Monday, June 30, 2014

Would I have resolve?

This weekend we watched 12 Years a Slave.  As intended, it was simply brutal to watch.

In typical 20th century fashion, I thought to myself a number of times, "How could this happen?  How could anyone allow this to happen?"

And then it struck me that despite my best intentions and beliefs in what I think I would do, I really don't know.  It made me ask myself how much injustice goes on in my own city that I do nothing about.  I tell myself that any injustice in my city, in my town, that may be going on isn't systemic, as clearly obvious as slavery was, but what if it is systemic, and I just don't know that it is?

How long did Nazi genocide go on before people outside the obvious knew it was happening?

When I even think about what I could do to make change, I pull back and think, "But I am so busy raising my children."  My own survival and that of my offspring is most important and necessary to me.  This is human nature.  

What struck me most about the film was how Solomon Northrup, as seen in the acting by Chiwetel Ejiofor, seemed to ask himself the exact same questions that I asked myself as a viewer.  How could he allow himself to watch this injustice happening without fighting it?  He saw it, he hated it, he was part of it, and he did what he had to do in order to ensure his own survival, which meant not doing anything obviously risky to fight slavery.  When he was hanging from a tree, and his fellow slaves went about their own business the entire day, it brought home that although they wanted to help him, they didn't.  Understandably they didn't, but also ultimately they didn't.

In the case of Patsey, Solomon had the chance to be merciful to her, and yet he couldn't do it.  Taking her out of the horrors of slavery would not be merciful to his own soul, and so he didn't.

I was struck by Edwin Epps' character as well.  As played by Michael Fassbender (one of my favorites), he was revolting and evil and horrible, and yet I could see his misgivings, his hatred of himself in rare moments for doing what he did to his slaves.  I could see how participating in such evil destroys one's soul.  I could also see a weird feeling of genuine care for his slaves.  He considered them his property, but at certain times I could see that he felt more for them than what he admitted to himself and them.

What makes this film fascinating to me is that in showing all slavery itself is 100% evil, it didn't show the slaves as 100% saints and the slaveholders as 100% sinners.  I think it did a remarkable job as showing all of them as complex, painfully human characters who had imperfect opportunities to make imperfect choices in a grossly imperfect world.

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