Film Fridays 3/5: 12 Years A Slave
The next installment in our Film Fridays series comes from Steph Shore. Oh, and just a reminder, the post with the most likes/comments on Facebook (once we’ve shared it there) wins its writer a little prize.
2013/2014 has seen a plethora of excellent, ground-breaking and boundary pushing films, but I would say that ‘12 Years a Slave’ tops them all. For me this film had every element I look for in a film. The cinematography is stunningly beautiful, the story, although harrowing, is absorbing and has gravity. The acting is flawless, the plot and pace of the story is well balanced driving home the emotions of the characters and the overarching message is firmly planted.
This film also had me crying like no film ever has. The engagement of my empathy for the main character, Solomon, was so great; I wanted to cry audibly.
So what is it in this film that spoke so deeply to me? Well, this is a true story of a free man who was kidnapped, stripped of his identity, his talents and freedom and given a new identity. He was no longer Solomon Northrup, an educated man of New York; he was now Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia, unable to convince his captors he was a free man. The advice from other captives was ‘If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible and don’t tell them you can read or write’, but Solomon’s reply sums up the message of the film: “Well I don’t want to survive, I wanna live!’
The conflict between retaining the hope of freedom, regaining his true identity and conforming, keeping his head down to survive ebbs and flows throughout the film. Taking the role of Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s acting is truly phenomenal and the cinematography captures it perfectly with torturing, lingering shots of Solomon, you find yourself totally emerged in his story and feel just as helpless as he does.
Two songs in juxtaposition illustrate this conflict. The first, a jeering taunt, to intimidate and break the slaves, sung by the Chief Carpenter and slave overseer, Mr Tibeats. It is sung to intimidate and break the slaves. He patronises the slaves and has them clap whilst he sings in a sardonic manner, showing them that they have no freedom and he has complete and utter control over their lives; they have no hope of escape. Solomon had already witnessed cruelty and violence on the long trip from Washington, where he was kidnapped, to Georgia, where he was sold to slavery, but he still remained somewhat hopeful that he would be able to send for his papers of freedom. However, during this song we see that Solomon realises that he is in trouble.
The second song comes a while later in the film; he has been sold on to another owner, Mr Epps, is far crueller then the last owner. The slaves are clearly overworked, over-whipped and under cared for. This song, ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’, is a spiritual by the hymn writer Charles Wesley which was adopted by slaves in America as a song to symbolise the hope of freedom. The symbol is the picture of the river Jordan, the river the Israelites would cross to enter the Promised Land; to the slaves this would be the Mississippi or the Ohio to the North of the country where freedom was possible. In this scene the song is sung by Mr Epp’s slaves at the funeral of a slave who died working in the fields. Throughout the film Solomon has refrained from slipping in to verbal despair, he seems to be in a constant state of shock or numbness or perhaps taking the advice that was given to him, to keep quiet and keep his head down. Solomon seems reluctant to join in the singing, but something breaks within him, the hopelessness and helplessness of his situation, the despair in his heart he had been bottling up begins to break out, starting small and crescendoing into the cry to God his heart was longing for. The longing for freedom, the yearning for his true identity to be redeemed, the anger of years of injustice and ill-treatment all spills out in the outburst of song. It brings a strange feeling of release, just like mourning does. No one ever thinks that crying out in tears will bring release but it does, especially when we cry out to God.
Our Christian lives in London today we are told if we are to fit in- to ‘survive’ in modern society is to do and say as little about our faith as possible. Across the Middle-East and Asia the oppression and violence against Christians is very real and harrowing. In the UK the oppression is a lot more subtle, we may not be the subject of outright violence but Christians are constantly marginalised politically and socially. The media portrays us as gullible, faint-hearted, weak, idiotic and even primitive. But this just isn’t the case, you know those words don’t describe you! Becoming a Christian takes serious guts and thorough thought. But the temptation is to hide, to keep you head down, say and do as little as possible to survive. We have to recognise that, like Solomon, we have been kidnapped; our true identity in Christ has been stolen from us if we are not free to be who God wants us to be. We are often asked and expected to tolerate things we shouldn’t sit back and tolerate at work or at school and politically through new laws and bills passed by government. I challenge you to think about how many times you have been side-lined or intimidated because of how London sees the Christian faith. I don’t know about you but I’m tired of denying my true identity in Christ as a Christian. I’m tired of surviving! I want to live. It’s time to cry out to God, for our freedom, our identity in him, to be restored, to be redeemed and to be bold in declaring our faith in our city.