“12 Years a Slave”: Rightly Remembering America’s Original Sin

12 Years a Slave ReviewBased upon the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave is the film on “America’s Original Sin” that many have been waiting long years to see.  It is both the film that Tarantino’s Django Unchained was anticipating, just as it is the film that Spielberg’s Lincoln longed to be.  Seething with an anger that is as righteous as it is terrifying and punctuated with stacatto bursts of violence that are as unflinching as they are necessary, 12 Years a Slave finally gives voice to an era of American history that has often been glossed over by those that create the cinema that shapes our culture. 

But what is the value of watching a film such as this?  Surely, in light of the Apostle Paul’s commandment for us to meditate upon that which is “pure” and “lovely,” we must ask ourselves: can there truly be a justification for witnessing a film that depicts violence – and even sexual violence – on such an intimate and yet unimaginable scale?  Certainly, some would argue that the answer to this question must be an unequivocal no, but I would not count myself in their number.  In fact, not only would I argue that viewing such a film is justifiable, I would argue that, as a Christian, it is both necessary and even profitable for our faith communities.

Seven years ago, a theologian by the name of Miroslav Volf, released a book entitled, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.  As a Croatian Pentacostal Christian who has been imprisoned, interrogated and even tortured in his home country, Volf is a man uniquely positioned to address this issue of why films such as this matter.

In this book (and in others), he argues that there are three ways in which people tend to remember violent affairs.  First, many remember in a masochistic way in that they play the violent memories over and over again in their minds, envisioning fantasy scenarios of what they might do to the one who hurt them if they were to be given the opportunity.  This form of memory is obsessed with the idea of vengeance; and, as Volf himself argues, it is every bit as destructive to the individual as the original act of violence was itself.

By contrast, the second way in which many people choose to remember is sadistic in its orientation.  Rather than focusing upon elaborate fantasies of revenge, people who remember in this way allow for the violence they experienced to shape their lives into the unmistakable form of an eternal victim.  Quite often, over time, they come to see themselves in the very way that the perpetrator saw them, as something less than human.  And in the end, many of them even come to believe that they somehow deserved what was done to them, as if they “had it coming.”    Sadly for these people, memory itself becomes a new instrument of violence that is habitually used against them in a way that they cannot stop.

But there is another alternative that Volf wants to propose – a way of “remembering rightly” that doesn’t seek to suppress the memories, that doesn’t seek to agree with the perpetrator and that doesn’t seek vengeance as the ultimate outcome.  For Volf, remembering rightly means that we do not “exclude the enemy from the community of humans,” nor ourselves “from the community of sinners.”  For Volf, remembering rightly means that we remember for the sake of community – for the sake reconciliation:

“Between the complete disregard of justice and the relentless pursuit of justice lies the path of forgiveness.”

So the question is: can the remembrance that is found in a film such as 12 Years a Slave lead to forgiveness?  I don’t know … I can’t say for certain.  But what I can say for certain is this:  in rightly remembering what has been done to African Americans – often by men and women who claimed to be followers of Christ – we are inspired once again to reconsider the image of God that in invested in every human being.  And perhaps, by seeing what has been done in the past to those that bore his image, we will be inspired to reconsider the oppressed of our day and choose to act in a way that rightly sees their humanity as something that is worth fighting for.

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2 Responses to “12 Years a Slave”: Rightly Remembering America’s Original Sin

  1. J Crane says:

    Our family uses the stories told in movies to try and help us and others understand the ultimate story told by God. Obviously, the analogous details in Hollywood cinema contain flaws in the purity of gospel. What is necessary in engaging our family and friends is understanding their mindset and perspective.
    The disturbing scenes in 12YaS are not the same as the gratuitous (sexual or shocking or horrific) scenes in other films. That was our history, and some could argue that this is our current history with sex slaves.
    12YaS reminds me of the comparison and contrast of Philippians 2. Northup was taken from his free life and delivered into a new world of slavery. Praise God that Christ made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. Northup could not rescue himself over 12 years and endured the physical and mental and emotional abuse of those who claimed to know the bible and God. Similarly, I marvel at Jesus, who had full rights and power of God and yet humbled Himself to the point of death on cross for over three decades.
    There are NO true comparisons to the real story of the Gospel, but so many of the people I discuss movies with, are more likely to believe the story of Northup and not the story of Jesus.

    • I agree with your approach, J Crane. Films are a powerful medium for the shaping of culture; and I think they can be a great tool for discussing the larger issues of worldviews, etc…

      P.S. I also agree with your points regarding the nudity in this film. While certainly graphic, it was not remotely sexual in nature. Rather, it was drenched in violence and used a means of illustrating how degraded the slaves had become.

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