I want to kill Michael Fassbender. He’s whipping a stripped-to-the-waist Lupita Nyong’o so hard she can’t breathe and she’s choking on her tongue and now she’s lost consciousness and he keeps on whipping her. I want to kill him. Then die. Then throw up. Then kill him again.
Which is how the movie needs me to feel.
The title sort of gives it away. In 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen, fresh off of Shame (which is perhaps where he got the idea that we like Fassbender best when we like him least), tells the almost 100% true story of Solomon Northup, a kidnapped freeman who experiences slavery both at its Christian best (I’m aware of the irony) and at its sadistic worst. We don’t really feel like we know any of the slaves that well, not even Solomon himself; his pre-slavery life is shown in idyllic snapshots and his post-slavery life quickly recounted in an epilogue. What we do feel, seeing black people raped and beaten and hanged and whipped and maligned and abused, is that we hate ourselves and we would trade almost any evil for the evil we see on screen.
Which is how the movie needs us to feel.
I could go on about the beautiful, single-camera-efficient cinematography, the music (Hans Zimmer at his most subtle), the acting (Lupita Nyong’o a star among stars), but it is how McQueen handles the astonishing brutality that really makes the movie work as well as it does. Depending on what gets you, the movie could closely compete with The Passion of the Christ. This is no Django Unchained with kitschy blood binges and geysers of hatred and murder and abolitionist lunacy. McQueen’s violence is honest, but not voyeuristic. Relentless, but not abusive. Up-close, but not obscene. And it makes your blood boil. Some of those silly personality quizzes ask me what I’d do with a time machine, and I never knew my answer until I watched 12 Years and decided that I’d go back to Michael Fassbender’s plantation and probably do something really stupid and… Hello, Django Unchained.
Which is how the movie needs me to feel.
Numb. Furious. Appalled. Helpless. The film set off a guilt-ridden teeter-totter in my soul that bounced for an entire week before finally settling on what is true about 12 Years a Slave.
It is penance porn. A walloping guilt trip. An emotional distraction that “appeals particularly to white liberals who love feeling good about feeling bad about white Western society.” It took me a while to admit this (it does sound so calloused, after all), but though the story may be true as far as it goes, it simply doesn’t go far enough. With no real connection to the characters, no historical sketch providing the crucial backdrop of racism that sickened North and South alike, no moral besides “white men were monsters,” 12 Years a Slave feeds 21st-century Americans’ masochistic urges and leaves us wallowing (cozily) in self-indulgent, debilitating regret. Not only is it unhelpful to moderns who feel truly convicted and wonder what on earth we’re supposed to do now (since we can’t exactly erase history), but the film also fails to honor the slaves themselves as much as it was clearly intended to do.
Here’s what Steve McQueen should have done. Broaden the focus. We know that slavery was ugly, terrible sin; we forget that racism was worse. Racism was root. 12 Years puts the abominable slavery institution under the magnifying glass and burns it (let it burn!) but ignores the national state of spiritual deadness that allowed slavery in the first place and also kept men like Solomon Northup, seeking justice, from finding that justice. After he was freed, Solomon’s attempts to hold his kidnappers and slavers accountable for their crimes fell through because it was illegal (this, in Washington D.C., not somewhere in Alabama) for black people to testify against whites. Steve McQueen sums this up so fast, you might have missed it. And you wouldn’t guess this from the film, either, but racism was actually worse in the North than it was in the South. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed thirty years before the war: “The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known” (Democracy in America, 402).
So what good does the movie do? 12 Years a Slave works in a “lest we forget” sort of way. It winds up speaking to an ignorant or indifferent audience which, though tough to find in 2014, could one day become quite real because if there’s one thing Americans have proved, it’s that we can’t be trusted to remember our own story. So if there arises a generation that knows not our sin, pull out the DVD and don’t you dare look away.
But what are we supposed to do with all this guilt? I will tell you what we must do. We must repent of the way we got rid of slavery. We got rid of it violently, illegally, and deceitfully, with no real concern for the black man and no repentance of racism, and in doing so, bombarded the Constitution of the United States in such a way as to leave the freedoms of all–black and white, North and South, born and still in the womb–in tatters.
But you never would have concluded this from the movie. With such a limited focus, McQueen’s one-eyed biopic winds up perpetuating the loudly shouted lies about Abraham Lincoln, the emancipation of the slaves, and the barbaric conflict which America generally calls the Civil War but which should be called Lincoln’s Hat is Marching On. What patriot watching the movie’s horrific scenes would not immediately offer palm branches to Honest Abe, the great American Moses? Who wouldn’t immediately thank God (or General Grant) for the noble North who marched to the beat of black freedom?
I’ve already denounced Lincoln and the war in my critique of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, “Father Abraham of Lies”, so I’ll hit just a couple highlights here. Let’s start by getting one fact absolutely straight. The War Between the States was not fought to free the slaves.
Abraham Lincoln was a smart man; if he’d wanted to get rid of slavery, he would have copied the likes of William Wilberforce whose crusade peacefully and powerfully emancipated everyone in the British Empire just a few decades earlier. Lincoln didn’t need a war to free the slaves, but he did need a war to keep the South from leaving his new American Empire (his “perpetual Union,” as he so lawyerly euphemized). So when killing thousands of Johnny Rebs didn’t work, Mr. President started playing chess. Halfway through the war, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation which–get this–applied only to the seceded states where he had no power and thus did not actually free a single slave. Lincoln totally ignored the slaves in the northern states, where his decree (though still overstepping his presidential bounds—and promise) might nevertheless have accomplished something. Lincoln’s own secretary of state, William Seward, mocked the Emancipation Proclamation: “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free” (The Civil War and Reconstruction, 381).
What was the point, then? Lincoln, strategist that he was, wanted the Proclamation to incite a rebellion among the slaves against the women and children left alone on the plantations. “Things had gone on from bad to worse, until I felt that we had reached the end of our rope on the plan of operations we had been pursuing; that we had about played our last card, and must change our tactics, or lose the game! I now determined upon the adoption of the emancipation policy….[For] I have a right to take any measure which may best subdue the enemy” (The Lincoln Reader, 407, 409).
That Lincoln looked on slavery merely as a political expedient is obvious from his own words: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union” (public letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862; emphasis original).
Lincoln clearly esteemed his increasingly centralized government above the health and happiness of the black slaves: “Much as I hate slavery, I would consent to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any great evil, to avoid a greater one” (Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854). The war didn’t exist for the Emancipation Proclamation; the Emancipation Proclamation existed for the war.
I do not justify slavery nor excuse the South. My point is to kindly remove Lincoln’s halo (it was shoplifted). Yes, slavery needed to be kicked out, but kicked out through reformation and the peaceful outworking of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the true Jubilee–not through radical tyranny and the butchering of 620,000 Americans.
So let’s not be so naïve as to rejoice that a monster has been killed when, in killing it, we have simply created a bigger monster. Lincoln’s war did not primarily free those who were in chains; it enslaved those who were once free.
His imperial government has been growing by the minute for the past hundred-fifty years or so, but for now, let’s look at just one travesty. The date: January 22, 1973. How did we get from freeing the slaves (however messily) to legalizing the murder of babies–within three generations? Given the way we abolished slavery and the fact that slippery slopes are, well, slippery, it’s not actually that surprising. Roe v. Wade was made possible by the outcome of the War Between States, when Lincoln’s despotic approach set a precedent for treating the Constitution the way teenagers treat Mom’s house rules: optional.
If the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t itself free the slaves, the revolution of 1861-1865 certainly forced the end of slavery, and it was during these years that the face of the Constitution got the heel of Lincoln’s dictatorial boot, over and over. Constitutional liberty became an utter joke as he launched a military invasion without the consent of Congress, declared martial law, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, imprisoned thousands of Northern citizens (without trial) for merely criticizing his policies, censored all telegraph communication, imprisoned dozens of opposition newspaper publishers (again, in the North), nationalized the railroads, used Federal troops to interfere with elections, confiscated firearms, confiscated private property, deported an opposition member of Congress (Clement L. Vallandigham) for fighting Lincoln’s income tax proposal, and effectively gutted the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution (Thomas DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln, 6, 131).
Once the Constitution was left in virtual tatters, the federal Supreme Court could then overturn many state laws against abortion (Douglas Wilson, Black and Tan, 68, 107). Jeffrey Hummel confirms this in his book Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, where he says of the Fourteenth Amendment: “No other constitutional innovation has proved more momentous. It extended from the national to the state governments nearly all the restrictions on government power contained in the Bill of Rights. Thus at a single stroke it subjected much state legislation to federal review” (301, emphasis added).
This is exactly what happened in Roe v. Wade, when “an overweening and arrogant federal government mandated the deaths of millions of Americans, and that states did not believe themselves to be in a position to resist the decree” (Wilson, 68). This abomination could not have happened before the Constitution was so molested. And I agree with Wilson when he declares the following: “Who cannot lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way in which slavery was abolished? I am forced to say that, in many ways, the remedy which has been applied has resulted in problems that are every bit as bad as the original disease ever was” (60). To paraphrase his clincher: Christians who doubt this, just consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2014.
Here’s what kept pounding through my head as I watched the winner of Best Picture at the 86th Academy Awards: I want abortion’s movie. Germany’s Holocaust has Schindler’s List and others. Southern slavery has 12 Years A Slave and others. Both events are synonymous with damnable iniquity, so barbaric that we can hardly believe they really happened. So here’s what I long for. I long for the day when we and our children and our children’s children watch a historical drama about the butchering of babies with the same horror, unable to imagine that such a thing ever happened in our land–because it’s over. As insane as Michael Fassbender sounds now when he insists he has the right to do as he pleases with his “property”–God willing, that is how insane the pro-choicing mother will one day sound when she insists she has the right to do what she wants with her body. It’s the same argument: “My property.” “My body.” To hell with both.
And abortion might just be over because of films like Steve McQueen’s. If someone (right now, year of our Lord 2014) were to make a well-budgeted movie about abortion as unflinching and honest as 12 Years a Slave and then launched it on the same 1,500 screens, I’d be willing to bet you that abortion in this country would end tomorrow. And 3,425 infants would live that day. Not through revolution (God forbid), but through reformation.
Brad Pitt (playing one of the only nice white people in the entire movie) speaks a warning nearly verbatim from the book. It is gravely fitting for our generation: “There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet… There’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.”
God’s judgment on the South was judgment on the entire nation, and it was very dark. When God judges us for the blood on our hands, how much darker will it be in that day? Because make no mistake—judgment is coming, and the glory of the coming of the Lord is a lot more terrible than people imagine, or they would probably stop singing. Innocent blood, no matter how you bury it or flush it or stuff it in plastic bags and toss it in the dumpster, always cries out to the Lord. And our land is soaked to the core.
Solomon Northup’s story deserves to be told. But if you’re going to tell that story, tell the real story of Abraham Lincoln and his Godless revolution that destroyed the constitutional rights of every free man, woman, and unborn infant in this country. It’s time to stop the lies. Our land has been a slave to the same lies for too long.
One hundred forty-nine years a slave.