Evil in America’s past undermines gospel

By Drew Zahn

“12 Years a Slave” is an amazing movie – but if I might be so bold, a movie whose telling is too easily hijacked by the very forces of darkness it strives to condemn. I’ll explain more in a moment. But first …

I am not ignorant of the evils of slavery in the U.S. and, even more wretchedly, in the West Indies during the 18th and 19th century. I have read accounts and autobiographies from the time period, from black men and white, from former slave and free.

So perhaps I wasn’t as profoundly impacted, as shocked and mortified as others by the brutality – both physical and especially psychological – inflicted upon the slaves in the film.

Yet for those less familiar with the depths of evil and depravity to which some slavers sank in their self-justified “ownership” of others, “12 Years a Slave” is a horrifying and not unrealistic depiction. Though not every slave owner was so wicked as those in the film, “12 Years a Slave” should be considered a seminal step forward in being honest about how cruel and inhumane slavery in America could get.

The movie is so impacting, in large part, because it’s so incredibly well made. The music (score by the incomparable Hans Zimmer), cinematography, lights, sound and especially poignant moments of silence all accentuate what is an incredible, true story depicted with what could be Oscar-winning acting.

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant in his role as Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South for 12 years. Actor Michael Fassbender is equally good in the role of the merciless, hypocritical and cruel slaver Edwin Epps. And actress Lupita Nyong’o, making her film debut in “12 Years a Slave,” is both nuanced and powerful, a tear-your-heart-out performance (Actor Brad Pitt … eh … not so much).

But what really makes “12 Years a Slave” transcendent is the direction of Steve McQueen, who brings a sense of art to every shot, telling the story just as much with pictures as he does with action and dialogue. This film is the work of a master.

But movie-buff praises aside, I do have some lingering and serious qualms about this film.

The first is this: What impact does this movie, especially this movie so powerfully made, have on audiences today?

When Solomon Northup in 1853 first published his book, “12 Years a Slave,” after being rescued from 12 years in bondage, it was a wake-up call to the country, a tale to shame the conscience of every slave owner and stoke the fires of abolition. Rightfully so.

But what, today, outside of historical education, is the impact?

I noticed, for example, that with the exception of just one minor character and a key Canadian man, every white person in the film was cowardly, cruel and duplicitous if not outright evil. Every white Southerner, in fact, proved a traitor to virtue, a person no matter how kindly on the outside, proved untrustworthy to black men.

What does this message do to the state of race relations in the U.S. today?

Even more troubling, however, was the film’s frequent assault on the Bible.

I won’t say “assault on Christianity,” per se, for the faith of the slaves in the film was often a balm, a positive influence in times of need.

But on multiple occasions in “12 Years a Slave,” a white plantation owner is seen reading or quoting the Bible to his slaves while in the background or voiceover you hear his slaves being whipped, screaming or otherwise suffering.

Yes, the Bible was twisted by many to justify slavery. That’s a part of American history. It’s a shameful part to be sure.

But again, I ask: What impact does this depiction have on audiences today?

My concern is that it paints Southern Christianity – which prizes the words of Scripture and the value of the gospel – if not all of biblical Christianity, as inherently hypocritical. It turns the Bible-quoters into villains, when the Bible-quoters are actually holding out the greatest hope for America today.

Director Steve McQueen draws a brilliant picture, but I’m concerned he paints with way too broad a brush here. After all, belief in the Bible laid the foundation for America’s fundamental beliefs in equality and the value of every individual. It was the biblical faith of William Wilberforce that led him to campaign tirelessly against slavery and see it outlawed in the British Empire.

It really all boils down to this: American slavery was a shameful, abhorrent practice. It violated in the most basic and obvious ways the Christian principles upon which this nation was founded and the virtues of freedom and equality those principles engendered.

But how do we in 2013 handle this shame?

“12 Years a Slave” rips the scabs off the wound – and all the more effectively for how well it’s made – but what are we going to do with the fresh bleeding? I’m doubtful most Americans will see from “12 Years a Slave” that our healing and redemption comes in Christ. I’m concerned the way the Bible is depicted in it, that modern Americans will run further from the healing we need, rather than nearer.

Content advisory:

  • “12 Years a Slave” is rated a hard R, and justifiably so, but not for language. The film contains just fewer than 20 obscenities and profanities, most of the more mild form. The use of the pejorative “nigger,” however, is rampant throughout the film, as per the time period.
  • The violence in the film is significant. Slaves are depicted being whipped, beaten and lynched. The wounds in some of the scenes are stomach-turning and exceptionally graphic. Murder, fighting, death and even a rape scene are depicted.
  • Even more significant yet is the level of sexuality and nudity in “12 Years a Slave.” A significant part of the dehumanizing and psychological abuse of the slaves was sexual, often in the form of forcing them to be naked in other’s presence. This is seen, with full frontal and rear nudity, male and female, at several places in the film. It is not depicted in a titillating, but disturbing way, and I can’t say “12 Years a Slave” has “gratuitous” nudity, for it’s a meaningful part of the story. There are two graphic sex scenes in the film, one a rape, the other a shame-filled tryst. The director filmed both without nudity, to take away the pornographic element and emphasize the wrongfulness of it, but the scenes are still graphic in nature.
  • There is no occult content in the film, but there is a significant amount of religious content, including mini-sermons from the slave owners, spiritual songs from the slaves, discussion of God and mercy and judgment. The film’s cumulative depiction of biblical Christianity can be seen as quite negative, as discussed in the review above.

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