February 10, 2014
Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave‘ is an extremely powerful and moving account of American slavery in the 19th century, shot in such a way that you cannot help but come away with a deeper knowledge of the horrors of slavery. Although emotionally draining and at times uncomfortable (which is no bad thing), it is definitely worth a watch. From a Gospel point of view there are plenty of things we can relate to and reflect on from watching this movie.
The film – an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir, follows Northup’s account of slavery. Northup, masterfully played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, begins his story as a black, free man from New York. A proud family man with a wife and two children, Northup is an educated carpenter and talented violinist. That is, until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south of America – not an uncommon act then. He loses everything: his status as a free man; his family; his whole identity. No longer even called Northup, ‘Platt’ is sold to the plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Seemingly a kind and caring man, Ford reads the Bible to all those around him. But he is still a slaver and he really knows that Northup must have been a free man. After an altercation with Ford’s farmhands, however, Northup is sold to another slaver: the harsh, angry and self-loathing Epps, (Michael Fassbender). Epps love for one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), just increases these emotions and serves only to make all the more cruel. It is an utterly desperate situation, until hope comes in the form of a hired hand played by Brad Pitt…
The obvious narrative of slavery and freedom in ’12 Years a Slave’ is also a major one throughout the Bible. In the beginning, in Genesis, humanity was free. But, unlike Northup and other slaves in nineteenth-century America, we made ourselves slaves to sin by rejecting God as our King. Through our addictions; yearning to be loved; the desire for more and more money… the list goes on. People all around us are enslaved by the things they live for. They are ruled by them, without ever finding real freedom.
That brings a helplessness of its own, just as it does in this film. Northup, is completely unable to save himself. He tries different ways but they all seem to fail. Whether that’s by pleasing Ford, or putting trust in those he can’t please, he finds no liberation. The result of our slavery to sin is that we try harder and harder to find freedom. To find real joy and satisfaction. And we search for it in so many ways: by working ourselves into the ground; or by putting all our efforts into being liked; or doing whatever we feel is enjoyable or right. The problem is we never find the freedom we’re looking for. We just find ourselves falling deeper and deeper in slavery – we are helpless, just as Northup was helpless to drag himself out of his chains.
The only way back to freedom for Northup is for someone to come in and rescue him from outside. He cannot do it himself. It is the same for us. And there is freedom on offer.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, gave Himself on a cross bearing our punishment for sin and being abandoned by His Father. He did this to buy us back out of slavery and give us freedom and a right to call God our Father. And now we have something to live for, just as the slaves and Northup did in their slavery. We have a hope that no-one can ever take from us. In a world enslaved by its sin, full of persecution and suffering and corruption at it’s the very core, we have the hope of the glory that awaits us. A day when there will be no more crying, mourning, pain or death and we will live in perfect freedom with our Father, (Revelation 21). We have real hope!
One of the most bitter parts in the film is that the perpetrators – those who sold him into slavery, are never brought to justice. Despite the evil they have committed it seems that they have gotten away with everything. But we are reminded by Brad Pitt’s character that a day is coming when they will stand before the Lord and be held accountable for their actions. Justice will be done. This is true for our world as well. A day is coming when Jesus will return and judge every person according to their sin. Those who do not accept Him will be judged for eternity. But for those who trust in Jesus for salvation there is the joy of eternal freedom and life with Him.
By Rory Kinnaird