If Charles Dickens were reviewing Steve McQueen’s new film, “12 Years a Slave”, he might begin, “It was the best of religion, it was the worst of religion.”
The movie, set to release on October 17th, is based on a true story about Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who is duped, drugged, and sold into slavery on a Southern plantation. The cinematography is breathtaking, the cycle of despair and hope is gripping, and the depiction of the mistreatment of slaves is so unsparingly brutal that it often forces one to turn away. But the film is as much a commentary on religion as race.
“12 Years a Slave” expends a lot of energy throughout its 133-minute runtime exploring the way white Christians in the American South used scripture and their faith to perpetuate injustice. After Solomon arrives on a sugar cane plantation, his master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), gathers all the slaves to read scripture and deliver a sermon in which he quotes from Luke 17:2, “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” Since audiences have just witnessed Ford purchasing and thereby separating a female slave from her children, the hypocrisy is stifling.
When Solomon is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the oppressive owner of a cotton plantation, the commentary deepens. Epps quotes 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.” He then shuts the Bible and says, “That’s scripture.” Epps takes this verse literally and whips the slaves who pick the least amount of cotton each day. When he has a good harvest, Epps attributes it to “righteous living”; when the crops die, he claims it must be a “biblical plague” brought on by his slaves’ unrighteousness.
McQueen seems to be making a point about how people pick and choose the verses they live by and how those verses should be applied. American history demonstrates this is true. Many Christian clergy advocated for slavery and, as historian Larry Tise notes in his book, Proslavery, ministers “wrote almost half of all defenses of slavery published in America” and believed the Bible taught that white people could own black people as work animals.
Sadly, the examples in history don’t end with emancipation. Many American clergy vocally opposed the civil rights movement and supported Jim Crow laws. In the 1950s, The Alabama Baptist newspaper editorialized, “We think it deplorable in the sight of God that there should be any change in the difference and variety in his creation and he certainly would desire to keep our races pure.”
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