Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in Saratoga, NY with his wife and two children, wakes up one morning in 1841 to find himself in chains, locked in a dank cellar. A man beats him bloody until Solomon renounces his freedom. For the next 134 tense minutes, we follow Solomon’s journey through the cotton and sugarcane plantations of Louisiana, witnessing the horrors that arise when human beings are property.
I found myself at the edge of my seat, unable to even look away from the screen. Rarely has a movie affected me so deeply. I was reminded forcefully of a television adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank I saw as a young boy. In both cases I was struck at the injustice of having your life ripped away, of having no recourse, no chance of escape.
One of the striking features of the movie was the beauty of the landscape. Bucolic fields, warm, sunny days, lovely mornings, grand mansions, hoop skirts and horses. But just under the surface of all that beauty were the whip, the noose, the rapist, the torturer, the injustice, the illogic, the unfathomable despair. This is a movie that grabs you and will not let go.
Afterwards I read reviews and comments. At first I felt anger, incredulity, and deep sadness at the defensiveness and knee-jerk claims of reverse racism. I’m over it now. The whole point of a free society, after all, is that everyone has a voice. People are different, and those differences will naturally be reflected in our reactions to art. If we really believe in freedom, we have to believe that all reactions to such things must be legitimate. Even the really dumb ones.
OK, I’m a middle aged white guy, not Jewish, not black, not any minority class to speak of unless you count atheist. And I don’t. Could I understand this movie? Of course I could. That’s the point of art. It changes you. We all build understanding in our own way; we follow our own path. Some paths lead nowhere – that’s the danger and the joy of freedom. Other paths lead to a deeper, better (but still imperfect) place. You can’t know until you take the journey – for the journey itself is how you know.
When my family and I went to Chicago a couple of months ago, I was struck by a sculpture at the Chicago Art Institute. I took a picture, then forgot about it until just now, as I was thinking about 12 Years a Slave. Here’s the sculpture.
It’s called The Freedman by John Quincy Adams Ward. What you have to understand about The Freedman is that you are first drawn to the face, the strong arms and shoulders, the chest. This is a person, beautiful and strong, an actor in the universe. He could be Achilles, or David, or Galileo. Then, and only then, your eye is drawn down to the left wrist to reveal the chain.
The thought that anyone ever had the right to own this person as property is immediately absurd. The evils of slavery emanate from this absurdity. The sculptor communicated this to me in a way I could understand, intensely and viscerally, like a wave washing over my entire being. Just as the makers of 12 Years a Slave communicated with me. These works of art moved me, shook me, helped me (no, forced me) to build new paths. What more could you want?