What “12 Years A Slave” Reveals About Judgment

image credit: thecinemamonster.com

I watched “12 Years A Slave” and it made me angry.

The film takes viewers on an uncomfortable but realistic journey of a free black man (Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the northern United States who was enslaved and auctioned to work on plantations in the South. Based on a true story, the man’s experience included witnessing horror after horror. Humans treated fellow humans in the most atrocious ways: kidnapping, humiliation, whipping, beating, religious oppression, lynching, rape, murdering, and judging.

Perhaps the core of horrific, violent, evil acts starts with one person judging another person with imposed standards.

Once someone judges another deserving of oppression, his mind is set on his perception rather than the truth of the situation. In the case of “12 Years A Slave,” that meant slave owners acted on their hateful judgment that black people weren’t equal to white people. But simply because they were convinced of their perspective doesn’t mean they were justified.

Getting To The Truth

One conversation between a couple characters in the film centered on the reasoning behind slavery. Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender’s characters discuss the difference between whites and blacks, what government declares to be legal, and what is really the truth.

A law allowing slavery doesn’t determine the identity of a person. Another man’s declaration doesn’t change who someone is. The truth is bigger than that. It’s bigger than all of us.

The two characters disagree on the moral integrity of slavery. One contorts Scripture to declare himself righteous in whipping and abusing his slaves. The other argues that God judges us based on how we treat other people, and insists slavery is unjust.

If you watch “12 Years A Slave,” you’ll probably feel a variety of emotions: sad, disgusted, relieved, empathetic. Some parts of the film incited the sensation of anger. If put in the shoes of the protagonist, I would have acted violently toward the characters who tortured innocent enslaved people. It touched a visceral nerve: injustice was rampant and it deserves a response — but what kind of response?

Am I just as terrible if I harm the person imposing suffering on others? Would violence solve violence?

More Questions Than Answers

We’re all just one bad day away from becoming the kind of person we despise. It’s easy but foolish to assume we’re so much better than anyone who has an obvious moral flaw. The truth is, we’ve each got the capability of wrongdoing. The only difference is how visible that moral decay becomes.

A couple friends and I discussed what stood out to us in the film. “12 Years A Slave” made us consider this moral dilemma.

Where’s the line between standing for a principle of truth and maintaining the least troublesome survival? Is that even survival at all, if truths are abandoned?

When should a person fight, and when should he submit?

What’s the answer to appalling evil?

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What does justice look like in the face of such evil? How should we respond to the wrongdoing of others?

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