Just days after Ryan Ferguson was released from captivity after serving ten years for a crime he did not commit, seeing Twelve years a slave was a brutal and discomforting experience reminding me that we have a long way to go with improving our justice system. I could not help but see some similarity between a prosecutor who withheld evidence at a murder trial to improve his chances at re-election and those who sold the innocent Solomon Northrup taking his freedom. Then, as the screen tells it at the end: there was no one to testify against them in pre-civil war Washington.
“I want to apologize for the way I look. I’ve had a difficult time the last few years.” he says, standing before a grandchild he has never seen named “Solomon.” No one around me in the theater moved, and as the screen went to black, there was not a sound as we gathered up our things to leave in a silent procession home. Sometimes when seeing a violent film I feel like a victim of the violence; but this time in spite of a brutal and deeply disturbing experience, I felt privileged to be exposed to more than the truth of our ugly past. I felt privileged to see and experience, to hear and to feel a good example of cinematic art. Light, sound, color, darkness, are all tools of an artist named, Steve McQueen whose directing paints on the canvas of the big screen an impression of human suffering and human hope, while human indifference and cruelty moves in the shadows.
The contrast between the experience of slavery between the men and the women is a fascinating piece of this film. Evil, pride, greed, indifference, violence, and every other ugly thing people can do to one another unfolds scene by scene in this film. Perhaps the greatest evil of all is the destruction of human dignity. The sight of other slaves going about their business while Solomon hangs chocking from a tree limb is crushing. No one does a thing, except one young woman with a cup of water. At that moment, I felt as though I was on the Via Dolorosa, and it was Good Friday. In many medieval paintings of the crucifixion, while women are often seen weeping or coming to wipe the face of an innocent victim of human cruelty, there will often be a cluster of men standing around casually discussing the politics and economics of the time ignoring or denying the reality of the moment.
The sudden appearance of Bad Pitt, in the final thirty minutes was jarring to me. I didn’t want to see someone I knew by name. Why did he have to put himself in a film he produced? He was not the saving hero. I would rather have seen someone less easily identified making it possible to hope that any of us might have done what he did. This film is an experience out of time and place. Chiwetel Ejiofor makes this his story. His presence on the screen is no act. It is an experience. I have not read Solomon’s book, but this script and screen play is a piece of literature in itself. Even though no one knows when and how he died, he lives again today through his story raising serious questions about human slavery that continues in this day with all the disgrace and violence of human trafficing.
Be brave. Take the time. See it. Be lifted up by the power and perseverance of human hope and the charm and victory of love over hate.