I’m no movie reviewer (I’ll leave that to my nephew, who I hope will weigh in below), so my review of “12 Years a Slave,” which I saw last weekend, should be taken as the lucubrations of a tyro.
I won’t recount the plot, although there’s not really a spoiler, except to say that it’s based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York, but was kidnapped and sold to Southern slavers in 1841. It took him 12 years—years in which he witnessed the most horrible degradation and mistreatment of his fellow slaves—before he regained his freedom. He subsequently wrote a book about his experiences and campaigned against slavery.
The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, won the Academy Award this year for “Best Picture,” although, in a rare snub, McQueen didn’t also get Best Director (that went to Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity,” a film that for some reason I have no desire to see).
The film garnered two other Oscars: one to Lupito Nyong’o as Best Supporting Actress, and the other to Best Adapted Screenplay by Mark Ridley. Chiwetel Ejiofor did a terrific job as Solomon Northup, but lost out to Matthew McConaughey from “Dallas Buyers Club” (a film that I will see). One note of interest: Brad Pitt, who co-produced the movie, makes a cameo appearance as the single white man in the south who eloquently decries slavery, telling a slaver that he will eventually reap retribution. The scene in which Pitt does this, though, strikes a false note; it’s a bit of unneeded moralizing put in the movie for no obvious reason except to make Pitt look good. The horrors and immorality of slavery were amply depicted without Pitt’s preaching.
My verdict: a very good movie but not a great one—but still one you should make an effort to see. It was beautifully photographed, the acting was excellent (particularly by Ejiofor and Nyong’o), and the story was compelling. But it was compelling not so much through the depiction of character, but because the story was so heartbreaking and the portrayal of slavery so graphically brutal. Perhaps that was part of the problem for me: the power of the movie lay largely in its scenes of brutality, particularly the repeated and bloody whippings, which reminded me of The Passion of the Christ. But as far as showing the degradation of slavery, this movie was not markedly superior to “Django Unchained” (granted, that was more of an “action” movie with more shootings and explosions). I repeat: this is an excellent movie well worth seeing, but for me will not take its place in the pantheon of great movies next to “Ikiru,” “Tokyo Story,” “Chinatown,” or “The Last Picture Show.”
Now to the question of faith. Religion plays a large part in this movie, and in two senses. It is shown as a means by which the slaver controls his slaves by telling them that the Bible sanctions slavery and the whipping of slaves (which it does), and also that they should accept their lot. There are at least two scenes in which the slaver Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) is shown preaching from the Bible to a forced audience of his slaves on a Sunday.
Clearly faith was used to control the slaves, quelling their discontent and serving, in the Marxist sense, as a kind of opium. But it’s also shown as a palliative for the slaves themselves, helping them accept a horrible existence which could not be changed.
In that sense, then, was faith good for the slaves? One might answer that the “opium of the slaves” was bad because it prevented them from bettering their own lot, but that was clearly impossible in the antebellum South. A slave rebellion would have been brutally quashed, as was Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, which simply led to the death of a few hundred blacks and no change in slavery. And remember, the slaves (at least in this movie) thought their faith was true—that they really were going to a better place after they died. So it was not a matter of believing something for which there was known counterevidence.
In that sense I cannot see faith as being inimical to the slaves themselves, although of course it was a pernicious device used to control “human property” and make them accept their whippings. But, given the South at that time, what was the alternative? What good would have come from trying to convince slaves that there was no God? In that sense it’s like the “dying grandmother” scenario in which you allow a religious woman to retain her faith on her deathbed. In this case I can see no advantage that would have come from trying to convince slaves that their faith was false.
Or am I wrong?
I am intensely interested in the question of the circumstances in which faith—defined as belief in an issue that is disproportionately strong compared to the weak evidence for that issue—is beneficial. According to Sam Harris, it almost never is. I agree insofar as faith keeps people invested in a delusion that won’t come to pass, and thus prevents them from taking action to better themselves. And it prevents people from thinking clearly about issues, usually to the detriment of better solutions (stem cell research is one example). But in the case of slavery, the notion that dispelling faith would prompt slaves to improve their lot isn’t realistic.
One possible example of the beneficial effects of faith is the placebo effect, something well established in medicine. Placebo effects have been shown to be beneficial in cases of depression, and even in things like knee surgery (yes, they’ve done “sham” knee surgery, where patients think they’ve been operated on for knee problems even though they’re just cut open with nothing done subsequently—and, surprisingly, this gives results as good as a genuine operation). In such cases the faith that you are being treated is enough to effect a cure, or at least substantial improvement. But in such cases one could, I suppose, argue that this isn’t really “faith,” for the patient really does think that he or she is getting genuine scientific medical treatment. Nevertheless, what placebo effects show is that mere belief in something that cannot possibly work the way it’s supposed to can still effect real improvement.
But how does that differ from belief in God, which can, despite God’s nonexistence, effect psychological benefits? I suppose many of you will answer that faith can be good for individuals, but as a system reduces well being overall.