12 Years a Slave is expected to take a full sweep at the Academy awards and I hope it does for achieving what Mark Kermode says in “elevating, educating, and ultimately ennobling the viewer by presenting them with something that is visceral, truthful and electrifyingly real.” I don’t normally review films, but I cannot stop thinking about this film.
British director Steve McQueen does a number of intelligent things provoke a full and rich menu of feelings in the viewer, one of these techniques is to present his audience with something extreme, something terrible and shocking and then lingers and lingers and lingers forcing you to really dwell on what you have just seen.
The most emblematic of these scenes comes when the main protagonist of this true story, Solomon Northup, a free man who has been kidnapped and sold back into slavery, stripped of his past and his humanity, all but dangles from a noose were it not for being kept alive by the good fortune of being able to tip-toe precariously in the mid beneath him. This harrowing sequence agonisingly drags while the rest of the plantation’s slaves nervously continue about their labour in the background.
This story-telling technique employed by McQueen is designed to force you to confront things we would much rather forget. It calls the American to confront its recent history and humanity its ability to do disgusting things to itself.
The film’s unflinching portrayal of the American slave trade leads you into places you don’t want to go, to thoughts that you would much rather suppress.
One of the many brilliant performances is brought by Benedict Cumberbatch who plays plantation owner Ford. Amongst all of the other heartless slavers we encounter throughout the film he stands out as he appears to have some sort of regard to the humanity and the tensions of his employment of black Americans, and yet, like all slavers around him, is still taken by the prevalent culture and ethics of his time and manages to suppress the guilt that could derail the entire structure of his life. Not only would it encourage him to take a long look at himself, it would also be very inconvenient!
What struck me about this is that it carries so many powerful parallels with our relationship to sin. Is it not true that we all like to keep the doors to our darkest secret firmly closed, bolted and secured? Is it true that our mind’s eye cannot bare to see the true condition of our worst thoughts?
It reminds me of the Sermon on the mount. This famous sermon is not a guide to life so much as it is a mirror held up to our very person. Have you ever noticed the standard of behaviour Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount? It was perfection. He wasn’t giving us some helpful tips on living a good life, although that is achieved, the greater purpose was to cause us to linger on our wretchedness. To confront the true state of our hearts.
Who of us hasn’t become angry with someone?
Who of us hasn’t lusted in our hearts?
Who of us hasn’t judged our brother?
As the great physician of the soul that he is, Jesus knows that we don’t need to merely clean up our acts. We are blind people who need to be given sight, we are dead skeletons that need new hearts and we can only be born again by no longer trusting in our ability to modify our behaviour and throwing ourselves completely on the mercy of Christ.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soil and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him who we must give account.” Hebrews 4:12
Inside all of us is the most depraved heart of darkness only the grace of God can redeem.