I'm always a bit late to the game when it comes to viewing theatrical releases. I finally had the opportunity to watch 12 Years A Slave, a multi-Oscar winning film adaptation of the real life, 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a black violinist who was born free in New York.
Solomon is a well-respected musician and a member of his community in Saratoga Springs, where has a blissful life with his wife, son, and daughter until the day he is drugged and kidnapped by two men promising a music gig who instead sell him into slavery.
He ends up chains in a dingy warehouse. He is beaten into submission and meets a woman who is later separated from her children and ends up being murdered by her owners for mourning their loss too much.
Though this isn't the first situation in the film where the parallels between human and animal exploitation are self-evident, it was also not the last. The idea of people sold at auction as if they were furniture is disgusting; the fact it actually happened in America not even two hundred years ago is beyond vile.
Yet we are still selling off children and tearing them away from their mothers without a second thought and calling it "farming". A cow who gives birth to a calf will cry for days when her baby is stolen and sold to someone else. This happens every day in animal farms, be they factory farms or artisanal cheese-maker's rustic homesteads. One of the most gut-wrenching parts of the documentary Blackfish occurs when mother whale Kalina's daughter Katina is sold off to another park and the bereaved mom creates never-before sounds, long range whistle calls in a vain effort to locate her baby.
After being sold and being told by other slaves he needs to shut up and play dumb if he wishes to survive, Solomon becomes resigned to his assigned name, "Platt". He ends up on a sugar plantation run by a semi-benevolent master named William Ford. Ford considers himself pious and takes it upon himself to preach Scripture to his slaves every Sunday. Ford's benevolence is limited and certainly does not include any pity for Eliza, the slave mother who lost her children at auction. Mistress Ford makes an offhand comment to the effect of "she'll get over it" upon hearing Eliza's despondent wailing.
Solomon does what he can to survive and ends up torn between hiding his own intellectual competence and showing his engineering expertise when he figures out how to efficiently transport logs across the swamp. Solomon's skills are perceived as arrogance by white carpenter John Tibeats, who eventually gathers a posse and nearly lynches the violinist. The lynching is only stopped because of Solomon's value as property.
The narrowly escaped lynching spells trouble for for William Ford and forces him to sell Solomon to another, far crueler landlord. Edwin Epps farms cotton, not sugarcane, yet he has the same holy Christian pretensions as Solomon's former owner. The scene where Epps reads Luke 12:47 (New Testament) is nothing less than a cinematic triumph. Christianity is unveiled for all its bald hypocrisy as Epps quotes:
"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."
Yes, friends and neighbors, that's where the Christian Bible not only openly condones human slavery, but it condones beating slaves until they have red welts because their enslavement is God's will. This of course reminded me of the hard fact the Christian god tells us animals are here to serve us and to eat animals who chew cud and walk upon cloven hoof.
Back to the movie though. I think the absence of Christian uproar over this film is telling. Even though the real life Solomon Northup was a Christian and apparently never rejected the religion that aided and abetted in his enslavement, this film carries a decidedly anti-Christian message and all I can say is this: it's about damn time.
Solomon's newest master, Edwin Epps, portrayed by Michael Fassbender, is hideously cruel and falls right into the haunting stereotype of a sadistic, whip-wielding, drunken Louisiana plantation owner. He rewards his best cotton pickers by not beating the stuffing out of them after a hard days work.
Being in Epp's favor proves to be even worse than the alternative as his attentions turn to his best cotton picker, a young female slave named Patsey, played by newcomer Lupita Nyongo. Patsey is the target of Epp's affections and is trotted out like a prized pig. Epp's calls her his "Cotton Queen" for her huge over five-hundred pound cotton hauls, which naturally makes her the object of Epp's wife's jealousy. Epps predictably rapes Patsey night after night until the woman becomes desperate enough to want to take her own life and asks Solomon (Platt) to do what she cannot bring herself to do. Solomon of course refuses.
This reminded me of dolphin trainer-turned-marine-mammal activist Ric O'Barry, who used to capture and train dolphins for the popular TV series "Flipper". O'Brien watched as one of the dolphins who played Flipper named Kathy swam into his arms and deliberately stopped breathing. According to O'Brien, Kathy committed suicide.
You read that correctly. Flipper killed herself on purpose.
The despair of the captives is the singular leitmotif of this film. Even the "happy" plight of a slave mistress of a neighboring plantation to Epp's house of horrors is tinged with sadness. This reminded me of so-called humane animal farming practices, when animal exploitation is justified because the captives are treated "well enough". What a steaming load of crap. Just as a pampered slave or two does not make the entire institution of slavery okay, a pampered pet cow or chicken who eventually ends up in the same slaughterhouse as her less-pampered contemporaries does not make animal slavery okay.
Solomon meets a white laborer on Epp's plantation named Armsby who seems sympathetic at first. He beseeches the man to send a letter to his family in Saratoga Springs, paying him all of his fiddle-playing earnings after hearing him say that he wasn't a successful overseer in his past because he could never quite dehumanize himself enough to enjoy whipping slaves. Armsby later betrays Solomon by selling him out to Epps and Solomon only narrowly escapes Epp's alcohol-fueled wrath. In my mind, Armsby's modern day equivalent is the slaughterhouse worker, a guy who becomes a monster because of what he is forced to do for a living day in and day out. He sees things that rightfully haunt and disturb him. He learns to divorce himself from his own feelings until he is transformed into a lying, scheming sociopath lowlife in order to continue existing.
12 Years A Slave is beautifully and expertly filmed down to the last detail. Its minimalist, nature-focused cinematography captures the essence of the nineteenth century as does its painstakingly historically accurate costumes. The smallest aspect of nineteenth century existence was appreciated, including the bygone ability of people to communicate in complete, well-articulated sentences.
This is definitely a must-watch film that I hope will help everyday people make the connection. There was not a single person that walked out of the theater with a smile on his or her face. I don't believe any person who watched 12 Years A Slave did so without becoming sad or angry. Yet the same folks who were outraged when Eliza's children were ripped away from her in a horrible, inhuman auction buy and eat the dead bodies and mammary secretions of cows who were victimized in remarkably similar ways to Eliza. When Epp's disturbed wife forces the slaves to dance in her parlor while Solomon saws away at his fiddle, I may have been the only one to think of zoos where animals from far away places are put on display for the delight of human children. The same people who wondered at the grandiose system that gave us the rum/cotton/human trade triangle should have also wondered at the great modern triumvirate of GMO corn/meat/Big Pharma that keeps them hooked. Both systems are self-perpetuating and self-feeding and require our participation and tacit agreement in order to survive.
I hope that one day there is a movie that is the animal equivalent of 12 Years A Slave, a heartbreaking narrative where we see the story of an individual animal forced into a life of slavery and collectively say to ourselves: "Never again."