Universal Truths: A Review of 12 Years a Slave

Although legal slavery has long been abolished in the U.S., we are still dealing with violations of universal truths

MPAA Rating, R

USCCB Rating, NA
Reel Rating: (4 Reels out of 5)

Oppression and unjust suffering are universal experiences of the world of sin that represents this fallen age, but it is a universal truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.” 12 Years a Slave demonstrates how imperfectly the United States has, unfortunately, implemented this truth throughout its history. This oppression breeds hate and sin that permeate even the purest of men. Yet despite generations of seemingly endless persecution, hope and salvation always come, sometimes in sudden and serendipitous ways. 12 Years is one of the best films about American slavery because it is helmed by Steve McQueen, who has the uncanny ability to portray the reality of sin in graphical detail without losing human dignity or glorifying evil. It is a harrowing experience that reminds us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an average family man living in middle-class New York. The troubles of 1840s America seem far, far away until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He is brutally tortured until he accepts not only his unjust situation but a new identity as Platt Hamilton, a slave born and raised in the deep South. He is first bought by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, in one of six performances this year alone), who is as good a man as a plantation owner could be, even protecting Northup when he fights back against a malicious overseer (Paul Dano).

Northup survives but is sold to the ruthless Edwin Epps (McQueen favorite Michael Fassbender) who makes the lives of his slaves a perpetual nightmare. Epps works them constantly during the day then wakes them up at night to dance for him. He keeps a semi-brothel of female slaves to satisfy his lust, causing his wife to take out her anger on the same ravaged women.

Like the myth of Orpheus, 12 Years a Slave is a descent into the hellish world of slavery through the eyes of Northup. The fires of this Hell burn deep into Northup’s soul, causing him not only external suffering but internal sin. He lies, steals, commits acts of sexual immorality, and even hurts his enslaved comrades. None of these acts are done entirely of his own consent, but he is ashamed of his sins anyway. Every day brings the possibility of torture or death at the hand of his master. Being born into freedom, he is at first unaccustomed to rules of oppression. Gradually, he gives more and more of his humanity away, but never completely loses hope. In one crucial instance, another slave asks him to do something truly horrific; he refuses. That would go too far.

Occasionally, Epps does not have enough slaves do all his plantation work. When this occurs, he hires white day laborers to help out. By chance, he hires Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) to assist Northup in building a shack. Bass, a Canadian, is quite vocal about his opposition to slavery to Epps. “What right do you have to own him?” he insists. “The law.” Epps says. “I bought him.” Bass tells him that laws are artificial and have no hold on “universal truths.” One of these truths says that every man is free, independent of the color of their skin. Epps has no response, probably because he’s never heard anyone talk like that.

Although legal slavery is long behind in our country, we are still dealing with violations of the universal truths established by God. In one scene, Epps’ slaves accidently come in contact with a group of Native Americans; they instantly understand one another’s plight. The most obvious modern-day violation is abortion. In the introduction to his book Three Approaches to Abortion, Peter Kreeft sees that, like slavery, abortion will eventually have “disappeared because humanity became convinced that [it was] wrong.” Hopefully, it will not require another civil war. All evil, no matter how pervasive, eventually comes to an end.

When Northup arrives in New York after twelve years, he begins to weep, begging forgiveness from his family. His daughter tells him “there’s nothing to forgive.” This is not entirely accurate; Northup has committed many sins. However, her statement is not so much an assertion of morality as it is a reaction to a fallen world. Like Christ, she acknowledges that people often “know not what they do.”

People are saturated in sin from the time they are very young. Epps must have learned his racism from somewhere. McQueen constantly comes back to this theme of what really can heal the world. In his previous film, Shame, the sister of a sex addict tells him, “We’re not bad people; we just come from a bad place.” This is not an excuse for sin, but a reason for compassion and forgiveness.

This is why Pope Francis is so keen on not judging the souls of other and why Pope Bl. John Paul II established Divine Mercy Sunday. In a post-modern world, sin is so strong and pervasive that only the mercy of God can save. Let God be the judge; man’s job is to imitate the forgiveness of Christ.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Nick Olszyk 207 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".