Despite Painful Portrayals, '12 Years a Slave' Gives Us Hope

By Walker, Randolph Meade | The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), November 3, 2013 | Go to article overview

Despite Painful Portrayals, '12 Years a Slave' Gives Us Hope


Walker, Randolph Meade, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)


"12 Years a Slave" is a rare cinematic venture.

It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free man of color who in 1841 was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and finally, through the aid of a principled visitor to the plantation where Northup was held, assisted in his emancipation.

There are numerous lessons that can be learned from this movie.

First, it tells us something about American history. While we proclaim the ideal that "a person is innocent until proven guilty," that was not the motif of American slavery. Under its rubric, the onus was on the person of color. A black person had to prove he or she was free; otherwise, it was assumed that person was a slave. Proof of free status required diligent care and protection of freedom papers on a black person at all times.

Second, the movie teaches something about being cautious around strangers. Solomon was abducted because he let down his guard and became too trusting of people who he barely knew. Naively, he partook of strong drink with them. As a result, he awoke from a drunken stupor to find himself in chains.

Third, the movie graphically portrays the barbaric nature of slavery. In historiography, there were southerners who attempted to defend the "peculiar institution." For example, Ulrich Phillips wrote an article in the Sewanee Review titled, "The Plantation: A Civilizing Agent." This type of writing dismissed indigenous African life as utterly devoid of civilization and culture. Hence, the position espoused by Phillips and others of the pro-slavery school of historians was that slavery was beneficial to the African.

On the other hand, Northup's experience shows the fallacy of this claim. The forced separation of a mother from her children was an unnatural, barbaric practice. The forced miscegenation between male slave owners and their female property was a common occurrence. …

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Despite Painful Portrayals, '12 Years a Slave' Gives Us Hope
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