Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Morality, Guilt and 12 Years a Slave

I don't usually blog about history but then I watched 12 Years a Slave and the movie just sucked me in. It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man and talented violinist who, in a horrible twist, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The depiction of the slavery is hard to stomach but worth watching. It certainly feels like an honest movie. I won't say too much so as not to spoil it.   

It also brought back memories from school. When I was thirteen, we spent weeks reading about life on the plantations, the slave trade and the ugliness of it all. It was (and still is) easy to condemn the South for exploiting their fellow human beings for the sake of money. That's all there was to it, really, the South's cotton economy couldn't turn a profit without free labor. Even after the Civil War, many freed slaves continued to work the fields, spending their wages on rent, food and supplies at the plantation. Not quite indentured servants, at least they were "free" to leave. It was a long time before things got better. 

The history lessons didn't feel real until one of my classmates brought in the deeds to the slaves his family had owned in the 1800's. The class's reaction ranged from disbelief to disgust (perhaps unfairly). Weren't all plantation owners bastards? It was hard to excuse slavery by saying that "those were different times." My classmate went on to tell us that his grandmother had been ashamed of her family's past too. No one talked about it for the longest time. Maybe that guilt is one if the reasons why we haven't seen many movies like 12 Years a Slave.

There was one scene in the movie (spoiler alert!) that highlighted the moral ambiguity of the time, especially that of the "nice" slave owners. 12 Years a Slave has a wonderful cast, including two brilliant Brits: Chiwetel Ejiofor as the kidnapped Solomon Northup, and Benedict Cumberbatch (a.k.a Sherlock, or Star Trek's uber villain) as a relatively decent plantation owner who tries to save Solomon's life by selling him to someone else (long story, watch the movie!)

Solomon sees a glimmer of compassion in Cumberbatch's character and tells him about his past: his family, his freedom, etc. And how does he respond? With a pained expression and a lot of denial, though he does admit that Solomon is an "exceptional n-word" and that he fears no good will come of it. All the while he's holding a rifle to keep a small lynch mob from attacking Solomon. It's hard to hate him, but you can't help being disappointed by his reaction either. For all his apparent kindness, at the end of the day he is still a slaver trader. 

Have you seen the movie? Tell us what you thought






1 comment:

  1. I've not watched it yet but my son 12 years old (homeschooled) tried and he said it was hard to watch. Not only because of the violence but also the brutality inflicted on another human being. I'm sure when I'm ready I'll get around to it. thanks for your comments on the movie.

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