Blog / Book of the Month / 12 Years a Slave (2013) Directed by: Steve McQueen - Movie Review

12 Years a Slave (2013) Directed by: Steve McQueen - Movie Review

12 Years a Slave (2013) Directed by: Steve McQueen - Movie Review

12 Years a Slave (2013) Directed by: Steve McQueenWriter: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup, David Wilson (Book) Stars:  Chiwetel EjioforMichael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad PittAdepero Oduye Runtime: 134 min Rated 14A (Canada), Rated R (MPAA) for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality

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Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 book, co-authored with David Wilson, 12 Years a Slave recounts the story of Northup, a man kidnapped, sold into slavery, who lives as a slave and is eventually redeemed from slavery. This is a difficult movie to watch, not just because of the brutal violence but also its depiction of Northup's loss of freedom and dignity. Before seeing this film viewers may want to ask themselves why they watch movies. If it’s for entertainment, it would be hard to recommend this film. If it’s to be provoked to think, to investigate, to consider, then perhaps this film merits viewing.

12 Years a Slave has more in common with Steven Spielberg's historical drama Schindler's List than with last year's bio-pick Rush by Ron Howard. While director Steve McQueen, like Spielberg, leaves his own directorial fingerprints on the history he is portraying, both he and Spielberg share the honest desire to tackle painful and challenging chapters in history. Although previous films and TV programs had dealt with the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, Spielberg still made Schindler's List. Likewise, the plight of Africans in the 19th century slave trade of the American South had been dealt with before, yet McQueen made 12 Years a Slave. For years, many have considered the television mini-series Roots the definitive investigation of slavery in the antebellum south. Over the years a general investigation of this history has given way to stories grounded in specific events. For instance Spielberg made the 1997 film Amistad about a 1839 mutiny aboard a slave ship and the subsequent court case. 12 Years a Slave is similarly grounded in real-world events and populated with characterizations of historical individuals. Chiwetel Ejiofo, who plays Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, had a supporting role in Spielberg's Amistad but this time he is the centre of the unfolding story.

What makes 12 Years a Slave particularly unique and compelling is its autobiographical nature. In an interview with NPR, McQueen explained his reasons for making the film, "I had the idea of having a free man from the North ... who gets kidnapped and pulled into the maze of slavery. I liked the idea that the audience follows this person in every step that he takes within the context of slavery. .. [My wife] found this book called 12 Years a Slave, and I read this book, and I was totally stunned. It was like a bolt coming out of the sky; at the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn't know this book. ... Slowly but surely I realized that most people, in fact all the people I knew did not know this book. I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero. She's not just a national hero, she's a world hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank's diary but written 97 years before — a firsthand account of slavery."[1]

Christians watching 12 Years a Slave will be confronted with a complex depiction their faith. Some people in the film are shown holding fast to their faith even in the midst of their trouble. We see this at the grave side of a fellow slave when a group of slaves sing spontaneously a heartfelt rendition of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll.” On the other hand Christian viewers will be confronted with the slave owner, Mr. Epp (Michael Fassbender), quoting Luke 12:47 to his slaves: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” This is followed with a rather crude exposition of the Scriptural text as to what, in his opinion, "many stripes" means. This 'explanation' is then topped off with Epp shutting his Bible and saying, “That’s scripture.” Epp, among others, is then shown beating his slaves. These beatings add to film’s horror and raise the bar on the level of violence. The film depicts God's Word as being both a source of comfort in the face of trouble and the self-justifying document excusing and/or promoting the slave trade and the brutal mistreatment of slaves. For this reason the viewer of 12 Years a Slave needs to be aware that the film is intending to create a dialogue between these two interpretations of slavery as found in Scripture. Further to that these approaches need not be accepted on face value by the viewer. In fact a careful investigation of Scripture on a whole as related to this topic is recommended.

Many film reviewers approached the violence inherent in the telling of this story in a peculiar way. A well-researched article by Mollie Hemingway in the Federalist details how "[12 Years a Slave] reminded [Hemingway] of [her] response to The Passion of the Christ, the visceral 2004 film about the suffering and death of Jesus." She continues saying, "Both films are very good. Both films are depictions of real people in history. Both films are full not just of violence but violence that must be depicted because it serves the central point." Hemingway's article then compares and contrasts a number of reviewers who had reviewed both The Passion of The Christ and 12 Years a Slave. Over and over again the same reviewers decry the violence in Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ while excusing or downplaying the violence of 12 Years a Slave. The article asks the question, "Did critics evolve or did something else happen?"[2] Could there be a double standard at play?  

Solomon Northup is not a stand-in for Jesus Christ no matter how many stripes he receives. While he comes across as a righteous character in some of his convictions, he is a failure in other areas of life. While he has noble intentions to remain unbroken, to avoid falling into despair, and while he clearly states that he doesn't just want to survive he wants to live, these intentions lead him to compromise his morals. Jesus at the cross was willingly pierced and crushed for the sins of others[3] while Northup quickly works to find ways to keep away from the violence perpetrated against him. Northup isn't shown willingly receiving chastisement for his own actions or for the actions of others like the reader of Scripture sees Jesus doing in His death.[4] Christians will not be able to draw a direct parallel between Northup and Jesus. The Jesus of Scripture is without sin; Northup in 12 Years a Slave has sins. Northup lies to Mr. Epp to save his life when he is almost caught trying to send a letter he wrote on stolen paper and he often fails to help and support his neighbour's physical needs consistently.

Northup is not alone in his disregard for the physical needs of his neighbour. There is a disturbing scene at the house of a Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch - Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), Northup’s previous owner, where Northup is lynched by an unhappy overseer. This overseer and his accomplices are sent running away by Mr. Ford’s chief overseer, but he doesn’t cut Northup down, leaving him standing on the tips of his toes. All day Northup stands there in danger of slipping and breaking his neck. One woman slave brings him a drink of water but the others go about their routine as if Northup is invisible. Children play, slaves walk by, yet no one raises a finger.[5] It’s a very distressing scene. Christians may be reminded of the crucifixion but it's good to remember that Northup is not Jesus and his suffering saves no one of their sins. In fact, Northup's suffering doesn't even save him; his life after that terrible event actually gets worse as he's handed over to Mr. Epp.

However, Northup does display many moments of virtue; he refuses to assist a fellow slave in committing suicide and occasionally steps in to help others. Still, he is most concerned for himself and his desire to return to his freedom and his family. Here the complexity of Northup's character begins to become clear. This complexity is further developed because viewers are asked to focus on these virtuous moments while excusing the moments where Northup acts badly because of the circumstances of slavery in which he is found. This is relativism. Why is this important? When a character is presented as a hero, Christians need to ask themselves whether the character displays actual heroic virtues. Then the Christians need to ask are these heroic virtues actual Christian in nature?

Due to Northup’s predicament, the autobiographical nature of the source material, and the way in which the story is filmed viewers are left with the question: What would I do under those circumstances? 12 Years a Slave may seem a safe place to ask this question since at the end, when the lights go up, viewers go home: Albeit with an uneasy feeling. The viewer retains their freedom as the leave the theatre what they may be left with is questions. There is no simple answer to the question 'What would I do under those circumstances?' In fact, this can easily be a very real question today as society still deals with human trafficking. In North America it's easy to see this as a historical drama disassociated from our day-to-day lives. Yet each day people wake up to find themselves kidnapped, separated from their families, with no chance of freeing themselves.  

The larger question posed by the film is the question of identity. Northup, at the point of being abducted, was faced with questions concerning his personal identity. He says to one of his abductors, "I am Solomon Northup. I am a free man; a resident of Saratoga, New York. The residence also of my wife and children who are equally free. I have papers. You have no right whatsoever to detain me" His kidnapper says, "Yah no free man. And yah ain't from Saratoga. Yah from Georgia. Yah ain't a free man. Yah nuthin' but a Georgia runaway."While being transported he's given some advice by another kidnapped man: "If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible. Tell no one who you really are and tell no one that you can read and write. Unless you want to be a dead ni**er." For Christians our identity is not wrapped up in civil freedom or even in our name; identity is wrapped up in our baptism into Christ Jesus and in the name of Jesus which is above all other names.[6] This is important because as much as 12 Years a Slave includes Scripture by way of quotations and public readings, it gets this concept wrong.

Northup’s identity is tied to his vocation as a musician, his civil liberties which were stripped away, his dignity which suffers, his personal name and to his family from which he was separated. Christian’s don’t need to have our identity tied up in these things (which isn't to say these things are not important; they are very important to our lives) but live with the reality that nothing—not even these things or the loss of them—"will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."[7]

Steve McQueen has tackled a difficult topic in this film and 12 Years a Slave is not for every movie-goer. Christian viewers are warned that this movie is hard to watch and not without its theological problems. Lutheran viewers may have another important thing to think about. Lutherans are not averse to pointing out where individuals get Scripture wrong. Historical slavery in the United States is not analogous to slavery as it's depicted in Scripture and using Scripture to justify slavery as conducted by 19th century plantation owners is a twisting of Scripture. Christian viewers need to then be careful to remember that an incorrect view of Scripture is a narrative component of this film just as it was in that time period. The best way to watch this film is as a historical drama and to avoid comparisons to modern issues outside the very real issue of human trafficking. 12 Years a Slave received seven Golden Globe nominations and won for Best Motion Picture–Drama. It is nominated for the Best Motion Picture of the Year Oscar along with eight other nominations. This film, like Schindler’s List, is poised to become one of those historical dramas enshrined into film history. For this reason it is worth viewing and then engaging in a lot of thinking, talking and study.


Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina, Saskatchewan.

You can also find this article featured in the Canadian Lutheran

[2] "The Passion Of 12 Years A Slave" featured on The Federalist by Mollie Hemingway. 

[3] Isaiah 73:5

[4] In Proverbs 26:17, King Solomon says "Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears." In His incarnation Jesus takes the dog of sin by the ear and while He has no quarrel with it apart from His Holyness, being sinless Himself, Jesus willingly take hold of that dogs ear knowing that He will be bit by sin. By the action of the incarnation Jesus puts Himself into the hands of His enemies. Jesus willingly receiving chastisement for this action on behalf of His neighbour.

[5] This calls to mind the 5th Commandment and it's explanation, "You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our  neighbour in his body, but help and support him in every physical need." Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, Concordia Publishing House 2005, pg 12.

[6] Philippians 2:9

[7] Romans 8:39