Identity loss vital to 12 Years a Slave

If you haven’t already seen “12 Years a Slave” then please stop reading now. Spoiler Alert! You have been warned…

When I sat down to write this review after watching Steve McQueen’s masterpiece “12 Years a Slave,” I caught myself staring blankly at the flashing cursor on my screen. Words were elusive as I mulled over the vast suffering presented in the film. And even if I could think of words, what could I possibly say to review a movie that has already won the Academy Award for Best Picture?

“12 Years a Slave” has been met with nearly universal praise since its initial release in the film festival circuit during the fall of 2013. Many more eloquent writers than I have labored to write beautiful reviews and responses to the movie I recommend Manhola Dargis’s review in The New York Times.

Still, as I considered the film, I felt that there was one thing that several reviewers were overlooking.

“12 Years a Slave” is an unflinching, brutal depiction of slavery in the United States. The scenes of physical torture will leave many audience members in tears, particularly the whipping of Patsey at the forced hands of Solomon.

To walk away from the film with just disgust for the physical brutality of slavery is, however, to miss an important point. The longest-lasting and perhaps most insidious evil of slavery is the psychological torture of both slave and master that allowed the institution of slavery to continue. This is the aspect of slavery that echos far into racial issues still facing us today.

The scene in which Solomon’s captors beat him and verbally erase his identity replacing it with that of a Georgian runaway was, for me, the most disturbing moment in the entire film. It is this attempt to erase any sense of identity and humanity that has had the furthest-reaching consequences in historical U.S. racial tensions.

Another moment like this occurs when Solomon develops a method for transporting logs for his first master. He is attacked by the white overseer for thinking like a person, specifically a white person. We can see echoes of this same mentality in other historical events, like the brutal murder of Emmett Till, almost 100 years after Solomon Northrup published his autobiography. Till was an Afican-American boy killed simply for acting confidantly around whites who believed that he wasn’t even human. Lack of a conscious racial identity echoes even today in news reports that depict black teens as only aspiring to criminal activity.

If you were to venture online to places like Facebook or Youtube in order to read viewers’ responses to the movie please don’t subject yourself to this horrible cesspit, you would find many comments along the lines of, “We get it already … Slavery is bad,” “We’ve heard this so many times, why do we have to keep watching people get whipped?” or “I haven’t whipped anyone, c’mon.”

This mentality highlights why movies like “12 Years a Slave” are necessary for Americans to see. If the wrongs of slavery can be boiled down to beatings and whippings, then we have forgotten why slavery is so evil and why its effects are still shaking the U.S. over a century later.

+ posts