What 12 Years a Slave Teaches Us About Racism Today

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in “12 Years a Slave.”
Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”
12 Years A Slave hurt. Emotionally, sometimes even close to physically, it was painful to watch … and that’s putting it mildly. The film pulled no punches when dealing with the harsh realities of America’s slave trade and the evil acted out by those who took part in it. The movie tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor), a free African-American from Saratoga, New York, who is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in 1841 by men he thought he could trust. Solomon witnesses firsthand the malice of slave traders as he is passed from master to master as a piece of commerce, experiencing treatment unlike any he had ever received in his life.

Showcasing such horrors as rape, murder, brutal whippings, and lynching, the film doesn’t shy away from the cruelty slaves endured. Rather, it thrusts such cruelty into the forefront, forcing the audience to behold just how dreadful and terrifying life could be for slaves. 12 Years confronts its audience boldly and does not let up. It was a movie (easily “Best Picture” quality) that left me speechless as I stared at the credits, blown away by what I’d just witnessed.

One of the more captivating moments is when Solomon — and by extension, the audience — meets Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, pulling off a deft Southern accent). Ford is kind in comparison to the rest of the cruel lot, but the film goes out of its way to remind us of his true character. Solomon himself almost gets fooled, telling fellow slave Eliza, “Ford is a decent man.” “He is a slaver,” she responds defiantly, but Solomon still defends the man. “Under the circumstances,” he begins, but is cut off: “Under the circumstances, he is a slaver.”

It’s this sort of reminder that keeps 12 Years A Slave grounded, and keeps its audience from relativizing what they see before their eyes. Certainly some audience members felt the same way about Ford that Solomon did, allowing him some leeway because of the “circumstances of his time.” But Eliza’s response confronts viewers with the fact that no matter what the circumstances, subjugating and degrading others, as in the case of slavery, is wrong.

Just as when the camera pans to reveal our nation’s capital as Solomon is first captured and sold into slavery, the film challenges us not to distance ourselves from what we see on screen. We need to recognize slavery not only as something that happened in history, but something that happened in the history of our country and to not allow such prejudice and callousness to occur again. It’s not something that’s going to be comfortable for everyone to deal with, but at the same time it is something that we need to come to terms with.

We must realize that, though we’ve done away with slavery in the United States, the attitudes and stereotypes that surrounded it still pervade our culture to this day. In our everyday lives we encounter the same racism that fueled the slave trade, from the shooting of Trayvon Martin to the reactions people have to something as innocuous as a Cheerios ad. Advertisements themselves can be littered with racially insensitive or offensive content. Racism is not a thing of the past, as much as we may wish for it to be.

Just as slavery was entrenched in the American South and normalized, systems of oppression continue to exist in our society, and we cannot be complacent. Moments in the film like the conversation between Solomon and Eliza force us to not only view the past from a different angle, but also to re-evaluate where we stand in the present. How often are we like Solomon and convinced that things aren’t that bad? Like Eliza in the film, we cannot excuse injustice, no matter the veneer it may hide behind. When we see racism in our communities, schools, churches, popular culture, and even our own families, we must address it. We must change it. We must examine the systems in today’s society that keep people — no matter their race, income, education, gender — from being all that God created them to be. This is not always easy work, but it’s work God calls us to do. We must take the spirit of Eliza with us from the movie theater and into a world that needs more prophetic voices to bring about true change.

Where do we start? With ourselves. The changes we hope to make need to flow from within. If we want to encourage others to treat everyone equally, we must first model that behavior in our own lives. By broadening our own understandings of race and challenging others to do so as well, we can be the prophetic voices of our time. Get involved with an organization already working on racial justice issues in your community. Become more informed by reading about the history of race in the United States and having conversations with others about what you learn. I have a book (and movie) suggestion for you: 12 Years a Slave.