy away from Christian—and even Catholic—imagery and themes in Amistad, from prayerful anti-slavery demonstrators holding rosaries to a sympathetic Catholic judge praying before a crucifix before courageously ruling in the Africans’ favor. There’s also the famous, poignant scene with a pair of slaves poring over biblical illustrations depicting the life of Christ.
In 1977, the groundbreaking miniseries “Roots” elevated mainstream consciousness about the atrocities of American slavery, countering the romanticized picture of Golden Age fare like Gone With the Wind. But Kunta Kinte’s story, however representative of the experiences of many slaves it might be, was undermined as history by a plagiarism lawsuit revealing its literary debt to a 1967 novel by Harold Courlander.
Among patently fictional movies about slavery, one fairly sober portrait, sadly little known, is the 1996 film Nightjohn, directed by black filmmaker Charles Burnett. Produced by Hallmark Entertainment and first aired on the Disney Channel, Nightjohn is a relatively family-friendly but still remarkably mature, raw portrait of the dehumanizing character of slavery.
Like other slave stories and movies, Nightjohn focuses on the empowering subversiveness of literacy. Sarney, a young slave girl, is taught to read by Nightjohn, a runaway slave who obtained his freedom but returned to slavery to teach other slaves to read.
A key moment occurs when Sarney steals a Bible and reads the story of the Exodus, in the process discovering a bizarre bit of cultural subterfuge: The sermons at the local Baptist church have reversed the story’s moral, depicting God as opposing the escaping Hebrew slaves.
Despite these various portrayals, then, 12 Years a Slave is unique, and it demands to be seen, although its harsh content is suitable only for mature viewers. The story is also unique for a striking, tragic twist differentiating its source material from most slave narratives: In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free-born New York native, husband, and father of three, was kidnapped in Washington, DC, shipped to Louisiana, and illegally sold as a slave.
Brilliantly directed by black filmmaker Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is a devastating indictment of the inhumanity of slavery. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s bewildered astonishment and horror at the theft of his freedom, and the degradation of his new condition, not only add to the impact of his experiences but give his story an immediacy that draws the viewer in.
Once again, Northup’s ability to read and write is a key element in his story and his struggle for his freedom. His only hope is to somehow contrive to write a letter and get it delivered to his friends in the North, who can produce his free papers if only they know where he is.
The theme of religion in 12 Years a Slave is appropriately mixed. Like other depictions, the film attests to the slaves’ oppressors using religion to validate the status quo. But a Canadian abolitionist who plays a small but crucial role in Northup’s story argues that slavery is contrary to God’s law, since in God’s eyes all men are of equal worth. There’s also an emotionally potent scene with Northup joining with other slaves in singing a Negro spiritual to commemorate a murdered slave.
12 Years a Slave is hard to watch, but it’s an invaluable witness to the experience of untold men, women, and children kidnapped and sold into slavery—as well as the millions of other victims of slavery who never knew freedom at all.
Caveat spectator: Mature content in 12 Years a Slave includes scenes of abuse and cruelty, sexual abuse (without nudity), and nonsexual nudity.